China’s Attitude on Sex: Why is China Sex-shy Compared to Western Societies?

  “So did you hit that?”
“Yeah, I totally hit that last night and it was the greatest night of my life.”

These may sound like a conversation between Barney Stinson and Ted Mosby from the popular American television series How I Met Your Mother, or just a casual conversation between two good friends on a Saturday night at the bar. However, it certainly does not sound like a conversation you’d hear between two good friends in China.

Barney Stinson and Ted Mosby’s conversation from How I Met Your Mother (Photo Source: CBS)

In the recently released movie Venom, the Chinese cut simply shortened the romantic scene Eddie had with Anne by cutting straight to Eddie waking up in the morning after the two kissed the night before. This is done with all movies showing in Chinese cinemas. Sexual content is cut short to accommodate all ages. Evidently, the treatment of sexual content is still very different between the East and the West.

China sex-shy compared to Western societies

Although attitudes and traditional values have changed quite a lot compared to a few decades ago, the topic of ‘sex’ is still considered a taboo across many developed first tier cities in China. Many still find it rather awkward or feel embarrassed to put it on the table and talk about sex openly. And the reason behind this sex-shy character could be traced back to a number of factors ranging from education, traditional values, and history.

A Lack of Proper Sexual Education

“To be morally civilized, we should unleash human nature, promote education, especially on the topic of sex education. Such is the true mission of an educator.” -Lu Xun

The greatest and most important reason behind China’s sex-shy attitude is arguably its lack of a thorough lesson at school on the topic of sex. China’s lack of a proper sex education unit has been a known phenomenon for decades. The traditional Chinese values and ideology that one should stay focused on one’s own studies and stay clear of all other distractions has omitted this very topic for the greater part of the century.

In the past two years, some publishers have tried to break the taboo by publishing books on sex education for primary to middle schoolers, such as the Beijing Normal University (BNU). The university said such books were necessary because parents aren’t talking to their children about sex at home.

sex education book
Chinese sex education textbook published by Beijing Normal University (photo source: weibo)

“Children’s sex development and education has been ignored,” BNU said in a statement. “How can you expect a child, if invaded sexually, to describe which part was hurt, if one can’t even speak about the name of a body’s organ?”

In China, sex education isn’t compulsory. This has created huge gaps in knowledge when it comes to practicing safe sex. The lack of sex education has contributed to China’s HIV crisis, especially among young people.

In North America, where I spent my middle school years, we all learned about sex at school through our health education classes. Boys learned about the importance of using condoms and practicing safe sex, the legal age of consent, the potential consequences that may result from careless planning, etc., while girls learned about the same thing with the addition of how they could better protect themselves, menstruation, and what to do in cases of pregnancy, etc.

sex education class in NA
Health education class (photo source:

Evidently, having sex education as part of the school curriculum is not only a necessity, but a crucial lesson to shape students into better decision makers.

When I inquired a colleague (born in the 90s) about whether he grew up having received sex education during middle school, his response was “not exactly”. He explained that the textbooks they used on the unit of sexual reproduction weren’t exactly helpful.

“The textbooks often used analogies like how plants reproduced. Keywords like spores, seeds, fertilization, embryo came up often. I remembered and understood them, but still had no idea how we (humans) reproduced,” my colleague explained his knowledge gap. “I don’t think I’d be able to answer my kids if they asked me about how they were born.”

sex education book
Sex Education (photo source:

This sheds light on a rather pressing issue about the lack of proper sex education across China’s school curriculums. Students who are going through puberty, or even finished going through it, are often oblivious and ignorant about sex. They are unsure of its meaning, consequences, and the dangers that could potentially follow if it isn’t practiced safely. This often leads to bad decisions being made and problems such as teen pregnancy.

The graph below illustrates the adolescent fertility rate throughout a few selected countries including China provided by the United Nations Population Division. Although statistics have indicated a rather low rate of teen pregnancy cases across China annually, the numbers only reveal a small chunk of the bigger picture.

adolescent fertility rate
Adolescent fertility rate between the years 1960 and 2016 (photo source: TheWorldBank)

The reason behind the seemingly very low teen pregnancy rates is due to the massive amounts of abortions that have taken place. According to China’s National Health and Family Commission, 13 million abortions occur in China each year. The United States, by comparison, reports that there are one million abortions annually.

Should these trends continue, China may be looking at exacerbated problems in its health sectors, a rise in abortion rates, and coupled with the traditional preference for males over females, a larger gap in gender imbalance.

Family Customs

The curiosity for knowledge should be encouraged and not hindered by prevaricating.

One would naturally think that if schools didn’t cover the topic, it must be up to the parents to make up the knowledge gap themselves. Unfortunately, this is topic avoided by many Chinese parents as well. Take the following conversation for example:

“Mom, how was I born?”
“We picked you up from the garbage dump.”

family customs
(photo source:

Believe or not, if you ask any friend of yours who is of Chinese origin, chances are that the above conversation, or some sort of its variants, took place at least once during their childhood. This has been a running joke across Chinese families for generations to tell their kids that they weren’t born from parents but were picked up instead, like a stray puppy.

