‘I’ Column - Yingying Huang

... on how sexual rights affect one personally, and how they are affirmed and/or violated in one’s local cultural setting.

Yingying Huang

I currently co-edit a newsletter on Sexuality Research in China, and have recently prepared an issue on sexual rights in China. It has awakened my own thinking and reflections on sexual rights in a context that I am experiencing everyday in the language we use.

As most people will agree, ‘rights’ (quanli) is one of the most sensitive words in the Chinese language because it is quite politicised. Few people will talk about it publicly, especially when it is paired with another sensitive word, ‘sexuality’ (xing), which is highly moralised. When you think about the ways in which individual sexual rights are compromised, I can think of two examples that I think are important – marriage rights and rights to pleasure.

In recent years, I have been observing that there have been heated discussions on whether college students have the right to marry. This arises from the conflict between the marriage law and the National College Regulation.  According to the Chinese Marriage Law, the minimum age for marriage is 22 years for men and 20 for women. However, the National College Regulation prohibited college students from getting married, even if they are of legal age. Even though the Regulation was recently withdrawn, it doesn’t mean college students are now encouraged to get married. 

But the fact that the College Regulation has now been eliminated, is critical progress anyway. When I was a college student (and even now), my favorite example of how our vice president liked to ‘educate us’ was by citing an example of two college students who kissed in front of the canteen. He disapprovingly said it ‘lasted for several minutes’ which, of course according to him, was ‘not  decent behavior’. And pre-marital sex, of course, was (and still is for the most part) highly moralised and criticised even though the percentage of young people having pre-marital sex is increasing. These acts could result in being dismissed from school and being fined up to 5000 RMB (more than 600 USD)!

And as I review documents related to sexual rights, I can’t help but think of the one thing that I find is consistently neglected consciously or unconsciously – the right to seek sexual pleasure or sexual wellbeing from an affirmative perspective. Most of the discussion on sexual rights is focused on how to protect people from being hurt or endangered. Even the proposed right to sexual autonomy still focuses on the penalty of violation. It seems to me that people are much happier to talk about ‘unhappiness’ but feel shame to talk about pleasure. 

Thinking about these two examples, I still feel we have a long way to go. But this is also why I feel working on examining sexuality in a rights-based framework, especially from an affirmative perspective, is critical for us to articulate and realize our sexual rights.

Yingying Huang is the Vice Director of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China.