Sex is China's latest boom industry
With a glazed look in her eyes, the bored production line worker dips her hand into a bag full of short and curlies, peels off a strip of double-sided transparent tape and applies the furry finishing touch to a plastic vagina.
On the table behind, three young migrant workers from Hubei province are a picture of tedium as they fix studs and chains on a red rubber bondage outfit. Nearby, a more experienced worker inserts small electric motors into giant pink vibrators and then buzzes them briefly into action to make sure the connections work.
The Shaki adult toy factory in Shenzhen is an orgy of production. And though nothing could seem less erotic to the workers, their output is testimony to the growing passion of consumers for China’s latest boom industry: sex.
The country now provides 70% of the world’s sex toys.
While the bulk of the equipment is destined for export, a growing share is now being sold domestically, to a population that has never had as much money and freedom to experiment.
Thanks to a sharply expanding economy and the liberalisation of many aspects of private life, attitudes towards sex have undergone a sea change.
During the cultural revolution men and woman were often segregated, overt sexuality in dress or behaviour was frowned on, and kissing in public could bring condemnation.
Today, conservative values remain strong in the countryside, but in the cities young people canoodle openly on park benches and try out the alternative sexual behaviour they see on the internet and on pirated western DVDs.
A survey by the Family Planning Agency found that almost 70% of Chinese were not virgins when they married, compared with 16% at the end of the 1980s.
Prostitution, the target of a fierce and successful crackdown during the Mao Zedong era, is once again a huge business.
In places like Shenzhen, brothels are so tolerated by the authorities that street upon street of massage parlours and karaoke bars display a selection of girls in their shop windows.
On weekends, gay and lesbian bars, once unimaginable, draw packed crowds in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other large cities throughout China.
The sex toy industry is also going from strength to strength. In Beijing, it was not until 1993 that the first adult health retailer, as such outlets are euphemistically named, opened. Now the capital is estimated to have 2 000 such shops.
Most of the early establishments were dowdy and staffed by matrons in white laboratory coats, offering potency pills to a largely male clientele. But increasing competition is pushing retailers to be more imaginative in their presentation. Public advertising is forbidden, but managers are displaying a more colourful array of products on their shelves and expressing a wider range of ideas about their role.
“I feel my business is standing on the front lines of a sexual revolution,” Meng Yu, who runs the G-Spot, told the domestic media. “I believe all adults have the same right to enjoy sexual pleasure. There should be no difference between the orient and the West on this point.”
But achieving recognition has been a hard slog. Before he was able to open Shaki in 1995, the owner, Fang Hong, said it took him years to acquire the necessary permits from 36 different government agencies. His business, which has since grown at the rate of more than 20% per year, now employs 300 people during the peak season before Christmas.
At the company’s factory in the People Love Technology Park in Shenzhen, products are tailored to meet the different demands of major buyers in Japan and the US.
Casting an expert eye over a range of blow-up dolls, he said westerners preferred large realistic figures with lipstick and wigs, while his Asian customers tended towards petite inflatables with cartoon faces. “I think Asians emphasise the fantasy element of play, while westerners think more in terms of realism and utilisation,” he said.
Given China’s 1,3-billion population, he said domestic sales were relatively small, but were growing fast.
At a sex toy fair last year in Shanghai, the organisers estimated that the business was already worth 100-billio renminbi ($12-billion) and expanding at the rate of 30% per year.
“It takes time for people to accept such toys,” said Fang. “But Chinese people are like any other human beings. When consumption levels rise, so does the interest in things like this. I think Chinese people are having more fun.”
Sociologists, health workers and sexologists all agree that China is becoming more promiscuous, although sex education at schools and universities is rudimentary or non-existent.
According to a 2004 study quoted in the People’s Daily, only 21% of Chinese men knew where to find the clitoris. Last year the most rapid increase in new HIV cases was among teenagers, many of whom were unaware of how the disease was transmitted.
Among China’s most notorious bedroom activists is the blogger Mu Zimei, whose online revelations about 70 lovers, many married or famous, became so popular that the authorities shut her site down, because they saw it as a threat to social morality. But Mu Zimei (real name Li Li) said woman were leading the trend towards not only more sex, but more pleasure.
“Traditionally, the sexual role of Chinese women was too passive. But now they take the initiative. Sex is no longer only for reproduction. Women regard it as a source of pleasure, so they put more emphasis on the quality of their sex lives.”
In its industrialised form, however, excessive sex does have its drawbacks. At the Shaki factory, there is no excited talk about sexual revolution, nor even the slightest titillation or shocked giggles. The workers labour in near silence for eight hours a day for $91-$109 per month, knocking out so many cheap thrills for the world that they become numb to what they are doing.
“For the first few days, this job felt a bit strange,” said one woman. “But after that you forget what you’re holding. It becomes just another object.”