Sex in the Classroom


The class I teach here in China is Spoken English. I am here this term to improve the spoken English of close to 300 Chinese college students. How does one accomplish that? Well, by making them talk (harder than you think). There are many ways to do this, of course, but at least something done in class has to result in grades given out, which can be very limiting. My semester plan centers around discussions. I won’t bore you with all the details at this moment, but the last discussion we had in class this semester was about sex. It may be regular fare in Wilson’s classes, but it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. After all, this is China.

The results were extremely educational — all around — and a resounding success, if I do say so myself.

A crucial element in my classes is student involvement and initiative, and this concept extends to the discussions. While I pick the topics, the students lead the discussions and think of the discussion questions themselves. I generally just sow a few seeds to give them ideas, and they take it from there. This method can have great results.

So what happened when the topic of SEX was unleashed in the classroom? Reactions spanned the whole spectrum, ranging from the nervous fidgets of students who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic and kind of wished it would go away to the antics of students who embraced the topic with gusto and took it much further than I expected.

It all begins with the questions. Some students were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, so I told them they were free to interpret the topic how they wanted — they could talk about AIDS issues, sex education issues, or gay rights issues rather than getting down and dirty with it. One guy was so uncomfortable with the whole thing that he interpreted “sex” to mean “gender,” and all his questions were lame gender-related questions (and yes, I admit that there are good gender-related questions, but he didn’t come up with any). The squeamish were definitely in the minority, however, which made me feel that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing. I was further removed from any blame by the fact that the students were the ones that actually came up with all the questions. I merely guided and moderated.

Image created by John Pasden (c) 2003.  Sources:, some Japanese bikini site.

Anyway, there were some interesting questions. The few discussion leaders who dared ask who in the group had had sex before got no replies. The message was clear: making it too personal was not OK. In the beginning, “do you think sex before marriage is OK?” was one of the more risque questions that got answers (and yes, some students — both male and female — were publicly answering in the affirmative to that question). One question I heard a boy pose intensely to several girls had me really laughing: “All people have sexual desire. Do you??” Based on his logic, the girls couldn’t answer no, and they didn’t disagree anyway, but they still didn’t want to admit it. The students taught me what Confucius had to say on this matter: “食色性也” (shi se xing ye) — “Sex is part of human nature.” Plenty of students got into how they would react if they learned that a friend was gay. Toward the end of the discussion hour, I was shocked to hear that one group had even ventured into the subject of bestiality! Yes, Chinese students discussing bestiality in English in my classroom. Gotta love this job. They did it on their own, I swear!

Perhaps what made the discussion such a success was bringing role play into it. I gave people roles, such as “the promiscuous American” and “Mao Zedong.” I encouraged them to be outrageous by giving hypothetical examples of my own. “I’m a promiscuous American, and I think young people should be having sex every day with multiple partners” got uproarious laughter, and, incredibly, it actually spawned more of the same. I told my students that lying in a discussion is fine as long as they’re doing it in English. Evidently that was enough to get them to them to open up.

Towards the end of class, each group of students seemed much more at ease with the topic, and they were giving straight answers if I questioned them. One group of students was discussing sex among college students. “You mean a lot of college students are having sex in China?” I asked, feigning bewilderment. “Of course!” my student responded. “It’s an open secret.” I love that line, because it beautifully captures a truth about Chinese society in all its paradoxical glory. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was so impressed that my student had accomplished it, in English no less.

So I was pleased with how that class went. A week, later, though, I was giving oral quizzes on discussion vocabulary we had covered in class. One of them was the term “gay,” intended for the sex discussion. I guess maybe the students got a little too comfortable in class — one of my students, given the word “gay” to make a sentence, promptly replied with, “John and Wilson are gay.”

Hmmm… It seems to me there was a time when the teachings of Confucius were a little more teacher-friendly….


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The topic is delicate in such societies. Considering making sex as a right for the person is against the teachings of religions. We shouldn’t ruin morals in the name of cultural exchange. The Chinese are pure and should remain pure.

  2. What religions? Don’t go around assuming that your religion applies to all Chinese.

  3. chinamanshuffle Says: January 7, 2006 at 9:41 am

    Close the ports again! those damn, heathen foriegners are once more bringing their vices in.

  4. Dean A. Nash Says: January 7, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    John, I’m glad that some new comments pushed this to your front page as I hadn’t read it before.

