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When Richard Burger states that China in many ways is a land of contradictions, he sets up the entire notion of the book. The sexual revolution taking place in China today is indeed based on many contradictions; from the prevalence of prostitution and sex shops to the lack of sex education in school, and the censoring of much sexual content on television, the Internet and in books. By exploring China’s sexual revolution in Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Burger explores not only sex itself, but tackles the contradictions by discussing the underlying messages concerning gender, patriarchy, class, prostitution, homosexuality, dating and marriage that is continuing to shape China’s views on sexuality.
Due to a slow but present sexual revolution in China, younger women and men are more likely to engage in premarital sex, as well as choose their own partner in marriage (even though Burger describes such differences as being based much on location; the larger cities are more liberal than smaller villages). At the same time, marriage is still a very important aspect in the lives of Chinese women and men. Due to the imbalance of the sex ratio, it is increasingly difficult for men to find a partner. At the same time, if a woman is not married before the age of 30, many believe there is something inherently wrong with her. The notion of marriage permeates much of Chinese society and provides a direct link to gender inequalities, prostitution, the One Child policy and views concerning sexual orientation. With marriage being so central to Chinese culture, even homosexual men and women often marry someone of the opposite sex due to pressure from family members not only to marry, but also to provide the family with a male heir. Gender, patriarchy and the belief in marriage therefore permeate all of Chinese society, which is also negotiated and controlled by the government.
As China is a patriarchal society, Burger explores both gender differences and gender inequalities in China throughout the book. The One Child Policy implemented in 1979 to curb overpopulation has been a source of constant criticism due to the fact that it has created an ever so growing sex disparity, with more males being born than females. Infanticide and selective abortion has been one of the issues greatly debated. Burger adds to this debate by discussing other side effects of the One Child policy. The skewed sex ratio of men and women contributes to a large number of single men, who often turn to prostitution to satisfy their sexual needs. At the same time, incest and the kidnapping, trafficking and selling of both Chinese as well as foreign girls and women are also increasing. Inadvertently, the One Child policy has also lead to an increase in crime rates and violent crimes, only children being spoiled by their parents, as well as a skewed percentage of older Chinese women and men who needs to be taken care of by their (often) only child.
When Burger describes prostitution (which is illegal in China), he recognizes the fact that many women (and men) are often forced or coerced into selling sexual services. Burger then discusses the notion of decriminalizing prostitution in China. As eloquently as Burger describes the connection between class, government, gender inequalities and the One Child policy, the notion of what type of decriminalization would be suitable is not widely discussed. For example, Sweden has written into law that selling sex is not a crime, but buying sex is. On the other hand, New Zealand has decriminalized prostitution all together, both the buying and the selling of sexual services. Such a distinction would be beneficial since the various forms of decriminalization also bring about very different results. At the same time Burger acknowledges that sex trafficking and kidnapping is common alongside prostitution. Even though Burger states that the legalization of prostitution may never happen in China, he is very critical of the government’s response to trafficking. “Until China implements harsher sentences against traffickers and does more to protect the victims, the trafficking epidemic will continue to grow” (p. 102).
Even though Behind the Red Door discusses the notion of sex, it also does so much more. For those of us largely unfamiliar with Chinese culture concerning sex, we are offered a comprehensive discussion that includes gender, class, religion, the impact of Western culture, patriarchy and governmental impositions that is further enhanced by Burger. The audience of the book can therefore be anyone interested in Chinese culture, sex, gender inequalities, patriarchy or cultural studies. The book is suitable in the classroom as a teaching tool, but due to rather explicit material it might be best suited for older students. Additionally, Burger writes in a manner that is both easy to understand, eloquent and engaging. Even though Burger discusses China’s long history of sex, his style of writing makes it easy to follow the many contradictions presented in the book.
© 2013 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master’s degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.