Sexual Revolution Sweeping China?

The no-tell motels in Beijing's university districts pulsate with sex.

Every weekend, lusty college couples make a beeline past greasy spoon restaurants and bootleg video game shops for the dim hotel lobbies to book three-hour blocks of privacy. Students fill half the simple but tidy rooms at the Cheng Lin Ming Guang Hotel, a 10-minute walk from Beijing Normal University.

China is in the midst of a sexual revolution, a byproduct of rising prosperity and looser government restrictions on private life. The relaxed attitudes about sex mark a historic turnaround from the days when love and sex were denounced as bourgeois decadence, and unisex Mao suits and drab austerity were the norm.

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But the revolution is taking place largely behind closed doors, and the word "sex" — or "xing" (pronounced shing) is spoken only among close friends, and then usually in a whisper.

As a result, sex education has not kept up with sexual activity, with some unwelcome consequences. High school girls make up 80 percent of the patients at Shanghai abortion clinics during one-week school holidays, state media reported last year.

As recently as the 1980s, a couple holding hands in public would draw stares. Now, a government that once had say over when and whom people could marry is more concerned about regulating interest rates. And rising incomes have allowed urban Chinese to pursue much more than mere survival.

While the countryside remains more traditional, at least outwardly, public benches in cities are filled at night with young couples necking openly. Hipsters pack sleek clubs to flirt, chain-smoke imported cigarettes and sip green tea mixed with whiskey. Vibrators are sold in vending machines and at ubiquitous "adult health product" stores. Even the Web site of the government's Xinhua News Agency has a photo slideshow titled "Paris Hilton goes sexy for birthday party."

Studies indicate that 60 to 70 percent of Chinese have had sex before marriage, up from 15 percent in 1989, according to Li Yinhe, a sex expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In that time, the average urban marriage age has crept steadily higher, reaching 31 for men in Shanghai last year. There has also been a notable shift in attitudes, particularly among those born in the booming '80s.

At the Pepper bar in Beijing, a 20-year-old manager who did not give her name said without hesitation that young women's attitudes toward sex is casual. Her friends often show up and pick up men.

Cai Junjie, a strapping 23-year-old golf coach who calls himself Tank, saw no reason for a long mating ritual before sex.

"If two people want to be together, time isn't an issue," he said, still avoiding the word "sex" when talking to a stranger.

Chu Yanyang, an unemployed 21-year-old, said she once went to a bar known as "One-Night Stand," just to see if it lived up to its reputation. It did.

"They'll ... write their phone number on a little slip of paper. And if you drink a beer with him, then he'll give you the slip of paper," she said. "That way, you can get in touch if you want to hook up another day, or some people might even just leave together then and get a hotel room."

Maintaining a relationship can be too much work, Chu added. "If when we eat I always put food on your plate for you and one day I don't, then you might get mad and fuss at me. These little fights are really hard," she said. "So you might have a one-night stand. It's just so much easier."

Those without their own apartments can turn to hourly rate motels. Dorm rooms in China are generally crowded with a half-dozen students each, while many follow tradition — or economic necessity — and live with their parents long after high school graduation.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, one young woman flounced into the Cheng Lin Ming Guang Hotel, beau in tow, brushing past another couple in the lobby to negotiate loudly with the receptionist for her favorite room (No. 112) and a break on the rate ($12 for three hours).

At a shabby basement hotel around the corner, where every room is decorated with a poster of a scantily clad Western woman, a young couple straightened the sheets and blanket before leaving. A sign on the wall warned: "If the linens are too dirty, you will lose your deposit."

Families and schools remain shy when talking about sex, and teenage sex has flourished in the gap between awkward discussions and silence.

Psychologist Deng Jun fields 15 to 20 calls a day, mostly about sex, on a hot line for teens she runs out of her office, tucked in a corner of the fifth floor of the dingy Beijing No. 2 Hospital. Most of her callers are high school or college age, though sometimes they are as young as 10.

"With society opening up, our attitudes about sex are changing," the 52-year-old said. "[Adults] don't approve of premarital sex ... because when you have sex, it brings a series of unavoidable problems. These problems, as they increase, become society's problems."

A vocational high school in Xinjiang, a region about 1,500 miles west of Beijing, briefly enacted a rule last year requiring female students to take pregnancy tests as part of their annual school physical. An outcry about privacy forced the school to retreat.

Abortion is readily available and viewed as a much better alternative to the searing shame of being an unwed teenage mother in China.

A walk-in abortion costs $140 at the Haidian Maternal and Child Health Hospital, a large public hospital in northwest Beijing. Too pricey? Skip the anesthesia and the price falls to $55.

Still, the rising number of abortions among younger Chinese alarms educators, who blame outdated sex education. Students learn about sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, but the discussions about sex itself are vague and condom use is rarely addressed.

"They don't talk directly about sexual relations," said Li, the sex expert. "If you don't talk directly about sex, it's an incomplete sex education."

Frisky blogger "Bamboo Shadows" embodies the contradictions of a changing China, with one foot entrenched in traditional values and the other swinging forward toward a modern kind of free love.

On her site, the Beijing resident openly discusses her breasts, orgasms and struggles to control arousal during yoga classes. But the husky-voiced tech worker, who refused to give her real name in an interview, illustrated in one posting that even in an increasingly permissive China, standards still exist.

She had wrapped her arm around her boyfriend's waist while riding on the back of his bicycle, caressing him as he pedaled the streets of the Chinese capital. But later, she wrote, "He wanted to be very affectionate in public. I refused. I said we had just eaten and hadn't brushed our teeth."