China provides two critical services to the United States. It is a major underwriter of U.S. debt and it is our major supplier of sex toys. According to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, at the end of 2005, China had $820 billion in U.S. Treasury assets, the second-largest holder of U.S. debt after Japan. The Shanghai Star estimated that China, in 2004, accounted for 70 percent of global sex products — one can only imagine that its share of the U.S. market is about the same. These two phenomena illustrate how sex is becoming increasingly integrated into the world market economy.
The U.S. porn industry is estimated to be a $10 billion business. Porn merchants sell their wares to home consumers in many forms, including magazines and books, DVDs, cable and satellite television programs (through Comcast and Rupert Murdock’s DirecTV), telephone and web services; they also reach weary travelers through pay-per-view services at nearly all the nation’s hotel chains through Lodgenet and OnCommand. Even Virgin Megastore has gotten into the act, opening X-rated nooks in some of its hipper stores.
Estimates vary widely as to the size of the U.S. “adult novelty” industry. The Miami Herald recently estimated it at $1.5 billion in annual sales; the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. estimated North America sales in 2001 at $500 million. Innumerable “adult” specialty boutiques and women’s-only sex-toy get-togethers (often called “Passion Parties”) help women and men play out their wildest fantasies. The Las Vegas-based company, Passion Parties, claims over 28,000 sales representatives and annual sales of $47 million.
San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, the grandmother of sex play, has been in operation for nearly thirty years; a Business 2.0 reporter referred to it as a sex toy “Pottery Barn as mall-friendly and all-American as Restoration Hardware” that does $12.5 million in annual sales. Cake, operating in New York and London, hosts monthly parties catering to women (with men in attendance) at which dildos and other toys are demonstrated and offered for sale. One Woonsocket, RI, company, Athena’s Home Novelties, grossed of $7 million in 2005. With little fanfare, Amazon got into the adult products market two years ago and just might be the biggest seller; it carries more than 40,000 sex products under its “Health and Personal Care” section.
A growing universe of online sites provides people with even more discrete ways to order whatever sexual fetish turns them on. Industry pundits estimate that between 100,000 and 400,000 sites are pornographic and many of these sell the most risqué, private sexual accoutrements; Adam & Eve, a North Carolina adult product company, claims to have over four million customers. And “altsex” at Google groups is a virtual cornucopia of illicit desires. (A Nielsen/NetRatings September 2006 survey of online audiences found that 30 percent of all visitors to adult websites, or nearly 12.6 million visitors, were women.)
In terms of sexual culture, China has come a long way since the days of the Cultural Revolution. Then, men and woman were often segregated and any overt display of sexuality, whether in dress or public affection, including kissing, invited condemnation if not worse. Today, much of China remains conservative, especially in the countryside.
In some parts of rural China one old tradition hangs on the nude funeral performance. As retold by Reuters, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the police in Donghai County, Jiangsu province, broke up two groups of strippers who gave “obscene performances” at a farmer’s funeral. According to the Chinese source, “Striptease used to be a common practice at funerals in Donghai’s rural areas to allure viewers.” It was especially popular with wealthier families who often employed strippers to attract a crowd. “Local villagers believe that the more people who attend the funeral, the more the dead person is honored,” it noted. The report claims that two hundred showed up at the farmer’s funeral and five strippers were detained. Xinhua claimed that officials “issued notices concerning funeral management” and that they now must submit plans for funerals within 12 hours after a villager dies. Officials even set up a hotline so residents can report “funeral misdeeds.”
The Chinese cities tell a different story. The sight of young people openly necking, and more, on park benches in Beijing or Shanghai no longer seems to surprise foreign visitors. (This says as much about a new sexual culture as it does the lack of privacy.) A recent survey by the Family Planning Agency found that almost 70 percent of Chinese were not virgins when they married, compared with 16 percent at the end of the 1980s. Durex, a leading condom manufacturer, conducts what it calls an annual Global Sex Survey and, for 2005, reports — if you can believe it — that the average number of “sex enhancers” used by Chinese was: vibrators, 14 (for U.S., 43), penis rings, 13 (U.S., 13), love balls, 12 (for U.S., 6) and lotions/messages, 13 (for U.S., 43).
Today, Chinese have increasingly easy access to the internet and pirated western DVDs, including a wide selection of pornography. Prostitution, once fiercely suppressed, is a growing business. In places like Shenzhen, brothels are tolerated and many massage parlors and karaoke bars feature scantily clad girls in their store windows to lure in passerbys. There is an estimate ten million prostitutes in China and, based on recent UN data, a significant increase of HIV infection among these women; the Durex sex survey reports that 34 percent of Chinese engage in unprotected sex, compared to 51 percent for the U.S. Perhaps most surprising, there are reports that on weekends in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other big cities, gay and lesbian bars are packed to capacity. In China, a new sexual culture not unlike that found in the West is rapidly taking shape.
Another indicator of this change is that sex toys are becoming more popular. Beijing’s first sex-toy shop opened in 1992 and today there are an estimated 2,000 adult shops there, with more than 2,500 in Shanghai. According to the China Sex Health Committees, the annual sale of sex products in China in 2003 exceeded $12 billion (100 billion yuan) and is projected to grow at 30 percent annually. Sales of sexual potions and medicines amounted to $6 to $7.2 billion a year (50 to 60 billion yuan). One estimate claimed that in 2004 there were over 10,000 Chinese companies involved in the sex products industry.
