Beating around the bush: western women and sex in China

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As Western women who have been intimate with Chinese men, I think it’s time we turn on the lights and lay it all bare, so-to-speak. Let’s peel back the covers on some issues, shall we?

To begin, it requires the very Western way of speaking directly about a topic that is not spoken about in China—almost ever. The existence of this article itself is in direct contradiction to an implicit culture in which many of us are living at this very moment. It’s a topic reserved for whispers in the dark between couples and, often, the very act of speaking about it kills the mood. At least, for Chinese men…

Yes, I’m talking about sex.

Western women who partner with Chinese men—particularly those men who have not been educated or lived for an extended period abroad—may have experienced our men squirming uncomfortably when we want to discuss something that is happening (or not happening) in the bedroom. For Western women, verbal communication above sex is encouraged in open-minded and (generally) less conservative Western cultures. How else do we learn what our partners want and need in the bedroom? How else do we communicate our own needs? But for Chinese men, this is often a turn-off. Mainstream Chinese media depicts women as demure and submissive, ready to receive whatever their men wish to give and ready to provide whatever their men wish to receive. In other words, not women like us. Not women who talk about it.

We are strong Western women. We are self-actualized women. We know what we want and need. These Chinese male partners were initially attracted to our strength, which is why they chose us, so they have to be aware that such strength can’t be peeled off like clothing at the bedroom doorframe. Don’t get me wrong, submissiveness can be a choice in a sexual context, but it must be an empowered rather than an expected one.

It’s the implicit/explicit dichotomy around the topic of sex in which all of the seeds of misunderstanding are planted (and because I’m a Westerner, I must directly acknowledge that pun!).

For instance, many Chinese men believe that Western women are, as a rule, more sexually permissive and “loose” than Chinese women. But, of course, just because we come from a culture in which sexuality is more visible in the media and more openly discussed in society at large, it doesn’t mean that Western women are all borderline prostitutes ready to get naked at any mention of sex. It’s these kinds of generalizations that put women at risk, in fact. Western women are often the targets of lewd or inappropriate assumptions about our promiscuity from Chinese men.

While it’s hopeful that most Chinese men who partnered with us didn’t need to be educated to this extreme, such assumptions are still occasionally evident when our male partners criticize us for wearing a shirt with a plunging neckline or a skirt with a thigh-high hemline. “ ‘Sexy’ should be reserved for the single people,” some say here in China, and as soon as one is no longer single, risqué clothing should be removed from the closet—especially the wardrobe belonging to the lady laowai. After all, everyone knows the stereotypes. The common male justification for such measures is the fear of other men lusting after their Western women. Herein lies another issue: the permissiveness about possessiveness and jealousy here in China; it’s culturally supported.

Following the assumption of greater promiscuity is the aversion to greater experience. Western women are often sexually active long before Chinese people, regardless of gender. Chinese schools are segregated and even university environments forbid romantic entanglements between students. So, if we come from cultures in which it’s been appropriate to experience sexuality from an earlier age than they have, it’s likely that we Western women are indeed more experienced in the bedroom than our Chinese partners.

Yet, it takes the right kind of man to appreciate this. Not all Chinese men can concede this point, nor wish to even acknowledge it. If there’s a rub against his ego (or manhood) to partner with a woman who could probably teach him a few things in the sheets, then his natural instinct (as per Chinese culture) is to never reference these points or acknowledge the differential. Acknowledging our sexual histories is tantamount to acknowledging other people having touched us, and this triggers those culturally supported jealous and possessive emotions.

But what if you want to talk about what sexual practice you didn’t like in the past and why, especially if it recurs (unpleasantly) with your Chinese partner? And what if you want to discuss what you’ve done and enjoyed in the past and would like to do again with your Chinese partner? Is this dilemma solvable?

You know the expression raowanzi 绕弯子? It’s an expression that means to “talk in a roundabout way” and it’s the key tactic for all issues that press on delicate Chinese nerves. If sex is one of them, I suggest the following: Address what you don’t like in the moment but through the traditional Chinese technique called “deflection.” You don’t like it? Do something else. Stop engaging in what you don’t enjoy. Likewise, address what you want in the moment through the traditional Chinese technique called “suggestion.” You want it? Do it suggestively—literally. Or suggest doing it—subtly.

Ultimately, all genders and cultures are entitled to sexual pleasure. And we can achieve it. But to be truly authentic in that quest, we have to be ourselves. It doesn’t matter in which country we’re living, our culture equates half the partnership’s dynamic, both in and out of bed. In other words, sometimes your Chinese man is just going to have to deal with what makes him uncomfortable just as much as we Western women are going to have to deal with the irritating passive aggression that defines much of Chinese communication. After all, raowanzi 绕弯子 can also be translated as “to beat around the bush.” And even though, to me, that just doesn’t sound like any fun at all, at least it denotes some sort of action!

Ember Swift

Ember Swift

Canadian artist Ember Swift is a musician and writer living in Beijing. She currently writes for Beijing Kids Magazine, Women in China Magazine, China.org and was a columnist for the Chinese parenting “Mami” magazine between 2011-2017. Her own blog “Queer Girl Gets Married” was the winner of the 2013 Lotus Blossom “Best Love Blog” award. Swift has also completed a memoir and is currently seeking publishing, though excerpts can be found in the journal Asia Literary Review (winter 2016) as well as the following anthologies: Afterness: Literature fro the New Transnational Asia (2016), Knocked Up Abroad: Stories of Pregnancy, Brith and Raising a Family in a Foreign Country (2016), and How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (2014). Musically, Ember Swift is a regular live performer and touring artist and has just released her 12th career album of music (2017).
Ember Swift

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2 comments

  1. Definitely didn’t know that…in past tried to talk directly about sex with Hong Kong partner, but it never worked. But then I don’t think even beating around the bush would have worked…

  2. Ember did very good observations on Chinese men, but I don’t think it applies to all. Being in the USA for 3/4 of a decade, I couldn’t connect with what she described. But some facts are solid and, I do like to be more straight-forward.

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