BEIJING—The first time Hu Jing tried to have sex with her college boyfriend, there was a technical difficulty. "We knew we had to use a condom," she said. "But we didn't know how."
Faced with this conundrum, Hu and her boyfriend went looking for answers—he from his more experienced friends, she from the university library, where she combed through Dream of the Red Chamber, a literary classic from the Qing Dynasty.
The following week, they reconvened for a second try. This time, they managed to roll on the condom but then … well, where was the penis supposed to go? It took another week of research before they succeeded in doing the deed.
After three decades of the one-child policy, you'd expect people here to know how to have sex without getting pregnant. And you'd be wrong. In July, Chinese health officials said that 13 million abortions are performed in registered medical institutions each year, largely because people lack sex education. The number of unwanted pregnancies is even higher when you take into account abortions at unregistered medical clinics, not to mention the 10 million abortion-inducing pills sold each year.
I first met Hu over a cappuccino in Beijing's Financial District, a section of town where gleaming towers and chain restaurants have replaced the old alleyways and courtyard homes where families had lived for generations. I had worried that Hu, like most Chinese people, would be uncomfortable talking about sex. But she turned out to be chatty and confident and laughed as she told me her story. When I opened the interview with softball questions, she interrupted and asked, "Don't you want to hear about my experience with sex?"
Even though Chinese culture has become increasingly liberal, traditional values endure. As a result, there's a gap between how open people are about sex and how informed they are, and stories like Hu's are more common than you might expect.
In recent years, the taboo against premarital sex has largely faded among Chinese college students. It is now common for students in relationships to have sex, and attitudes are changing so quickly that my Chinese friends who are just 24 or 25 seem improbably ancient when they say things weren't so liberal "back in their day." Downstairs from my apartment in downtown Beijing, a convenience store that just opened sells condoms with English names like "007," "Say Yes," and "Newlywed."
Still, the public understanding of safe sex hasn't caught up with China's newfound freedom in the bedroom. Many Chinese people, especially those in less-developed parts of the country, still rely on withdrawal or the rhythm method for contraception. (The birth control pill is unpopular, as many people believe it harms a woman's body.)
"People born in the 1980s and '90s are most in danger," Hu said. "We're liberal, but we didn't have any sex education."
In general, Chinese parents and teachers don't talk to kids about sex, and government concern over "unhealthy" entertainment means that at the movies, you rarely see actors do anything more than kiss. This summer, the government decreed that only certain Web sites can provide information about sex and that computers used in schools, Internet cafes, and other public places must be loaded with Green Dam Youth Escort, a censoring software that screens out porn and anything related to homosexuality (not to mention "politically sensitive" content).
No wonder teens end up asking each other about sex—and getting a fair amount of misinformation. Some post their dilemmas on bulletin boards. Those who want to avoid the dubious wisdom of the crowd can e-mail questions to "Sister Siyu" at the popular portal QQ.com.
One teen writes, "I am 18 years old, and my girlfriend is 16. We held hands and kissed, so I am afraid that she will get pregnant. Will she?" Others ask Sister Siyu whether the rhythm method is safe, why boys have sex with you and then say they don't like you, and what's bad about oral sex.
Typical teen stuff, for the most part. But then you get a story like this one: "I am 20 years old, and I've had four abortions. Can I have a child when I get married in the future?" (Online confessions are a regular feature of Chinese bulletin boards.)
What's striking is the way young Chinese people can progress from first kiss to multiple abortions in a relatively short time. Take Hu and her college roommates, who all arrived at school as virgins. Early on, one roommate from Guizhou—a poor, rural province in the south of China—asked Hu and the others how she was supposed to kiss: with or without tongue? But by the time they graduated, all four roommates were sleeping with boys, and the girl on the bunk below Hu had had three abortions in one year.
According to China Daily, the government's English-language mouthpiece, a survey by a Shanghai hospital found that fewer than 30 percent of callers to a pregnancy hot line knew how to prevent pregnancy. It's not just contraception that causes confusion. At a Beijing university, a peer educator told me classmates had asked her basic questions about menstruation and even about how often to change a maxi pad.