Freedom in the bedroom is a novel concept in China, where for decades communist minders dictated most aspects of people's private lives. Dressed in baggy Mao suits—hardly outfits to set the pulse racing—citizens of the People's Republic had to ask permission from local officials on everything from whom to marry to what kind of birth control to use. But these days many Chinese are walking on the wilder side. Sparked by the easing of government control over individual lifestyle choices and the spread of more permissive, Western attitudes toward sex, Chinese are copulating earlier, more often and with more partners than ever before. Today 70% of Beijing residents say they have had sexual relations before marriage, compared with just 15.5% in 1989, according to Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A survey taken last January of seven major Chinese cities found that among those 14 to 20, the average age of first sexual experience was 17.4, while those 31 to 40 had lost their virginity much later, at 24.1 years old. Says Fu Zhen, 28, a teacher in Shanghai: "My parents' only entertainment came from revolutionary movies, so they were very conservative about sex. My generation, we see everything from everywhere, and we are hungry for new experiences." As if to underline the point, Fu has adopted the nickname Carrie—as in Bradshaw, of Sex and the City.
All this hanky-panky is spawning new industries. Lingerie boutiques are proliferating in the big cities, and last November's Sex Culture Festival in the southern city of Guangzhou attracted more than 50,000 people eager to procure the very latest in adult toys—70% of which are now manufactured in China. One of the most popular? The "erotic butterfly," specially designed for women.
But China's sexual revolution has also brought unpleasant side effects. Although sex education is supposedly mandatory in Chinese middle schools, "many older teachers are too embarrassed, so they tear out the pages about sex from the textbooks," says Hu Peicheng, secretary-general of the China Sexology Association in Beijing. With little knowledge of birth control, an increasing number of unmarried women are getting pregnant in a culture in which single motherhood is still taboo. A survey by Shanghai medical researcher Yan Fengting found that 65% of urban women undergoing abortions in 2004 were single, compared with just 25% in 1999. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases are skyrocketing too, with HIV infections growing most quickly among Chinese 15 to 24 years old. Brothels barely disguised as beauty salons crowd the streets of China's big cities, while certain suburbs are known as "concubine villages" because of their high concentration of mistresses.
Those extra temptations—which the communists largely eradicated after taking power in 1949—have wreaked havoc on marriages, with 1.6 million Chinese couples divorcing in 2004, a 21% rise from the year before, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. "Before in society, we had a sense of right and wrong," says the China Sexology Association's Hu. "Now, we can do whatever we want. But do we have any moral standards left?"
Younger Chinese aren't too concerned. A poll by a Beijing magazine found that one-third of Chinese under the age of 26 had no problem with extramarital affairs. In a country where there's little political autonomy for young people, at least there's plenty of free love. "Maybe in the past, everyone was obedient and listened to the old grannies who lectured on who you could have sex with and in what position," says blogger Li. "But we don't have time to listen. We're too busy having sex."