Written by Haiqing Yu.
“Every technological innovation creates deviant as well as respectable possibilities.” So opens an essay written by Charles Edgley and Kenneth Kiser in 1982. The invention of instant photography represented by the Polaroid Camera facilitated homemade pornography, known in its day as “Polaroid sex.” Polaroid sex allowed young women, who were identified as “bad girls”, to pose for “naughty” pictures and engage in more egalitarian sexual pursuits. It also facilitated casual and commercial sexual relationships among strangers. Fast forward to China in 2016, where the availability and immense popularity of social media services and mobile phone apps has rendered casual sex “mobile,” on-the-go, and at one’s finger tips. They have enabled all kinds of young adults to explore their sexuality, set new trends, and pose new questions about the linkage between technology and sex, “deviance” and respectability.
The perception that China is a sexually conservative society is outdated. People born after 1980 (the first ‘single-child’ generation) and 1990 (China’s “Millenials”) are willing to explore means of satisfying their romantic and sexual needs. This includes an extensive use of online social media platforms. Casual sexual relationships, including one-night stands, “friends with benefits”, “booty calls” and “fuck buddies” are now “mainstream” behaviours among students on Chinese university campuses. As such, yuepao (约炮)— a neologism meaning “meeting for sex” — has become entrenched in contemporary sex culture in China. Ask any urban dweller under 40 years old in China about yuepao and paoyou (炮友 “fuck buddy”) and they will tell you that they know about it, or have been there, done that.
The rise of hookup culture is linked to the prevalence of social networking sites, apps, and public accounts on Chinese Internet and smart phones. A search on Baidu (Chinese biggest search engine) for “yuepao software” (约炮软件), or a search on Weixin/Wechat for “making friends” (交友) yields hundreds if not thousands of results. A search on Zhihu (Chinese Q&A website) for “yuepao” results in more than 90000 entries. On these social media websites, people freely discuss and share their yuepao experiences, which encompass heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual hookup experiences. Casual sexual relationships are almost always facilitated through social media sites and apps such as Baidu Tieba, Zhihu, Tianya, Momo, Weixin/Wechat, QQ, Yujian, and Miliao.
Momo, which started as a location-based dating app back in 2011, has become widely known as the “Magic Yuepao Tool” by users, even though many people claim that they use Momo as a social networking platform to keep in touch with friends, and to avoid boredom. Back in 2011, Weixin/Wechat was launched and has since become one of the most popular social networking services in China. Like Momo, despite its “normal” usage by mainstream users, Weixin/Wechat has become known as another “Magic Yuepao Tool”: It allows people to add friends by manually searching by username or phone number, playing a “message in a bottle” game (“Shake”), or viewing nearby people who are also using the same service (“Friend Radar” and “People Nearby”). The geolocation function of apps like Weixin/Wechat turns hooking up with strangers within a one kilometer radius for casual and sometime commercial something that is always immediately available.
University students are most familiar with the various magic yuepao tools. Driven by biological needs, young bodies are constantly on the move, if they are not playing computer games in their dormitories or attending lectures. Recent surveys suggest that between 20% and 65% of under 30’s have had casual sexual relationships or are willing to meet a stranger online. Recently, an elite student at Wuhan University was exposed as having used QQ and Weixin to hook up with numerous girls (more than 40, as claimed by his ex-girlfriend) while being in a “stable” relationship with a girlfriend. The student admitted to his behaviour and apologized for it. The university vowed to investigate the case and strip the student off any honours granted to him, such as his title as president of the student union. The case provoked a storm of discussion on the Chinese Internet on the legality and morality of hookup culture among young Chinese people. Many asked “what is happening” to them.
From celebrity Wu Yifan’s romps with fans to the elite student at Wuhan University, casual sex (yuepao) has become increasingly mobile, and part of a mushrooming urban leisure culture and consumption. It is reshaping Chinese attitudes toward dating, sex, love and relationships, and challenges the division between deviance and respectability. What is traditionally defined as being good, desirable, and respectable can be turned on its head when the “good” take on practices of the so-called bad, undesirable, or immoral. Mobile sex enables young adults to evade the surveillance of authorities to have private fun outside homes and campus dormitories. This has partly contributed to the rapid and continued growth of the Chinese hospitality industry (including restaurants and hotels), particularly the mid-scale and budget segments around university campuses.
However, such sexual liberation can be disturbing if not threatening in the eyes of authorities. There have been cases where China cracked down on sex scandals at university campuses to stop “licentious professors” from sleeping with students. The government has also previously taken measures to crack down on sex parties among the “rich second generation” and to teach them how to be “good” and moral citizens. It also deleted “Go Princess Go” (2015), an online drama about time travel and bisexuality, and the same-sex drama “Addicted Heroin” (2016) from video websites. These measures subsequently led to a ban of any gay relationships, affairs, one-night stands, underage love, sexual assault, abuse or violence from being shown on TV as part of a government campaign for stricter socialist morality. In order to clean up the Chinese cyberspace, the state has also ordered social networking services and apps to implement stricter censorship and get rid of all kinds of pornography. Momo, Baidu, and Weixin/Wechat have all been ordered to revamp their filtering and monitoring technologies to create a “clean and healthy” Chinese cyberspace. However, even if the term yuepao is censored, mobile sex cannot be stopped. New waves of sexual drive bring new apps and new terms for the Chinese equivalent of “sex and the city.”
Haiqing Yu is Senior Lecturer of Chinese media and culture at the University of New South Wales Australia.