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Chinese Attitudes on Premarital Sex Changing

Roses inscribed with 'I love you' in English, left, and Chinese, right, are sold in a flower shop in Guilin on Valentines Day
Rapid development in China has meant many changes in the past two decades. That now appears to include changing sexual mores in the younger generation. A recent survey in China shows a dramatic increase in the number of college students not troubled by the idea of pre-marital sex. Education authorities hope to stem what could be a sexual revolution.

If you used Chinese music videos to judge the lives of college students in mainland China, you would be forgiven if you concluded most young Chinese are naïve and socially conservative. The overwhelming majority of these videos feature young people staring off into space, presumably thinking about their love lives; a far cry from what's shown every day on the American Music Channel, MTV. In Chinese videos, members of the opposite sex mostly keep to themselves on camera. At most, conservatively dressed couples might hug or hold hands.

However, on the streets of China, the reality is much different. In the late 1980s, just 16 percent of Chinese said they had sex before marriage. Now, many sex experts estimate between 60 to 70 percent of people engage in premarital sex.

Of course, it is hard to know for sure what goes on behind China's bedroom doors, but some indictors can be found in China's state-run media. Just last month, the China Daily published a survey showing some 35 percent of respondents between the ages of 20 and 30 believed premarital sex was acceptable. In a second survey of students attending four universities in China's southern Fujian Province, 92 percent of students said that premarital sex was acceptable.

China's apparent sexual revolution hasn't escaped the attention of the government. The Chinese Ministry of Education is attempting to address the issue by forcing every student to live on-campus in single-sex dormitories. In recent years, couples would gain privacy by renting apartments off-campus for short periods of time.

By chatting about this issue with Beijing students, it is easy to spot the gaps between China's conservative older generations and their children, who are products of China's rapidly changing society. These students are annoyed by the new regulations. Twenty-year-old photography student, Xiao Pang says even if you stop people from living together, there is no way you can stop premarital sex.

His friend, fellow Arts student Xiao Shou, says it is only natural that after 12 years of education in China's strict school system, students want to enjoy their newfound independence in college.

When you go to university, you feel that you are liberated, he explains. It is like running a water tap. There were many things you dared not to do in the past, but, he says, you feel you can do all of them now.

Female students are more divided on the new regulations to discourage premarital sex.

Huang Shi, a 22-year-old finance major says maybe forcing students to live in dormitories will work for now, because students in China still obey school rules. But she admits this is not a good way to solve the problem.

Her roommate, Li Cai, disagrees, noting the government tends to go overboard when trying to solve problems and that rarely works.

There are no major effects from the new housing policy, she explains. Everyone continues to rent apartments off school grounds.

For these students, the rules have been put in place too late. Li Cai says too many things have changed since their parents were young.

She says her parents' generation believed two people can't get too close before they get married. It was impossible to hug or even hold hands with someone. Now, those things are so common… she says, if you didn't do them, people would think you were abnormal.

It was difficult to find a student on any Beijing campus who thought the new university housing crackdown would work. But if that regulation is unsuccessful, education officials have unveiled some other strategies to combat premarital sex. Starting in September, all university students will have to enroll in compulsory classes on ideology and ethics to improve the morals of China's young.

And, as back up, education officials in March lifted a ban on undergraduate student marriages. The message? Sex is all right, but only after an exchange of vows.