Fu Yuanhui

A Chinese Woman Thanks Fu Yuanhui: Let’s Talk Periods & Sexual Freedom

Editor’s note: Some of the external links in this piece are in Chinese. You will need to use your browser’s translation function to read them.

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) became a media darling when she mentioned her period after the women’s 4x100m medley relay in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Fu’s period comment should be a huge deal. She has provided her fellow Chinese women the rare opportunity to reevaluate and dismantle centuries-long sexist beliefs surrounding women’s sexuality — including a nationwide fetish with women’s virginity (also known as chunv qingjie, 处女情结), and the taboo topic of menstruation.

Chinese women — and there are 600 million of them — will have periods in their lifetime; yet menstrual taboo persists in the world’s most populous nation (and many other places on planet earth). In 2015, China produced 85 billion sanitary pads (卫生巾) and zero tampons (卫生棉条). Now, Fu brings tampons into public eyes, and teaches Chinese women that, with tampons, they can swim safely on periods.

I had never seen a tampon before coming to the U.S. at age 18. When on my period in China, I always used pads. Until I read Jessica Valenti’s “Purity Myth” during my first year of college, I was also absolutely convinced that I should abstain from sex until marriage. So when I asked my mom why Chinese women don’t use tampons, her response made a lot of sense, “wouldn’t a tampon break your hymen?”

The implied subtext is simple: “No hymen? Not a virgin!” The hymen is seen as the sign of virginity in China, even though the existence of hymen has nothing to with a woman’s sexual experience. Virginity and chastity is equated by many with a woman’s “value,” at least in the marriage market. If a woman engages in premarital sex, she could be disparaged as “used (用过的),” “impure (不纯洁),””dirty (脏),”  “not self-loving (不自爱),” “lacking self-respect (不自尊),” or “slutty (放荡).” There is even a designated term for women who engage in premarital sex: feichu (non-virgin, 非处). Chinese men — regardless of educational, class, or professional background — overwhelmingly prefer virgins as wives, though they seem rather liberated in having premarital sex themselves (a testament to the fragility of hetero Chinese masculinity). These men have even built online discussion forums or threads with names like “no virginity, no marriage” (非处不娶). Consequently, surgical “hymen restoration” and artificial bleeding “hymen” (now banned from online sales) have gained traction among Chinese women (and in other countries with similar sexist double standards — some of which include outright human rights violation — virginity testing). Women and women only are expected not to have sex before marriage.

This is exactly why, apart from being the most adorable and GIF-worthy “walking emojicollection, Fu Yuanhui matters. Even beyond breaking the sexist “period” taboo in sports, Fu’s comment has officially created a window for us to discuss some quite sensitive issues and push back against restrictions on Chinese women’s sexuality:

In my prestigious public high school in Beijing, our class of 700 people were one day dragged into an auditorium and watched some terrifying U.S.-exported abstinence-only educational videos. (Thanks, Americanized globalization). I still recall the image of an evangelical girl crying on our giant auditorium screen because she was not allowed to wear white on her wedding day because she was “tainted” for having sex.

With this kind of subpar or misguided sex education — and mine probably was less intimidating than most — it is beyond challenging for young women to individually combat sexist notions surrounding virginity in Chinese society. (For instance, a Chinese textbook published in 2004 and in use in 2016 claims that girls who have premarital sex are “sacrificing their bodies” and “degraded.”) Combining the lack of proper sex-ed with long-held societal sexism, women are likely to equate self-worth with virginity, and men find it acceptable to objectify women. Sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually-transmitted diseases are some severe consequences beyond (while related to) the bad-sex-ed-plus-sexism combination.

Fu and I both belong in a generation of Chinese youth that is moving towards greater sexual freedom. According to sociologist Li Yinhe, only 15% of Chinese had had sex before marriage in the late 1980s; by 2013, the rate has rise to over 70%. While stigma around it persists, some 60% of young Chinese people (14- to 35-year-olds) do not disapprove of premarital sex in a 2015 state-sponsored survey. And open-minded Chinese educators are utilizing social media and Internet platforms to demystify sex and promote safe sex. Successful examples include Greenxxoo.org (青杏), the “minute-long sex-ed” (一分钟性教育) video series, the “Ming Bai Academy” (明白学堂), as well as the discussion forum “Knowing Sex” (知性) based under the popular science platform Guokr.com (果壳). Young Chinese people should seize onto this moment of growing sexual freedom to tackle the sexism surrounding women’s sexuality.

In related news, Chinese tampon producer Danbishuang (丹碧爽) seems to have taken the first crack at a market of 600 million potential consumers. I look forward to soon having more options (pads, tampons, or even diva cups) in my hometown. I’m even more excited for that day in the near future, when all my fellow Chinese women can freely engage with their own sexuality: whether or not she has sex, and when/how/whom with.

Header image via.

New Haven, CT

Nancy Tang aspires to become a legal advocate for the marginalized and the indigent. A second-year J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, Nancy co-directs the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (RebLaw), the largest student-run public interest law conference. She grew up in Beijing, China, attended Amherst College, and was a former Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research interests include: law & gender-based violence, Chinese politics & social movements, reproductive justice & population control, criminal justice reforms, and immigrant rights. Nancy enjoys podcasts, pocketed dresses, and procrastination (in addition to alliterations, of course).

A feminist from Beijing, Nancy Tang is an aspiring legal advocate studying at Yale Law School.

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