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.
Officially, China's Ministry of Education introduced sex education in schools back in 1988; it followed up with an HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum in 2003. But the existence of these guidelines would come as a surprise to most Chinese citizens.
Jerry Tseng, a friend who works in finance in Beijing, remembers his school's sex-ed lesson well, but not for what he learned. That day, Tseng said, his teacher forced an assistant—who until then had not taught a single lesson—to lead the class. The younger instructor stood in front of the students red with embarrassment, unable to broach the subject. Eventually, the students were told to read the chapter themselves. This was the pedagogical method favored by many teachers; the dozen or so Chinese people I asked about this all had similar stories.
Today in Beijing, schools offer sex ed in junior high, but there's no standard for what should be taught or how, and teachers have little incentive to emphasize the subject. After all, safe sex isn't going to show up on the national university entrance exam that students spend years cramming for.
Broadly speaking, students learn about reproductive anatomy. They learn they're not supposed to have sex, and that if they do, they must take precautions. And that's that—no guidance about which precautions.
"There's nothing from the schools about relationships. Nothing about pregnancy," said Lily Liu, who heads the China operations of Marie Stopes International, an NGO that runs reproductive health clinics. Condoms? Liu laughed. "No condoms, of course," she said.
People like Liu are trying to change the situation. But as with many things in China, new ideas battle traditional values, as I learned when I visited Zhang Meimei, a professor who runs the sex education research center at Capital Normal University.
Two years ago, Zhang launched a sex-ed camp for fifth- and sixth-graders. The kids played games and watched cartoons about puberty. The professor dug around in her office and pulled out two large posters; each featured a simple line drawing of a boy's or girl's body, with anatomy properly labeled. "The kids were very happy to learn," said Zhang. "They weren't embarrassed."
A few minutes into our conversation, though, we were in very traditional territory. Zhang, who also trains instructors to teach sex ed, was telling me about junior high schoolers learning "how to be a man and how to be a woman" in sex ed classes. "Some girls want to wear boy's clothing. And a lot of boys are too feminine," said Zhang. I wondered whether she saw the contradiction between promoting traditional gender roles and teaching sex education. Would a girl who's taught to be soft and quiet be able to demand that her boyfriend use a condom? Would a girl who insists on using birth control be perceived as a "proper" woman?
The following week, I took the subway to Wudaokou, which is akin to Harvard Square—cafes, hordes of bright students, opinionated homeless people, and, rare for China, street musicians.
At a popular McDonald's, I sat down with Sisi Liu, a sophomore majoring in journalism at Tsinghua University, a school often referred to as China's MIT. She had just come from a documentary about democracy in rural villages, and though it was pouring rain outside, she was dry in a yellow summer dress.
Before Liu arrived at Tsinghua—as she said, "before I knew anything"—she had intended to stay a virgin until marriage. In high school, she had been shocked when a friend announced her intention to have sex during her freshman year in college. These days, Liu's attitude is a bit more Woodstock, a bit less Confucius. "We're all adults," she said. "If it happens, then it's very natural."
Liu told me that a lot of "love hotels" in the area cater to students, offering privacy for about $30 a night. Another person at the table expressed surprise—she hadn't heard of them when she studied at Tsinghua just a few years earlier.
As a student at one of China's best universities, Liu enjoys many advantages. One is that she attended a sex ed workshop during freshman orientation, where she practiced putting a condom on a banana.
Liu and her college friends watch Sex and the City, which continues to be enormously popular in China. "At first we liked Miranda," she said. "But by the end, we liked Samantha the most. She controlled her life and showed that girls could be independent."
As I walked downstairs to leave the McDonald's, two university students caught my eye. They were in their own world, madly making out in their booth.