LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX

For sex advice, people in China turn to a 65-year-old female BDSM expert at $15 a pop

In China, sex can be an awkward topic to talk about publicly. But the country’s most prominent female sexologist is trying to change the public’s mindset through her books, and now through social media.

Li Yinhe is known in particular for her research into BDSM, including her book Subculture of Sadomasochism, published in 1998, China’s first book on the subject. Her own personal passion for the practice, which covers a variety of role-playing behaviors around bondage, discipline, and submission, turned into a passion to demystify it for other people. The first print run of 60,000 quickly sold out. She also offers her services as a sex adviser to her 1.7 million followers on social networking site Weibo—but since a ban on her account after she spoke out against government censorship in China in July, she has been temporarily silenced.

“I can’t even post, ‘I am forbidden from posting,'” the 65-year-old, who lives in the coastal city of Weihai in eastern Shandong province, told Quartz.

Ask her anything

Li, a trained sociologist, has been using Weibo Q&A, a function similar to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything,” to communicate with her fans since March this year. It’s been an invaluable resource for sex-shy Chinese people who have few places to turn to with their questions. The service, however, doesn’t come free—Li charges 100 yuan ($15) for each question asked, and users pay 1 yuan to read her responses. Li said she receives more questions from women than men because women are “more anxious about sex compared to men.” BDSM is a common topic, she added.

“As the whole institution of marriage becomes increasingly less secure, do you think BDSM, like homosexuality, could eventually be recognized by the public or even become mainstream one day?” asked one of (link in Chinese) Li’s followers, explaining that he has been practicing BDSM for more than five years (link in Chinese). Li answered that she was “very, very optimistic” about the future of BDSM in China because many more people are experimenting with it.

A question about virtual sex on Weibo to Li Yinhe.
A question about virtual sex on Weibo to Li Yinhe. (Weibo/Li Yinhe)

Other questions reflect more common concerns in China.

Amanda Yao, a 20-year-old student based in Liaoning province in the north who self-identifies as asexual, asked Li via Weibo in July: “I don’t have any desire to kiss or have sex. But I am worried about the pressure to get married from my family… what can I do as a single female, and is it tragic to age alone?”

Li responded, “You should try to figure out if you are just not ready for love, or if you are really asexual. I would suggest you to try achieving an orgasm by following a sex manual.” The question has seen more than 400 paid views (link in Chinese).

Let’s talk about sex, and bondage

Born in Shanxi province in the north of China, Li was among the few who received a university-level education in the country in the 1970s. In college, she met her first love, but the relationship didn’t work out; according to Li, her obsession with foreign literature made her seem “bourgeois” to her boyfriend amid the climate of the Cultural Revolution, which began in the late 1960s. After they broke up, a heartbroken Li almost took to self-harm because “only physical pain can distract mental pain,” she said.

In 1980, Li married Wang Xiaobo, a renowned Chinese novelist who wrote about sex and revolution. In 1982, the couple moved to the US where Li pursued her doctoral degree at the University of Pittsburgh in sociology, before returning home to join the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the country’s top research center, in 1992. Wang died of a heart attack in 1997.

In 2014, the same year Li retired from the CASS, she announced that she was in a relationship with a transgender man, Zhang Hongxia, whom Li began living with not long after Wang’s death. Zhang, who used to be a taxi driver, was one of Li’s subjects in a study of homosexuality. The two adopted a son, and Zhang now assists Li with the publication of her books. “He’s really good at negotiating and has a mind for business,” Li said.

Zhang Hongxia(L), Li Yinhe (R) and their son Zhuang Zhuang (M) in Australia in April, 2017.
Zhang Hongxia, left, Li Yinhe, right, and their son Zhuang Zhuang, center, in Australia in April. (Weibo/Li Yinhe)

Her relationship with Zhang, however, attracted accusations from some that she is gay. In response, Li said, “I am heterosexual, not homosexual, that is why I married Wang Xiaobo in the first place—unlike the 70% of homosexuals in China who get married out of social pressure, my marriage to Wang wasn’t done under any pressure, it was consensual,” she wrote on her blog (link in Chinese).

Surprisingly, many showed support (paywall) toward her relationship, including China’s typically conservative state newspaper the People’s Daily, which said (link in Chinese) on its Weibo page: “Homosexuals, transgender people, HIV patients… are starting to be accepted by the mainstream. Everyone has their own unique traits. Let social awareness catch up with science. To respect Li Yinhe’s decision is to respect oneself.”

Her interest in BDSM was a result of the deep suppression of sex and any talk of it in China in the 1950s, she said. At that time, a movie about love could be considered porn, Li wrote in her book, Sexual Discourse in New China, which analyzes the depiction of sex in the People’s Daily newspaper from 1949 to 2010.

“I felt a sense of excitement at 14, when I saw men being tied up in a movie about slaves in Tibet, but I couldn’t quite tell that was a sexual impulse,” Li said. “But I found it attractive and stimulating.” She would read over and over the parts of books that involved whipping.

It was only years into her marriage to Wang that Li revealed her interest in BDSM. Back then, they didn’t even dare to have sex before they got married, Li explained. She was typically the submissive party in her relationship with Wang—although this didn’t involve being tied up. She tried it, she says, but didn’t really like it.

Li’s openness about BDSM—which practitioners say involves trust and communication, and that books and movies have brought closer to the mainstream globally in recent years—sometimes attracts harsh criticism. On a post Li wrote last year (link in Chinese), one commenter compared her to a “witch” who is “contaminating people’s eyes” with her writing, while others said she disrespects traditional culture. Li is unfazed by the attacks against her. “We need tolerance instead of discrimination toward people and things which we are not familiar with.”

Pushing buttons

Li’s progressiveness, however, went too far for China’s censors—but it had nothing to do with sex.

Instead, it had to with Li’s vocal support for free speech in the country. In early July, Li argued on Weibo for the elimination of censorship in China. More than 60,000 users (link in Chinese) shared the post before it was deleted.

Later, some of her fans on Fenda, a Chinese Q&A site, discovered that Li had vanished from Weibo, as no new questions had been posted to her site. Li confirmed that her account had been suspended for three months.

“What’s most ironic was that I was banned for arguments against suppression on freedom of speech,” Li wrote (link in Chinese) on her feed on WeChat, a chat app, on July 23. “The ban itself has become the strongest proof that there’s no freedom of speech in this country… In a society without freedom of speech, things become extreme. The silence of the people is like a pile of smoldering coal, waiting for a chance spark to explode into flames.”

Fans like Yao, the asexual student who asked Li a question, are eagerly awaiting her return. “I think many people appreciate her for the same reason—Li believes that love, no matter in which form, should be equal,” she told Quartz. “Her mind is without a doubt on the right path of history.”

Perhaps, amid China’s increasingly repressive political climate, the Communist Party does fear outspoken sexologists like Li. This week, the World Association of Chinese Sexologists canceled its annual meeting, scheduled to be held in Hefei, Anhui province, according to a notice obtained by Human Rights Watch. The notice said that the event was called off in order to welcome the crucial upcoming 19th Party Congress in October, and cited “uncontrollable, irresistible” reasons for the cancellation.

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