China has a long tradition of erotic art but pornographic films and pictures are currently illegal. Despite frequent anti-porn clampdowns, pornography remains available both online and in the form of DVDs.
A paper titled A Peep at Pornography Web in China compiled by scholars at Xi’an Jiatong University is one of the few authoritative sources of pornography statistics. The scholars examined “part of network traffic in Northwest Net of China, from Mar. 29 2009 to Jan. 25 2010” and “collected 92,950 online porn web pages from 1,826 porn sites” of which only 12.8% were hosted on servers inside China. The paper looks at usage patterns of the people detected visiting porn sites, but does not attempt to derive any numbers about porn use nationwide.
Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence suggests demand for porn in China is growing. Aside from professionally produced films, there is a growing subculture of DIY porn movies, which is one of the subjects Dr. Katrien Jacobs examines in her new book, People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet.
James Griffiths recently interviewed Dr. Jacobs about her new book:
James Griffiths: Could you describe what ‘People’s Pornography’ is about and what it has to say regarding modern Chinese sexual culture?
Katrien Jacobs: The book is about waves of Chinese erotica and pornography in the age of Internet activism and a tightening of Internet censorship. It shows that despite the total ban on pornography, Chinese people have developed an impressive porn industry and progressive sex cultures. I show that Chinese people can have access to sexually explicit products and are able to explore novel sexual identities. But there is currently also a new clampdown on political activists and sex/AIDs/queer activists, so the book wavers between optimism and despair about China’s future.
JG: In your opinion, has the government’s campaign against online pornography been at all effective in the long run? Or are the censors fighting a losing battle?
KC: There are several statistics that show the net-porn industries are surviving and flourishing despite the ban. It seems indeed that porn cannot be banned and that the PRC government is perhaps even secretly letting it into the country. But besides their bombastic cleanup campaigns, they also censor web communities that stand for sexual freedom or queer identity. It seems as if sexual minorities, sex artists and activists are much more vulnerable than those involved in mainstream commercial porn, especially at this moment when film festivals are being shut down and human rights activist are being tortured and detained. These are the dark times of China’s civil right and sexual creative outlet, but there is still so much porn and sex entertainment available that we can see it as safer outlet.
JG: There seems to be a preference amongst Chinese porn consumers for Japanese produced materials, for example the number of Japanese AV stars who cultivate a near mainstream popularity in China. Do you think there is a general preference for Japanese porn and if so, what are the factors behind it?
KC: Yes it seems that Chinese men really prefer Japanese porn over Western porn. I think it is primarily because the Japanese know how the play the Chinese markets for pop culture and sex entertainment. They simply supply an excessive kind of erotic imagination that Chinese entrepreneurs cannot handle. Even though there is a wealth of genres and mind-boggling fetish products available from Japan, the cultures actually share a quite narrow-minded patriarchal view on sexual pleasure. This is perhaps the reason why Chinese men like Japanese stars, because they embody a feminine ideal of innocence and purity that is harder to find in Western porn. Western females in porn are considered to be too active and too “coarse” for Chinese men. Also, it works well for Chinese people, and specifically youngsters, to project liberation and otherness onto the “foreign” Japanese porn culture.
JG: In the West, one of the primary criticisms against pornography is the possibly detrimental effect it may have on young people’s interpretations of sex and gender politics. With China’s woeful record on sexual education is there a danger that many young Chinese are only or primarily getting information on sex from pornography?
KC: Yes that is definitely happening now. I have interviewed many students who have said that pornography is their only sex education. I think that it is a problem indeed, as it creates distorted expectations in males who do not know very well how to handle their women sexually. Generally speaking the porn culture and erotic vanguards in China are leaving behind the women and sexual minorities.
Pan Suiming is one of the leading Chinese scholars who has documented the deep-rooted effects of abstinence and sex/porn starvation in males during the Mao years. While males are now able to find a wealth of movies and hostess/sex work services, it is much harder for women to participate and release their frustration about this situation. So I think that China needs porn education, which would be more exciting than sex education, and would allow all kinds of people to watch and judge products, or even to make some of their own. But this is merely a fantasy at the current moment.
JG: It has been argued by some commentators that the Chinese government uses its much publicized drives against pornography as an excuse to increase general internet filtering and surveillance. Would you agree with these accusations?
KC: Yes it does seem to work that way, just as they can use a cheap kind of anti-art or anti-dissident or anti-vulgarity rhetoric to carry out surveillance and to randomly arrest people. That is also why they went after the “big guy” Ai Wei Wei who stands for all of these subversive potentials at once, including sexual freedom and “erotic laughter,” the right to make vulgar kinds of art and jokes. But we also have to keep in mind that the official government bulletins are not taken seriously by Chinese people. I read quite a few of them while researching my book and when asking my informants if the believed in government statistics intimidations, they would often smile and say: “No. Of course not!”
JG: Other than within the Special Administrative Regions, particularly Hong Kong, is there such a thing as Chinese pornography?
KC: There is very little Chinese pornography, but China is so ready for it. Meanwhile, there are some DIY productions on the Internet, or there are webcam movies being made by sex workers for their clients. There are online web communities for erotic literature and taboo stories, and there are diaries and galleries by bloggers. I am not sure where it is going. Hong Kong has equally lost its glory days of erotic soft-core cinema, but at least there are small squads of people who are into them, and I do think these older movies are marvelous. There is the recent Hong Kong 3D porn blockbuster “3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy,” which was an enormous success in the box office and really also create a moment of social awareness and “sex talk” both in China and Hong Kong.