The “more abundant” sex lives of China’s young netizens

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Internet enrichment

A recent survey conducted jointly by two American companies, Barry Diller’s IAC and advertising company JWT, reports on the differences between Chinese and American “Young Digital Mavens,” ages 16-25. Media coverage of the survey in both English and Chinese emphasized that Chinese netizens lead their American counterparts in living their lives in the “Digital Age.” For example, 80% of Chinese respondents ranked digital technology as something they “must have,” compared with only 68% of Americans.

But as an article on commented, the obsession of Chinese youth for the Internet is not entirely a good thing: the Internet has changed young Chinese people’s sex lives. Fully 32% of Chinese respondents say the Internet has made their sex lives “more abundant” or “richer” (丰富), as compared with only 11% of American participants. The news article hastens to assure readers that the “Young Digital Mavens” survey doesn’t represent the views of average young Chinese people. After all, only about 10% of China’s population is online, and netizens are overwhelmingly well-educated, urban and male.

Readers of should breathe easier knowing that this survey finding is seemingly as meaningless as it is unclear. The respondents’ age range — 16-25 — makes difficult any attempt to draw generalized conclusions. 16-18 year-olds in China usually live with their families and may go online at Internet cafes or at home. 18-22 year-olds of the well-educated, urban variety are likely to be in college, where they’ll probably use school computers. 23-25 year-olds are typically employed and may use their work computers to access the Internet; they’re also the most likely to own their own computers. What kind of “enrichment” of sex life is possible or probable varies widely between these three groups.

Moreover, reports of the survey in both English and Chinese don’t clarify whether the respondents were asked whether they were “sexually active,” or whether the term “sex life” was defined. As for making such a vaguely-defined aspect of one’s life “richer,” presumably something as innocent as looking at soft porn photos of Pamela Anderson posted on Xinhua qualifies.

The survey’s validity doesn’t matter, of course, if you’re using it to support conclusions that seem obvious even without the survey results: “Our study confirms that the Chinese Internet is buzzing with virtual pheromones — ‘cybermones,’ if you will,” says Marian Salzman, JWT’s executive Vice-President. (Has she been on the Xinhua site, too?)

Barry Diller seems to set his sights higher, however: “Digital technology could be to China what the Sixties were to the West — a huge shift in mood and attitudes. The big difference is that these changes in people’s emotional and sexual lives are happening in the privacy of cyberspace.”

Interestingly, there does seem to be agreement that sexual attitudes in China are shifting. Professor Pan Suiming of Renmin University, for example, recently published a sociological study comparing changes in the sexual activities and relations of Chinese people over the past six years. The study wasn’t limited to youth or to netizens. Professor Pan nonetheless found evidence of “sexual revolution” across Chinese society — including among the 90% of China’s population that isn’t online. Professor Pan attributes this sea-change, not to the privacy of cyberspace, but to “the separation of sex and reproduction caused by the family planning policy.”

Professor Pan also charted changes in the sex lives of young people specifically, but he notes that “the biggest change is that the single child [of the 1980s] is unlikely to have many children . . . The separation of sex and reproduction has become their essence.” Professor Pan’s findings suggest that the Internet is not so much the cause of a “shift in attitudes” about sex among Chinese “Young Digital Mavens,” but rather a place where those attitudes find expression.

This conclusion might not be a welcome development at If it’s not the Internet, but family planning policy, that has made the sex lives of China’s youth “more abundant” (丰富), can you still say that it’s “not entirely a good thing”?

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