Now it may seem like a harmless and adorable little lie that will clear itself up sooner or later, but it masks a much more serious consequence that is vexing the Chinese society. The kids who never received proper answers often remain ignorant or even oblivious to the concept of sex. Parents are essentially leaving things up to the child to ‘eventually’ figure things out on their own. But due to the absence of a proper school unit on sex education, things often unfold not only hilariously, but also terribly.

A friend once told me that she had no idea whatsoever about what sex is until she got to university. University! Imagine that. She said she once saw a boy in her class back in high school making sex-insinuating hand gestures (one finger going in and out of the other hand) and didn’t understand what it meant at all.

There are of course the few families that elect on telling the truth, but we must admit that they account for a much smaller portion of the population.

China high school
Chinese high school students focusing on their National College Entrance Exam (photo source:

The curiosity for knowledge should be encouraged and not hindered by prevaricating. The Chinese have long been very strict on the idea that students should focus on their studies and not be distracted by other affairs such as relationships and love. This is why it isn’t uncommon to find students finding their first boyfriends/girlfriends after starting college, or after graduating from college even. These can all be traced back to the result of a rather long history of suppressive upbringing.

Traditional Chinese Values and the Teachings of Confucius

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” –John Dewey

The Chinese have long been following the teachings of Confucius for centuries. The great Chinese philosopher’s many pieces of wisdom became China’s handbook on government and its code of personal morality for thousands of years. However, it is beginning to seem like a better idea to slowly phase out certain lessons, or not strictly abide by them, today as they begin to take a toll on the Chinese society.

traditional Chinese values
The teachings of Confucius (photo source:

The teachings of Confucius generally outline his moral and political philosophy and often touched on the topics of love, benevolence, human heartedness, virtue, and true manhood. However, when it comes to sexual matters, Confucianism is considered quite “puritanic.”

According to his teachings, a “good” young girl is not only expected to keep her virginity until she gets married and to get married only once in her life, she is not supposed to make herself attractive, even to her own husband. This rule applies not only to showing affection in public, but also to its display in the privacy of the home. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997]

This is, of course, not strictly followed anymore today. But the idea of behaving and acting more reserved is still passed down from generation to generation. And when generations of Chinese families have been taught these values growing up, they would naturally grow to shy away from topics even slightly related to sexual matters. This results in many post-90’s children having similar experiences of parents skirting around the topic whenever the question “How was I born” come up in conversation.

Confucius statue (photo source:

Being reserved include many different things, such as children who are seven years of age are considered mature enough and ought not to act too intimately with the opposite sex; To show affection, couples (even married ones) generally won’t even hug or kiss in public, etc.

These lessons although makes up a great part of the Chinese culture and civilization, its relevancy does not seem to be as strong anymore in the 21st century.

This is not to say that the idea of being reserved should be abolished, but that it could perhaps use some leeway, especially on the topic of love and sex, to not hinder teenagers’ desire to express themselves sexually. Sexual suppression may have been how many parents were taught to deal with their sexual desires, but the effects can still be felt today echoing through the new and upcoming generations.

Differences in Historical Movements

“History is a vast early warning system” –Norman Cousins

We could perhaps say that the suppression of sexual desires and the overall attitude of being sex-shy in China has its roots in modern history as well.

The Western part of the world saw a phase of sexual liberation around the 1960s. The social movement known as the sexual revolution challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the United States and subsequently, the wider world. However, while all of this was happening, China was unfortunately preoccupied with something less exciting and more serious.

Hugh Hefner
Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Bunnies (photo source:

While the rest of the world began to embrace an increased acceptance for sex outside of traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationships, China was going through a stage of political paralysis. And the normalization of contraception, public nudity, pornography, premarital sex, homosexuality, and alternative forms of sexuality, were all stages of global development that passed China by.

maos revolution
Mao waving to the crowds during the 1967 May Day celebration in Tiananmen Square in Beijing(photo source:

The missed movement may have been able to affect China’s sex-shy characteristic if it made its way to the country, but it is hard to say. Because even though China was going through a rather complicated stage of reform at the time, the traditional value of staying reserved was still holding strong and resolute. So whether or not this sturdy cultural view could be altered is uncertain. We could only speculate that new waves of thinking and ideologies from the West could have definitely influenced these values to some extent if historical events played out a little differently.

Technological Innovation to the Rescue?

“A key ingredient in innovation is the ability to challenge authority and break rules.” —Vivek Wadhwa

China’s sex-shy attitude has prompted some tech companies to spur into action and try to break the taboo on sex. Taqu, marketed as Touch in English, is a Chinese company that rents out sex dolls. Its “shared girlfriends” project held last year in September was one of the company’s endeavors to promote a “healthier and more harmonious sex lifestyle”. Unfortunately, the project was shut down by authorities just after four days.

Other tech companies that have tried to open up discussions include WMDOLL, one of China’s biggest sex doll makers, who launched what it calls AI-powered dolls. Customers can personalize their dolls by choosing various appearance options including height, hairstyle, and eye color.

Clearly, open discussions of sex is still widely shunned in China. But then again, catering to the physical needs of men does not seem like a very well-thought-out approach to changing the society’s shyness towards sex. It is much more feasible and effective for China to implement a proper school unit on sex education, and encourage a more open-minded way of thinking and talking about the topic of sex.

Afterall, sex is a basic instinct of ours. Isn’t it?

Featured photo credit to thewire