“As sexual and family concepts undergo great changes and sexually transmitted diseases remain rampant, sex toys have become a better choice for safe sex and self-discipline,” said Professor Gu Donghui, vice-chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Fudan University. The sex toy market has grown even faster since 2003 when such products were removed from drug administration regulation they are now considered medical aids or health equipment and fall under different monitoring.
According to the China Sexology Society, the major users of sex products are the handicapped, people with sexual dysfunctions, singles, soldiers and women. “There are 20 million handicapped people in the country and sex products play an important role in their sex lives,” reports Professor Tong Chuanliang of the International Peace Maternity and Child Health Hospital. Even more people use them to improve the quality of their sex lives, reflecting the deeper changes in popular attitudes towards sex. “People attach more importance to their sex lives and its quality as their life conditions improve,” observed Tong. And women are driving this change in sexual life. “They do not want to fall prey to men’s sex toys and are not willing to play a passive role in sexual life,” Tong added.
According to a survey conducted by Sohu, a popular Chinese website, 69 percent of Shanghai women agreed that a harmonious sex life is necessary for a happy life and family, with 88.9 percent saying they would be willing to try new positions or sexual techniques to have more fun. “Although they have the courage to challenge traditional sexual ideas, their knowledge about sex still lags behind their thoughts,” noted Professor Tong. (This seems especially important in light of a finding from another survey that found that only 21.5 percent of men claimed to know where the clitoris is located and 59 percent thought sex toys would not help them improve their sex lives.)
Change in China’s sexual culture is driven by the same state-sponsored entrepreneurialism that defines its economy as a whole. An indicator of this is evident in Shanghai’s recently established annual sex fair. The first International Adult Toys and Reproductive Health Exhibition took place in 2004 and drew an estimated 6,000 visitors, including 2,000 industry insiders. The 2005 fair attracted 30 to 40 percent more visitors than the previous one, as well as about one hundred domestic and foreign companies that deal in sex-related products.
This new sex culture is spawning a generation of Chinese sex-preneurs, enterprising and often quite imaginative manufacturers of sex toys. According to The Economist, Wu Zhenwang is “China’s sex toy king.” His company, Wenzhou Lover Health Products, produces devices made from rubber, plastic, leather and a sponge-like material that simulates female flesh. His catalog includes the Vertical Double Dong, the Occidental Vagina, the Waterproof Warhead Vibe and a variety of goods for those into sadism and masochism mostly targeted for the the overseas markets. Wenzhou products are branded under the Loves, LustyCity and Daily Planet labels and it controls an estimated 60 percent of the the domestic sex toy market. In the face of dropping prices and squeezed profit margins, Wu faces the same expand-or-die syndrome that drives all capitalist enterprises. In response, the Wu family plans to open a thousand retail outlets across the country, with at least two in each provincial capital.
Fu Erqiang runs a sex toy plant in Fushun, Liaoning province. “People are becoming more and more open to sex. But it’s a very slow process, this liberalization,” he acknowledged. “It’s getting better, but the market here is small compared to other places.” His company has about ten employees and is responsible for such products as the Sexual Love Chair, the Sexual Love Magic Ball and the Passionate Knight, a sexual apparatus for women. “Generally speaking,” Fu observes, “women want to add more spice to their sex lives, and modern women in pursuit of special feelings in sex buy this product. It’s also for couples doing a long-distance relationship.”
Fang Hong opened the Shaki adult toy factory in the People Love Technology Park in Shenzhen in 1995. His business employs 300 people during the peak season before Christmas. Reflected the old, pre-entrepreneurial climate, Fang admits that it took him years to acquire the necessary permits — from thrity-six different government agencies to open his factory. His products are targeted to the customers in Japan and the U.S. As an observant Guardian reporter noted, “At the Shaki factory, there is no excited talk about sexual revolution, nor even the slightest titillation or shocked giggles.” The workers sit in silence for eight hours a day earning $80 to $100 a month, “knocking out so many cheap thrills for the world that they become numb to what they are doing.” One of the female employees admitted, “For the first few days, this job felt a bit strange, [b]ut after that you forget what you’re holding. It becomes just another object.”
Globalization shows that the world is round and everything eventually comes full circle. From the Dickensian sex toy factories in China to the glamour of New York’s Kiki de Monparnasse (selling a $450 titanium vibrator) or Henri Bendel (which sells a $688 silk whip), sex toys have become an important accoutrement to the market driven sex economy. From Bangkok to Las Vegas, Amsterdam to San Francisco, Tokyo to Rio, sexual culture has become universalized. Being post-modern means adopting (or at least accepting) an international appetite toward sexual pleasure.
Nothing demonstrates the market’s power to drive sexuality than the feeble attempts by religious fundamentalist to resist its endless temptations. The valiant effort to resist the commodification of female sexuality finds its most pathetic expression in the attire prescribed for devout Amish, Hassidic and Muslim women. Whether wearing the headscarf, long-sleeved top and long skirt or wearing the higah or higab, let alone the covering veil, the niqab, women remain the most burdened by the market’s commodity culture, even in its negation.
Sex toys are but one, and perhaps the most innocuous, feature of the globalizing sex economy. The international commerce in children and women in prostitution and sex slavery is the darker aspect of this process. Whether one can exist without the other remains an open question.
DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for “Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures.” He is author of, most recently, “130 Parties in 30 Days: Matt Gonzales & Indie Culture,” The Political Edge, a collection on the 2004 San Francisco mayoral election (ed., Chris Carlsson, City Lights, 2005).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.