    Young people need to know EVERYTHING that there is to know about sex. Anything less and we (the responsible adults) would be negligent, given what we know about sexually transmitted diseases, etc…

    As a long-time educator, I can vouch for the methods that you used – they were right on the mark. Allowing the students the freedom to EXPLORE the topic by talking about others (in place of themselves), allows them the freedom to ask honestly. Not requiring them to participate sent a message to all of them to RELAX, this isn’t something to get uptight over, delinking sex and pressure – that’s brilliant.

    For those of you who want to chastise the foreign devils for introducing the vice of sex into China, I say think again. First, China didn’t get to be the world’s largest population by not having sex. Secondly, the genie that is globalization isn’t going anywhere, but most importantly, not back into the bottle. In other words, stop being idealistic and start being realistic. (This was Deng’s true genius!)

    In fact, educating the population about sex has numerous benefits, not the least of which are less communicable diseases, less unwanted/unplanned pregnancies (and by extension, abortions), and less abuse of innocent Chinese by the aforementioned ‘devils’.

  5. The Chinese are pure and should remain pure.


  6. votinhkiem Says: November 9, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    What will be will be.

  7. Whenever I hear people say that China is a conservative country, I like to remind them that Chinese couples are more likely to cheat than their american counterparts. That, and while gay pornography is a relatively new phenomenon in the west, China has had some for 2000 years!

  8. Anyone ever read Li Yu’s Rou putuan (translated in English as The Carnal Prayer Mat) This nove lis not “pure.” Anal sex, dog penises and gay sex are all part of the novel. It was written in 1657, well before the supposed corrupting of Chinese culture by the west.

  9. yeah , i also felt that china is conservative before coming to china. i am an indian and was a virgin before coming here. But after coming to china i felt that present generation chinese just pretend to be conservative and the fact is they are not at all conservatives. so guys “conservative”tag does not work for chinese anymore.specialy girls of china are following the americans and european countries nowadays. thats good to know and this modernization about sex is also leading china forward and advancing them to cope up with the needs. HAVING SEX THOUGHTS AND NOT FULFILLING SEX DESIRES IS very trouble for any normal person. so sex is not bad before marriage. it has become a need for living better life with ease without feeling disturbed. sex keeps our mind fresh which gives better attentiveness in other works such as study for students and office works for job holders and etc etc. so guys sex is fun but play it safe.

  10. Following? Advancing? Again, as people above have pointed out, the Chinese (and other East Asian societies, for that matter), have in many ways been more open and less repressed about sex than Western societies throughout the millennia.

  11. Waim Ullah Says: January 3, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Sex and Society
    We have discussed a Muslim woman’s status with regard to her husband and the children. What then of her relations with men other than her husband and her close relatives? This is where a considerable difference is found between Islamic practice and the customs now prevalent in the Western world. In the West, sexual relations outside marriage are still in theory generally considered a sin or at least vaguely undesirable, but in practice no steps whatsoever are taken to reduce the very high incidence of pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations in spite of the soaring rates of illegitimacy and venereal disease. On the contrary, in films, television and certain sections of the press there is every encouragement to consider pre-marital experience desirable and extra-marital affairs quite normal. Contraception or abortion is expected to conveniently get rid of any undesirable side-affects of this way of life.
    In contrast with this uncontrolled situation, Islam advocates a number of specific measures to reduce the temptations towards sex outside marriage.
    To begin with, the Prophet advised all people to get married if they could, so that their natural desires should have a legitimate and legal fulfilment.
    Secondly, due to the permission for limited polygamy there is no necessity for there to be a surplus of unattached women is the society.
    Thirdly women are directed in the Qur’an when they appear in public to cover themselves in a modest type of dress so as not to attract men.
    Fourthly the Muslim way of life excludes the boy-friend/Girl-friend system, mixed parties, dancing between men and women, taking alcohol or drugs, and other facets of the Western way of life which are well known to provide the situation from which pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations develop. Social entertainments in Islam are generally either within the family and close friends of the family, or among men and women in separate groups.
    Fifthly sex outside marriage is considered in Islam law not only as a sin but as a crime which is punished under the law in the same way as theft or murder. The punishment for it applies equally to the man and woman and is severe and deterrent in its effect.
    Let me now look back at some of these points in more detail since they are very relevant to the life style of a Muslim woman.

  12. I go to school with many Chinese students; in Japan no less. At first they sort of talk like sex is some foreign thing that was only recently brought to China. However now that I have gotten closer to them. They seem to have certain morals about sex; of course like Americans not all follow them. One of the more interesting comments I had heard back when I was still under the impression that Chinese didn’t ‘like such things’ I was told by my friend two things, one that he would be suspicious of any girl who would easily have sex so quickly upon moving to a new place.; and second, about a month later, he told me that there was a Chinese couple that hadn’t had sex even though they slept together for over a month. However now more aware of such a secret it seems that they have better strategy than america does. So does japan for that matter; What happens is not public information. Its much like the difference between Kennedy and Monroe and Clinton and Lewinsky. If one is to think that there isn’t some level of sex in any culture they are neglecting a clear fact. The Chinese didn’t become the worlds largest group on accident.

