On The Street of Eternal Happiness number 342, there’s a shop that stands out among its noodle stand neighbors. It’s Chinese name is Zhenbian Youxi. It literally translates to “pillowside games.” It’s a toy shop -- for adults.
Shop manager Chen Yiyi says sex toys are big business in China. The short bubbly woman in her 30s manages this shop along with four other stores in Shanghai. Each of them makes as much as $3,000 a day. Beijing doesn’t keep official statistics, but state media report that China has more than 200,000 sex shops competing for billions of dollars in revenue each year.
China’s biggest sex shop emporium is a four-story mall here in Shanghai. Chen says it’s clear why these shops are so popular. "Many Chinese don’t know much at all about sex and reproductive health," says Chen, "most of our customers come here because they’re curious."
Chen says it’s not that there’s a lack of sex in China -- this is the world’s most populous country, after all -- it’s just that China’s conservative culture makes it difficult to educate people about sexual health. The hit song "Let's talk about Sex" from Salt n’ Pepa urged Americans to talk more openly about sex during the height of the AIDS crisis 20 years ago. In China, says Chen, the problem is nobody talks about sex: parents don’t talk to their kids about it, schools don’t do a good job at teaching it, and that leaves people like her -- managers of sex shops -- to step in as educators.
"We have no choice," says Chen. "I remember one of my first customers was a very pretty girl who came in with a Louis Vuitton bag on her shoulder. She looked rich and happy, but once we began to talk, she started to cry. She said her husband was wealthy and handsome, but in the bedroom, he had no idea what foreplay was or how to do much of anything."
Chen says she gives advice to customers like this all the time. And this is just one of many things that sets apart sex shops in China from those in the U.S., says Richard Burger, author of "Behind the Red Door: Sex in China." The first rule of thumb in a Chinese sex shop is no pornography -- it’s illegal in China.
"Sex stores aren’t presented in China as places for titillation. They’re presented as places for solutions," says Burger.
Solutions brought to you, in part, by the government, which approves these shops and treats them as health care providers. "The Chinese government sees these shops as a way to make its citizens happy, healthy, and content," says Burger. "They believe that when people are having a healthy sex life they have a more functional family that adds to social stability and that in turn adds to greater tolerance for the government.”
In China, as in the U.S., sex has been political for some time. A song from the late 1960s in China urges people to fight against bourgeois tendencies. Bourgeois tendencies, like sex, says Burger.
While the counter culture movement in the U.S. encouraged free love, across the planet, Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution urged the opposite. “Sex was totally prohibited," says Burger. "You could not express sexual feelings if you weren’t married, because that was seen as a sign of Western spiritual pollution. This went on for years and many felt that a piece of their life was stolen away from them.”
And on the Street of Eternal Happiness, sex shop manager Chen Yiyi stands among shelves of blow-up dolls, French ticklers and other colorful accessories. She tells me it doesn’t matter whether her customers buy any of these things. She says she just wants to help them, comfort them, reacquaint them with a natural part of their lives, and if they leave her shop happier than when they arrived, her job is done.