Sex gets airing, with government approval
FOR as long as anyone can remember, Chinese orthodoxy has ruled masturbation an evil which drains the life-forces from one's body and makes it hard to concentrate on being a good communist.
But when the calls come in to government-run Beijing Radio, anchorman Su Jingping and his experts offer a different view. ''We can say it's a kind of treatment, and can even be helpful to matrimonial life,'' says Su.
This is the sort of heresy heard between 11 and 12 each night when one of China's newest, most daring, and most popular radio programmes, Life Hotline, goes live.
Started on March 1, the call-in programme has fast become an addiction for thousands in the Chinese capital. The show delves into numerous social issues - religion, the handicapped, raising children - but it appears that what people most want to talk about is sex.
Su says a full third of all broadcast time is spent on love, marriage, and sex.
The show's popularity is beyond all expectation, says Su. About 500,000 people in the Chinese capital, with a population of 10 million, tune in each evening. Often more than 1,000 are trying to get through at the same time. Those who fail write in, many of them crying out for help.
One 36-year-old man, for example, wrote that when he was a teenager growing up during the Cultural Revolution, an era so puritanical that couples did not even dare hold hands in public, no one told him a thing about sex and there was no literature available to help him along.
Sex was a total mystery to him and he thought that erections were an illness. He did everything he could to suppress them, sometimes pushing his penis between his legs and concentrating his mind on getting his erection to shrink. Now he is unmarried and impotent, and wants Su to help him find a doctor.
Like a number of other radio hotline programmes which have started up over the past year, Life Hotline broadcasts live. An operator vets calls to make sure the listener's question falls within the scope of the evening's topic and the expertise of the programme's guests for that evening. Provided the questions are not political, the calls go through.
Apart from sexual technique, practically everything to do with things of the heart or the libido is fair game for Life Hotline.
''Traditionally, Chinese people think that if you have sexual intercourse too frequently, it will greatly damage your physical health, that you live longer if you have less sex,'' says Su. ''Chinese people used to say that one drop of sperm is equivalent (to losing) one drop of blood.'' But attitudes have been changing. In the process of China's modernisation and opening up to outside influence, Chinese people have been discovering sex with the same sort of mixture of excitement and bewilderment that Marco Polo must have felt when he arrived in China.
Life Hotline's message is, in short: don't feel guilty, go for it. Take masturbation, for example. The common word for it in Chinese - literally, ''loose'' or ''wanton hand'' - is full of evil connotations.
The experts on Life Hotline say masturbation is in no way physically harmful and might even be a good idea. They advocate using a more neutral term for masturbation - ''self stimulation.'' On premarital cohabitation, Life Hotline comes out generally in favour, but adds the sensible notion that couples should enter such relationships carefully with a view to developing a loving relationship, rather than simply experimenting with the mechanics of sex.
Homosexuals, who are even today often jailed because of their sexual preference, get an unusual amount of sympathy from the hotline. Gays and lesbians should not be ostracised, the experts tell listeners. ''Just like some people are right-handed, and some people left-handed, some are heterosexual and some are homosexual,'' says Su.
Should married couples sleep in separate beds? No, says Life Hotline, because that simply encourages the use of sexual denial as a weapon in marital rows.
What if one husband takes on a mistress? Should a wife file for divorce? A tricky question, one which rarely arose a few years ago because hardly any men had enough money to spend on the rituals of extra-marital affairs.
Thanks to economic reforms of the past year, plenty of Chinese can now afford, as Su puts it, ''to try Coke, Sprite and champagne,'' instead of simply staying at home and drinking ''plain boiled water.'' Male callers want to know if they should worry about having a small penis. The answer: no, even a small one can do the trick.
Others offer innovative ideas. One man, for example, suggested the Government set up brothels where doctors could examine prostitutes for sexual diseases. Su and his guests did not go for that idea.
Sometimes Life Hotline reveals that it, like the rest of China, is still groping for answers. When one woman sobbed that she thought her husband was contemplating suicide, Life Hotline told her to go to the police.
One evening the show discussed what it took to be sexy. Sexologist Pan Suiming of the People's University in Beijing complained that men were less masculine than they used to be in the old days, and women less feminine.
One reason for this, he proferred, was China's one-child family planning policy. Couples were now bringing up their daughters like the sons they really wanted, or raising their sons like the daughters they had dreamed of, sometimes dressing boys in skirts.
All calls to Life Hotline are anonymous, but nevertheless many people are shy. Some whisper, and have to be asked to speak up. Others seem to be trembling. Often callers pretend they are phoning in on behalf of a friend or relative.
''I have a younger brother,'' one woman began. But when she went into details about the man's sex life, it was clear that she was really talking about her husband. Because of traditional prudery, Chinese simply never learn that much about the sex life of a close family member.
Why did Beijing Radio decide to set up the hotline, and why now? In the West, said Su, people might turn to their church or a support group for help or guidance.
But in China, the sources of considered advice on personal affairs are limited. As a result, hotlines of all sorts have been springing up over the past few years. Life Hotline reflects this craze, bringing it to the airwaves.
One inspiration for the programme was a film, broadcast on Chinese television last year, about an American radio hotline.
Another factor has been economic reform. As of January 1 this year, the Government cut back its subsidies on radio broadcasting. That means stations have to compete for sponsorship and advertising, and the best way of doing that is to get the most provocative programme on the air that the current political regime will tolerate.
In general, people do not even try to broach political topics because they know that is simply not on, says Su. But occasionally callers get out of hand.
One man called to tell the operator he wanted to talk about his loneliness. When she put him through, the man started to complain about a lack of freedom, democracy and human rights. Su's answer was simple: ''This programme is a sort of democracy.''