A touchy subject
An adult television channel and the Family Planning Association (FPA) may seem odd bedfellows, but there's reason for their association. Contrary to most expectations, adult programming isn't necessarily unadulterated porn. That's why the FPA and its affiliates are screening several shows produced by Now TV 903 Channel Adult this week as part of the Sex Cultural Festival.
Adult programming is part of local culture, says FPA executive director Susan Fan Yun-sun. And including shows such as 903's Sex Talk helps the festival's mission to break down traditional taboos and encourage healthy discussion about sex, she says.
At 903 Channel Adult, operations director Lo Yuen-sang has introduced a variety of programmes that take an educational or fun approach to sex.
'Sex is a broad topic that involves different aspects of life, including food and even fung shui,' says Lo, a 10-year veteran in the film production and distribution business.
That's why his rundown includes shows on sexual health, the latest sex toys, recipes for aphrodisiacal dishes, facial readings to identify sexual desire and fung shui layout to improve sexual harmony.
Quoting the Chinese saying 'food and sex are the basics of life', Lo says sex hasn't always been the touchy subject it is today; the classics of Chinese literature include erotic novels such as The Golden Lotus and The Carnal Prayer Mat.
Porn movies - typically imports from the west as well as Taiwan and South Korea - remain the backbone of programming at 903, as at rival Cable TV's adult channel.
However, Lo spotted a demand for more information, particularly among women and younger adults keen to enhance their sex life, and last year began broadening the scope of its programmes.
As a result, the proportion of women viewers has risen to 35 per cent from the 10 per cent the channel began with three years ago.
'There's a double standard,' Lo says. 'People find it acceptable for middle-aged men to buy sex videos and watch blue movies, but many women face jibes and jokes when they do the same.'
Television can play a powerful role in disseminating knowledge on sexual health and providing tips on how couples can enhance pleasure in the bedroom, says Billy Ho Chi-on, a City University lecturer specialising in youth sexuality and sex education.
'But it's difficult to run sex-related programmes on free-to-air channels which have restrictions on family viewing times. Shows that are too upfront are also likely to draw protests from the community and even accusations that they are promoting promiscuity,' says Ho. 'So it's more socially acceptable if these programmes are aired on paid channels, which can technically limit access by young viewers.'
In this setting, it's not surprising adult channels have difficulty recruiting employees.
The channel's production director, Mac Lui Keung-yau, has been advised by the Labour Department and local newspapers to remove the word 'adult' from its recruitment adverts, even when trying to fill clerical posts.
But that's hypocritical, Lui says. 'It would be a waste of our time and the applicants' to meet for interviews if they have wrong expectations in the first place,' he says. He now relies on word of mouth instead of going through conventional channels.
Even so, recruiting presenters remains a challenge as many people think the job requires them to strip off for the camera, Lui says.
'We're screening a lot of movies with people in the nude, we don't want more on our own shows,'
'For talk shows involving interviews with doctors and Chinese medical practitioners, the hosts need to dress more formally to show respect to our guests.
'Depending on the nature of the programme, we may ask presenters to dress a bit more sexily - wear hot pants, vests or something a bit see-through - but that's how many young women dress anyway.'
Requirements for men, however, don't run to sexy attire. While denying that the policy is sexist, Lo concedes the channel is catering to a primarily male audience.
Of course, with women presenters, the channel wants someone with a photogenic face to attract audiences. 'Most importantly, she needs to have an open mind to talk about sex and improvise the patter that makes a programme interesting and entertaining,' Lui says.
However, many young women steer clear of such jobs for fear of being labelled an adult entertainer.
Lo says many job hunters view his production company, Jipin Film Video Distribution, as something akin to a vice den once they realise it's making programmes for an adult channel.
'In her first few weeks in the job, our makeup artist came in wrapped under layers of jackets although it was hot under the studio lights. It was only later that we learned she was afraid she might be molested or asked to strip off,' Lo says. 'But she realised we run a normal business and is still with us.'
In another case, a graduate working in data entry suddenly stopped coming to work after four months, and had his mobile phone disconnected. Lo eventually found out from the young man's blog that he was under pressure from his mother to quit. 'We still owe him a few days' salary, but he refuses to come and collect it. It's odd for a young man to act this way,' Lo says.
Such reactions may seem absurd, but they reflect the misconceptions surrounding sex. Hong Kong could do with more open discussions, say groups such as the FPA and the Hong Kong Informal Education Research Centre.
Attitudes towards sex-related subjects tend to swing between prurience and puritanism. While mass-circulation dailies regularly run titillating articles and photos with barely a rap on the knuckles, a recent Chinese University students' sex survey and the subsequent Ming Pao examination of the issue have been deemed obscene.
Traditional-minded Hongkongers are loath to discuss sexual matters, and schools and teachers are similarly reluctant to broach the subject with students because of worries about parents' reactions or even complaints if they give too much detail, Ho says.
'To be safe, many leave the subjects to third parties' such as social workers, he says.
But this often leaves youngsters with distorted ideas about sex even as they explore their physical desire. 'They can't control the urge for sex, but feel guilty after having a relationship,' Ho says. 'The guilt could affect their life in future.'