Tea Leaf Nation

That Time a Buddhist Nun Walked into Beijing's Futuristic Sex Shop

The market for Chinese adult toys is coming out of the shadows.

Instead of the faded red-and-white lettering often found atop Chinese "adult" stores, Powerful Sex Shop's logo features the playful image of a single sperm wriggling up into a sun. Instead of dusty packs of condoms cramped into a tiny store, gigantic, bright pink lips hang suspended above a phallus-shaped, bright yellow coffee table, with different sized silicon breasts hanging on a wall. High-end vibrators that could be mistaken for Easter eggs lie in plush, velvet display cushions. Plastic cucumbers and bananas are splayed next to S&M chains, whips, and blindfolds imported from countries like Japan, Germany, and Sweden that are known for the high quality (and price) of their sex toys.

It's all part of a bet by Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei that they can make money by making sex less grim. The two unrelated college friends founded Powerful after graduating from university in 2012. Located in the up-market Sanlitun district of Beijing, the store is different from most of the sterile, hole-in-the wall sex shops found across Chinese cities and towns. In a country where talking sex can still be taboo -- one Chinese academic estimates sex education there is "at least 60 years behind" developed countries -- Powerful Sex Shop's co-founders are trying to make sex lively, bright, and fun.

So far, Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei's efforts seem to be paying off: "Profits are high and we are selling over $1,600 worth of goods each day," Ma Wei told FP; the Sanlitun branch is their third. His co-founder Ma Jiajia says the clientele is diverse: "We have all types of people who come into our stores ... office workers, migrant workers, university students, actors, celebrities, entrepreneurs." One time, a Buddhist nun came in, apparently by mistake, Ma said -- then stuck around to have a peek at the merchandise.

It's a deliberately far cry from the dark, clinical sex shops still lurking on the most unexpected of street corners in China. On the west side of Beijing lies Adam and Eve, reportedly the first legal sex shop opened in China since the Communists took power in 1949. Considered a daring novelty in 1993 when it first opened, the store is now desolate but for some drab sex toys and two sales assistants. On a recent visit, one of the assistants was napping, slumped over the cash register in a bare room that resembled a hospital ward. Fluorescent light hit the cracked, plastic floor, and dust-covered toys sat in locked, glass cabinets. "We don't really have any customers anymore," said the other assistant, dressed in a medical lab coat, who gave her name as Mrs. Li. "I think it's because there are too many other stores, too many other choices now."

There's no question that Powerful Sex Shop is operating in a burgeoning market. Definitive figures for the size of China's market for sex toys are hard to come by -- a 2012 article in Chinese business magazine The Founder put it at $16 billion -- but it's certainly on the upswing, with the Chinese version of men's magazine GQ estimating the market's annual growth at 63.9 percent. That's the demand side; supply should never be an issue, as China manufactures 70 percent of the world's sex toys.

This effort to bring sex into the sunlight still retains Chinese characteristics. Next to the shop entrance sits a box of books, with the intriguingly titled Confucius and Sex sitting on top. The place feels a bit like a coffee shop, but with dildos instead of espressos. Ma Jiajia said Powerful wasn't the type of place where a porn star would show up half-naked to "crack a whip." Instead, it was the type of place where consumers might see an "S&M Snow White" or a "Hello Kitty with big boobs."

Powerful does not sell online -- the founders plan to try starting by year's end -- but it is still powered, in part, by the Internet. Ma Jiajia uses Chinese social media like WeChat, a private messaging service with about 500 million users worldwide, to engage customers and the curious. Both owners' WeChat accounts are filled with photos of new products, musings on memorable customers, and, every so often, the obligatory selfie. In one of his photos on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, Ma Wei can be seen extending an irreverent middle finger at the camera.

To be sure, making a living in China's sex toy industry isn't all roses. One Beijing sex shop manager tearfully recounted how she was rounded up and detained for one month in a recent police crackdown on sex stores that sell medicine without the appropriate permits. Jason Ong, co-founder of Playroom, an online sexual health and wellness store based in Shanghai, said he had faced "sensitivities" when advertising his business in magazines.

But as China changes, so do its consumer and sex cultures. When the two meet -- with sexual fantasies wrapped in hip, Technicolor packaging -- the result can be hard to resist. Chinese citizens looking for that perfect, phallus-shaped coffee table finally have a place to go.

Fair Use/Douban

Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Women Defend 'The Vagina Monologues'

And the response has been less than enlightened.

When 17 female students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), one of China's most prestigious colleges, posted photographs of themselves holding up messages like "My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom," they probably didn't expect to cause such a stir on Chinese social media. The women posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website popular with university students, to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler's controversial 1996 play. Each woman was photographed holding up a whiteboard with messages such as, "My Vagina Says: Don't Treat Me as a Sensitive Word," "My Vagina Says: 'I Can Be Sexy, But You Can't Harass Me,'" and "My Vagina Says: Someone Can Enter If I Say So." The photos quickly found their way to many other social media websites, including Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, and generated thousands of comments -- most evincing an ugly strain of misogyny.

Many male Internet users made comments passing judgment on the women's looks and supposedly loose sexual mores. A significant number of commentators compared the students to prostitutes. One Weibo user commented, "If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores." Another commented, "What are we teaching in our schools? Are they the future of our country? They are a bunch of sluts. I feel so much pain for how far the Chinese civilization has fallen."

Over the past three decades, China's reforms have transformed the country's economic and social landscape, with women's sexuality increasingly advertised, commoditized, and monetized in the process. Prostitution is rampant and pictures of scantily-clad girls saturate China's Internet. While a minority spoke up in support of the girls, the photos still offended a surprisingly large number of Chinese Internet users, who viewed the students' open discussion of sex as another sign China's traditional values were going by the wayside. 

The commoditization of sex seems to have cultivated the widely held view that relationships between men and women, including marriage, are an implicit exchange of sex for money. One online commenter on the photos complained, "The reality is that some women can't control their lower halves and open up their legs. But when it comes time to find a husband, they ask the guy to have a car and an apartment and also provide for the family."

Given strident online reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking China had never encountered The Vagina Monologues before. In fact, despite a brief ban on public performances of The Vagina Monologues in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004, the play was publicly staged from 2009 to 2011 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to sold-out audiences, although producers sometimes had to omit the word "vagina" from the title in publicity campaigns.

The disconnect between the elite, educated women at BFSU who take a feminist view of their sexuality and the Chinese public that insists on objectifying it is real and troubling. Then again, performances of The Vagina Monologues around the world have often provoked uncomfortable conversations -- and this incident may be an opportunity for the Chinese society to tackle issues of feminism, sex, and violence against women in an increasingly patriarchal society. 

Renren/Fair Use