  13. Muhammad Wajad Says: May 9, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    chines are very good and nice because they are hard working and honest

    SO that everyone shold knew that


  14. I am a Chinese student , honestly, we are caught in a dilemma at this time on the issue of sex, just like all the other parts of our cultures, one side by the western ideology on sex openness and the other by the traditional ethics embeded in the Confuscious etc. One example of such dilemma could be found when asking Chinese males “would u mind if your wife-to-be is not a virgin”. No one knows the answer, i don’t myself. tradition tells us it is unacceptable. while numerous movies, tv series (such as Friends, Sex& City) revealed to us how open our amercian counterparts are. we are simply confused, we lost ourself, thinking maybe we should learn from the west. but halfway, we have worries, so we stop, hoping to go back.

    I said sex issue is only part of the cultures because this kind of question of “to be or not to be” exists in virtually every aspects of life and always sparks disscusion. I live in Shanghai, everytime, a destruction of the old building to a new one would generate a bulk of supportors and criticisers. It is so common, throughtout my life. Young people hv been taught about this attitude of skepticism. skeptical about eveything which are changing, towards the western knoweldge.

    On the issue of sex, the best thing I think can do to the students is maybe focus on the education of things like safety measures, AIDS, LGBT etc which is certainly good instead of emphasising the difference.

  15. sex is the same fire for evey body but i like it

  16. Hi John I’m from Mauritius, just visited Biejing for 40 days(Great country!!)u r right that chinese students r eager to learn but they are quit shy on sex issues.However, once they break the ice, expect everything from them. At least sex is still sacred, n enjoyed in secrecy(another great thing abt china n its people).

  17. China has an ancient,valuable and respectful calture!dont try to ruin it with some western silly opinions!
    They are such pure peaple because they have sex after mariage and it sounds reasonabble, their children wont grow up without their parents or their responses!

  18. The comments brought this to the top of the list and I felt like offering my own 2¢

    Whenever I hear people say that China is a conservative country, I like to remind them that Chinese couples are more likely to cheat than their american counterparts. That, and while gay pornography is a relatively new phenomenon in the west, China has had some for 2000 years!

    Guess you never heard about what was going on in Greece 2000 years ago…

    @diana – I hope that was sarcasm

  19. I guess there are other ways for people to discuss this topic, such as calling SEX a massage… need I say more?

    By the way, a popular international figure (Bill Clinton) publicly stated that certain acts are not sex. I guess that is another type of massage.

  20. It is funny to see the westerners so eager to see what is going on in China! Why are you bothered about it dudes ? Just mind your business and go on. I heard somebody telling here that chinese wives cheat more than western wives !!! LOL Keep dreaming dude!

    Mind your own business dudes..china will take care of itself. No need of certificates from western pigs!

  21. sex is not the same in china some couples stay together with out having asex even more than ayear and the age that most of them have sex is more than 25

  22. I believe Chinese are more open than one would believe. It is interesting to note that one still have to save face. On the surface, chinese people look conservative and not ready for action. But, after knowing the person in depth, one is caught off-guard in between screams and moans of “I Want more”, “Give me more”.

  23. i visit china on regular basis from last 8-10 years, a word ” i am traditional woman” ” i am conservative” do not suit chinese woman any more, they are more open to sex and abortions. girls those who come from vilages and deprived of their need in close community, they open up and invite a suitor in their rooms to live together and consequently at times they go through unneeded abortions. China was known for family values, ethics, cultural heritage, which this new generation has demolished completly. It is sad scenario. Girls call it liberty, and when questioned they say ” no one minds this in china so why not”
    i hope brakes are applied on this phenomenen and they come back to their senses. Chinese woman now a days do not mind to bed with many men before they settle down with one man.. mariages are game, and girls are eally open, guys know and they do not mind to have more than one girl for their fun


  24. The feedback is appreciated, i am sure no community/ country / culture need a certificate from any other to prove. But cultural exchage is necessary to know what is wrong and what is right, for someone opinion do not matter because they have their own mind to decide. The community who has brought this heritage so far so long for generations and have proved their point to make this popular , need to be appreciated. We all have no reason to destroy what they have establised. Love (message) is a private affair and need not to be publicised.

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