Culture Question:

Why Western people have different attitude towards sex than Chinese people?

(posted: May 19, 2011)

Why do Western people have different attitudes towards sex than Chinese people do?

The major reason I would suggest is that the West went through a "sexual revolution" in the 1960's. The traditional Western attitudes about sex (that largely stemmed from the moralistic teachings of the Christian churches and the patriarchal cultures of Europe) were challenged, not only with words but also actions.

Preceding this sexual revolution were a couple of changes wrought by science. One was the beginning of human sex and sexuality actually being studied. The other was the creation of a female oral contraceptive -- the Pill -- putting reliable birth control into the hands of women.

The late 1940's and early 1950's saw the publication of The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Female, two groundbreaking books by Alfred Kinsey based on thousands of surveys he and his team carried out with average Americans. "The publications astounded the general public and were immediately controversial and sensational. The findings caused shock and outrage, both because they challenged conventional beliefs about sexuality and because they discussed subjects that had previously been taboo."1

Masters and Johnson (William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson) became household names with the publication of Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1966 and 1970 respectively. In these books they shared some of the results of their studies which had "recorded some of the first laboratory data on the anatomy and physiology of human sexual response based on direct observation of 382 women and 312 men".2  The books educated people and overthrew myths about sexuality, in particular female sexual responses. People now had some real information about sex that gave them insights into their own experiences and tools to improve those experiences. The publication of these studies had a profound effect on the cultural milieu.

If these studies let the cat out of the bag and got people discussing sex, the general release of "the Pill" took the cat out on the town to check out the night life. Women began to experiment with sex more now that the threat of pregnancy was largely disconnected from having sex. This was part of what made the sexual revolution possible.

A major lasting impact of the sexual revolution is that now in the West there is a much wider variety of approaches to sex and sexuality than there used to be. There are still those who believe that the only place sex should be allowed is within a marriage (some even going so far as to say that even in a marriage, only when procreation -- having a baby -- is the desired outcome). These sort of people push for either no sex education in schools or only abstinence-only sex education (where the focus is on "don't do it", with no information about how to 'do it' with safety and respect in mind).

Along side this puritan approach to sex is the media bonanza of sex, where sex is used to attract customers and sell stuff. There is also the underside of sex that exists wherever there are people: pornography and prostitution. Pornography is a bigger industry than Hollywood by far.

On a different course from either the puritan crowd or those who exploit sex, are the many people who see sexuality as an integral part of who we are as humans. They understand that sexuality functions far beyond just procreation and is an integral part of the communication between couples. These people often advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education. Some schools, and even some churches, now provide this in the hopes of preparing people for the full range of complexities that stem from our sexual natures and cultural surroundings.

Though the sexual revolution shook up all levels of Western society, these changes didn't happen over night. An array of traditional ideas about sex and gender roles were questioned and found wanting by many and there is still a great deal of discussion about what ideas should replace the traditions. There is no doubt that attitudes towards sex have relaxed a great deal in the West. As just one example, many people now live together before, or even instead of, getting married.

Though China has not gone through the same sort of sexual revolution that blazed in the West, it has been experiencing the slow simmer of changing sexual attitudes. The public displays of affection common in the younger generation in China would not have been seen in their parents' generation. Given another generation or two, it is hard to say if there will continue to be such notable differences in attitudes toward sex between East and West.

Sources:

  1. Wikipedia, “Kinsey Reports”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_Reports), 19-May-2011.

  2. Wikipedia, "Masters and Johnson". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masters_and_Johnson), 19-May-2011.

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Couple laying on beach with a heart of shells

Further Reading:

Sex in Society: A New Culture War Amongst China’s Post-90′s

Chinese Attitudes Toward Sex Maturing From the embassy of the People's Republic of China

Expert: Chinese more open to sex

Despite Shifting Attitudes Toward Sex, Many Chinese Remain Uneducated On Contraception, Columnist Writes

Let’s not talk about sex, baby… Jenny Zhu talks about modern Chinese attitudes towards sex and sexuality

The Kinsey Institute