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Sex and Society: An Interview with Pan Suiming

An interview with Pan Suiming, China’s leading sex sociologist


Sex and Society: An Interview with Pan Suiming

An interview with Pan Suiming, China’s leading sex sociologist


In 1968, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Pan Suiming went to work on a state-run farm in Heilongjiang. From there Pan worked his way up to a professor at Renmin University in 1984, where, in his second year, he offered a course on sexual sociology, the first of its kind in China and an event that sparked headlines and conversation around the nation.

Since 1997, Mr. Pan has been going to red-light districts to investigate the underground Chinese sex industry, eventually publishing Existence and Absurdity (《存在与荒谬》), in which he wrote “Prostitutes are human beings, and research about them should be on a basis of equality and respect.” In 2013, Pan, together with his colleague Huang Yingying, published The Change of Sex: Chinese People’s Sex Lives in the 21st Century (《性之变:21世纪中 国人的性生活》), which discusses the results and analysis of three surveys on sex in China. Today, Pan is considered one of the leading experts in the field of sexual sociology in China and is still a professor at Renmin University.


Could you tell us a bit about your field’s current status in China and your place in it?

First, the phrasing should be correct; it’s not sexology, as my research field is not sexology, but rather a social study on sexuality, or sex-sociology. In this field in China, there are, more or less, 10 researchers and 20 to 30 scholarly publications. My research mainly focuses on two parts: one is Chinese people’s sexual behavior, sexual relations, and ideas about sex, chiefly including three nationwide surveys; the other is research about red-light districts, female sex workers, and the sex industry.

How did your research group begin investigations into red-light districts?

In the beginning, you needed an introduction, a guide. To undertake social investigations, a guide is necessary. Unless you are in your hometown or in your own family, when you arrive in a strange place, you need a guide. In general, the mami (procuress) is the reasonable person. Why? The mami has lots of social experience, they meet lots of people, from government officials to gang leaders. What kind of person wouldn’t she meet? So, they aren’t afraid of you and are easy to get in touch with. Furthermore, you should treat them honestly; Chinese people care if they’re being treated respectfully and honestly. I show them my ID card, my work card, and tell them my telephone number. Some of them even chat with my wife. No problem, I have nothing to hide. If you tell them the whole situation, most of them will dismiss any misgivings about the investigation.

What misgivings might they have?

The first question is whether or not you are a journalist; they are fearful of journalists. Second, they ask if you are police, but the police don’t often do things that way. So, if they trust you are not a journalist, you set their mind at ease. If they have misgivings, they will ignore you. In this situation, you just give up and find another. The success rate is about 50 percent. We wrote about 13 red-light districts. However, we attempted more than 20. Some of them, we couldn’t carry on because we couldn’t find a proper guide. The other reasons for quitting were severe local anti-pornography campaigns, other times the red-light districts were just too small.

How did you continue your investigations after obtaining information from the Mami?

We chatted with the girls. We didn’t interview them, we chatted with them. I used my real identity, so that I could see all sides of their lives, except their work. Some survey companies pretend to be customers—that’s meaningless. When pretending to be interested in their work, you can only “investigate” the matter of prostitution, not prostitutes. They don’t treat the sex workers as human. Female sex workers are real people with a normal life besides their work. In addition, what information can you get as a client? Only the price. Do you really need another identity to ask? Everyone in the red-light district knows the price. It’s common sense, when you buy something in a store, what do you ask the store clerks? How much is it? Where is it from? How about the quality? This is what you ask, right? It would be stupid to ask them about their personal life or family.

What do you think about the legalization of prostitution? How would you deal with problems in the sex industry?

