This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, for The Asexual Agenda. A few small changes were made to incorporate corrections by commenters.
It’s well-known that English asexual communities are dominated by people in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. [The Asexual Agenda] has made minimal efforts to include voices from other countries, but one of our blind spots is China. You know, that one country that has three times more people than the US, UK, Canada, and Australia combined.
The thing is, between the language barrier and the Great Firewall, hardly anyone in the English-speaking community knows anything. The closest we’ve gotten is our interview with Robin, but Taiwan isn’t the same as Mainland China at all. And given the complete lack of communication, it’s possible that asexuality in China is so different as to be unrecognizable.
That’s why I was interested to see this recent paper: Asexuality in China’s Sexual Revolution: Asexual Marriage as a Coping Strategy. By Day Wong, in Sexualities, February 2015.
The paper focuses on www.wx920.net, a website for finding sexless marriage partners. Wx920 stands for wu-xing jiu-ai-ni which means “sexless just love you”. Of course, there are many people who might be interested in sexless marriages, not just asexuals. According to Wx920, their site is for1
Those who lose sexual function due to inborn or acquired defects, become sexually apathetic due to traumatic experiences, those who simply want to pursue platonic love, and elderly people.
I was taken aback, since Wx920 doesn’t look at all analogous to asexual communities as we know them, differing both in its purpose and scope. And it’s not a matter of there not being any analogous Chinese asexual communities, because I know there are a few. I asked Robin about it and they said:
While the portrayal of [Wx920] in the paper is not incorrect, the researcher has highly overestimated the influence of it in Chinese culture, especially within the asexual community.
Perhaps the user base of Wx920 represents a much larger population of Chinese “potential” asexuals. But even there, the paper notes that the user base is mostly urban, educated, and relatively high-income even for urban Chinese.2 It’s hard to say. In any case, the paper gives us a window into Chinese culture and how it might interact with asexuality.
The Chinese sexual revolution
The Chinese sexual revolution is a dramatic shift in Chinese attitudes towards sex that has been going on since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 70s. Wong characterizes it as state-sponsored, and it is clear throughout the paper that it is propagated by government-produced media and by Chinese researchers. For example, Wong mentions an article in The Chinese Journal of Human Sexuality, published by the Department of Health:
An article therein on the relationship between orgasm and marital harmony claimed that failure to achieve sexual satisfaction results in refusal of sex, which consequently leads to family breakdown and other social problems.
And in sexology research,
orgasm rates among married couples have become an indicator of progress and modernity.
This appears representative of general attitudes. A healthy sex life is important for the relationship, for the family, and society at large. Not having sex with one’s partner is considered to be harmful to them, possibly inflicting physical conditions such as erectile dysfunction. There is public concern about “cold violence”, referring to a lack of verbal or physical communication, which may be as bad as or worse than physical abuse.
For people not interested in sex, this presents a problem, since they don’t want to harm their partners. One interviewee said:
What normal woman wouldn’t need sex? Even though she didn’t say it, I could see that this was the case. I just couldn’t bear to ruin her life.
Medicalization and demedicalization
Many members of Wx920 describe themselves as having medical conditions.3 It’s morally obligatory for people to seek medical treatments first, and only seek sexless marriages as a last resort if it turns out an effective treatment doesn’t exist… yet. Wong also mentions several distinctions made on the basis of medicalization:
some members adopt medical-psychological discourse to make distinctions between ‘no sex’ and ‘a small amount of sex’, innate and acquired characteristics, biological and psychological defects.
Wong also compares to an asexual forum on Baidu Tieba (which is a Chinese social networking site). Unlike Wx920, the Baidu Tieba forum appears to be more geared towards forming an asexual identity, and has more influence from the English asexual community. In reaction to the widespread medicalization of asexuality, the forum moderators distinguish between people with sexual dysfunctions (who want sex and are distressed about not having it) and asexuals (who aren’t distressed). People who express negativity towards sex are encouraged to seek medical help. Asexuals with sexual dysfunction are recognized, but within the narrative they are comfortable with it.
Wong says that this discourse ignores the ambivalent feelings people may have, as well as asexuals with physical or mental disabilities.
New relationship structures
In the English asexual community, when we talk about creating new kinds of relationship structures, we often draw upon ideas from friendships or polyamory. The new relationship structures aspired to on Wx920 are somewhat different.
Wong describes three ideals. First is “platonic love”, which draws upon ideas of romantic love without the sex. There are many descriptions of sharing a house, getting a dog, traveling. A second ideal is the “pro forma marriage”, marriage with gays and lesbians of opposite sex. There’s a lot of pressure to marry, so many people find that to be the best compromise. But there’s also a third ideal, that of celibacy, living the single life.
Wong says “asexuals hold the keys to transfiguring relational networks that circumvent the importance of exclusive dyadic units.” But my main impression is that the situation of Chinese asexuals is rather grim.
1. According to Wong, this is how Wx920 defines asexuality, and that’s what I originally wrote too. However, a commenter pointed out that Wx920 never mentions asexuality and does not attempt to define it. I have corrected my article to reflect that, but the error is still present in Wong’s paper. (return)
2. Wx920 requires its members to provide information about their income, occupation, and property ownership, which I believe is typical for a Chinese dating site. The median monthly income of the people interviewed was 570-820 USD, whereas the median for urban Chinese is 367 USD. (return)
3. Some specific examples given: venogenic erectile dysfunction, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and Klinefelter syndrome. (return)