Book review - Little Emperors and Material Girls: sex and youth in modern China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm

Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China
by Jemimah Steinfeld
I.B. Tauris

Although it brandishes the tagline Sex and Youth in Modern China, British writer Jemimah Steinfeld's look at 21st century relationships feels about as risqué as watching Gilmore Girls well past your bedtime.

Little Emperors and Material Girls provides too much background on the state of China today, while sanitising the fascinating subject it claims to be laying bare: sex among Chinese millennials.

The product of eight years of living (and loving, presumably) in Beijing and Shanghai, the book relies heavily on citation, which - alongside a plodding essayist tone - makes it read a bit like a dissertation with chick-flickesque adjectives sprinkled in.

And while it does address key concerns affecting how young women and men relate to each other in a world riddled with mixed gender messages, the book falls short when it comes to the subject we really want to know more about. The author has a "fling", and her subjects fall in and out of love, and, presumably, beds, although we'd hardly know from the quotes we get.

Yes, there is a chapter on sex, titled "Let's Talk About Sex" - but it doesn't, really. The lack of sex education is brought up, with consequences such as teen abortions and STIs listed with citations to the appropriate articles. But how this really affects what goes on in the bedroom is glossed over.

Steinfeld regularly stresses how unwilling her subjects are to speak openly about their sex lives - but, from what can be gleaned, her efforts to get them to "open up" appear far too offence-averse and hyper-polite, employing the cooing conversation skills of a friendly acquaintance rather than that of a journalist or sexologist.

The result is a limp, inconclusive work where some absolutely crucial feminist questions such as "how do couples communicate consent?" - that is, "how is rape defined in a country in which talking about sex is still taboo?" - are left unanswered.

Steinfeld seems so eager to avoid stepping on anyone's toes that she ends up saying very little at all.