Don’t arrest prostitutes. Don’t take them into custody. The government can manage them, tax them, charge health inspection fees, and perform physical examinations. Management is necessary; in other words, make it part of society. Decriminalization or legalization are English phrases, which are suitable for English discourse. In Chinese, it doesn’t make much sense. In Chinese, socialization is better. To socialize it means to treat it as a social problem. Is it a problem? Indeed, it’s a problem. However, it’s a social problem. Rather than by means of coercion, it should be solved by management. Hong Kong uses One Floor One; that is, a prostitute in one separate room. Only one man can go in at a time. In this situation, if there is a conflict between client and prostitute, who would win? When a man and a women come to blows, the result depends. She might be able to beat the client in her environment with precautions in place. Under systems such as the One Floor One, a prostitute in a room, nobody can interfere, not even the police. So, their safety will improve. Self defense such as pepper spray and stun batons can be put to use. Take a look at what happens now: some men go out looking for prostitutes without any money to spend, even to the extent that they rob these girls. These girls just endure this. Why? Their occupation is considered illegal. If they report it to the police, they will be arrested. One Floor One has been going on for about 140 years, and it is the best match for Chinese conditions.

There is a public voice suggesting the legalization of red-light districts. what do you think?

There is a huge problem with the legalization of red-light districts. For instance, if you demarcate the campus of Renmin University to be a red-light district, will all the xiaojie (prostitutes) come? If they reluctantly came, do you think Chinese clients would dare? The nearby the campus gates would be hounded by journalists and paparazzi, with cameras on 24-7. In this situation, how can you earn money as a prostitute? No work, no food. They would run from this red-light district. Then, the police would have to catch them and take them back to the campus. Hence, the legalization of red-light districts, actually, creates a kind of concentration camp. So, there is a complete difference between the legalization of red-light districts and the legalization of the sex industry.

Can you tell us a bit about your three surveys?

We launched three surveys on Chinese people’s sex lives in 2000, 2006, and 2010. The second time would have been in 2005, but we had to delay due to funding problems. These surveys were the first random sampling surveys in this field of research, taking place on literate Chinese people throughout the country, aged from 18 to 61. We will continue the project in 2015.

Was it difficult to develop this survey?

Actually, these surveys were more difficult than the red-light district investigations. It’s a random sampling survey, and there are 2,742 county units all over the country. So, we randomly took 120 samples (county units), then from these 120 samples, we took one village from the county. If it was in a city, for instance, Haidian District is a county unit. We would take one resident community as a sample. The difficulty is that when we arrive at the residents’ community, we still could not recruit people to take part in our studies, so we had to ask the residents’ committee for support and help. After we find interviewees with the residents’ committee’s help, we inform them that this is an investigation about sex, and upon hearing this, many refuse to help. This is the first response: some reject it immediately. The second response happens after fixing the time and the place, in a separate room, with only the interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer should clearly declare that the questionnaire will include matters pertaining to sexual relationships and privacy. If they refused to answer, then, nevermind—a few quit after that. The success rate is about 70 percent. This is the highest rate in the world. In America, it’s 52 percent. Why is the rate so high? Firstly, in China, religion doesn’t have too much impact on people’s life. Secondly, Chinese people are actually open-minded about sex. Chinese maintain a wall of silence in public, but if you put them into a room, only two people, they like to talk. In addition, this is a questionnaire with a computer, not a face-to-face interview, so they feel their privacy is protected.

How do you mobilize the participants to take part?

The first sentence we say to mobilize them is, “Do you want to know Chinese people’s position on this matter?” Usually, their answer is yes. So, some people begin to understand, “Ah, I should take part in this. If everyone rejects, how can we know?” Then we tell them: “You came because the residents’ committee asked you to come, but we don’t know who you are. You don’t need to tell us your name, address, or telephone number. On the other side, the residents’ committee know you take part, but they don’t know your numbers. This is double blind test.” Some young men are still skeptical, so they check for video or audio in the room. I tell them to double check all they like so that there are no misgivings. Moreover, there is another group: in the beginning, they hesitate to join in, but they are very curious about our program. They will ask us what kinds of questions are in it. We tell them that we can’t disclose the details and that they’ll only know if they participate. So, they come, actually—they justify it with their curiosity, increasing the overall successful response rate.

In recent years, the topic of sex has been discussed more and more in the media. You seem to be the go-to-guy for this subject. Do you have anything to say about the media attention?

People are not paying attention to me; they pay attention to sex. In the 1980s, almost every day, I would meet journalists, too many journalists—now it’s much less. The media at that time was much more open than now. All the topics that are discussed right now were discussed in the 1980s, except the topic of homosexuality—people didn’t talk about that back then.

The interview can be found in the World Of Chinese Magazine, Issue 3, 2014.