Katrien Jacobs speaks out about porn in China

The Chinese sex culture expert talks about the power of pornography and her newest book

Queer activist Xiao Meini

In her new book, Chinese sex culture expert Katrien Jacobs investigates the ‘afterglow’. It’s what academics are calling the ‘post-social media era’, where netizens are more sceptical and less trusting of what they consume online. In China, the phrase captures a mood emanating from a group of young women who have taken the production of pornography into their own hands.


‘These works evoke cynicism as well as sexual desire,’ says Jacobs, who in her new book has undertaken a forensic study of modern Chinese erotica.


Belgian-born Jacobs, an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Hong Kong, has been writing about sexuality, censorship and media activism in China for over a decade.


Her first book, Libi_doc: Journeys in the Performance of Sex Art (2005) was a mélange of images, commentaries and academic theory. Her second, Netporn: DIY Web Culture and Sexual Politics (2007), looked specifically at sex culture in the Mainland, where pornography is illegal, while her follow up, People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet (2011), examined how that ban is being circumvented.


Her new book, The Afterglow of Women’s Pornography in Post-Digital China, takes the story forward, presenting us with a fresh cast of firebrand Chinese erotic artists, writers and readers – almost all of whom are female, between the ages of 18 and 30, and carry a powerful message.


The roll call includes Li Maizi (aka Li Ting Ting), who uses explicit imagery in her activism and made headlines around the world in March this year after being arrested by Chinese authorities along with eight other activists on International Women’s Day. The group was detained on suspicion of ‘picking quarrels and creating a disturbance’ after protesting against sexual harassment.


Another is Xiao Meini, the 27-year-old queer activist who uploaded pictures of her ‘flat’ or gender-fluid bare chest to elicit responses online. She also walked 1,200 miles to protest against domestic abuse.


Xiao Meini

Xiao Meini


They personify the so-called ‘afterglow’ taking place in China– a sense of disenchantment with modern society.


‘In China we have an unusual coalescence of erotic activism and a basic struggle for women’s rights. In some Western countries these two types of activism have a different lineage and their participants do not get along. China could set a new example,’ says Jacobs.


In the book, Jacobs speaks to women in Hong Kong and the Mainland about their feelings towards erotica and erotic activism. She discovers that appetites for porn in the PRC are changing indeed. Often, the choice of material has begun to subvert the traditional gender roles they see in society.


For example, ‘boys’ love’, or danmei ( 耽美) in Chinese, are manga-inspired written depictions of gay sex, popular with high school girls, that have flourished since the rise of the internet. Plots often centre on taboo topics, such as intergenerational romance, incest, and even male pregnancy at the odder end of the spectrum. Some stories include Benedict Cumberbatch.


‘Women really like to fantasise about the age gap from the point of view of a young gay man who is lustful but ultimately disappointed by his older partner. It is a complementary fantasy to that of the cute young girl who wants to be rescued by an older male.


‘Young women in their everyday lives have to deal extensively with the power of the middle-aged, such as their “tiger” parents or their supervisors at work. These porn fantasies about the age gap are a way for the younger generation to seize power, to pervert power and sexualise it,’ says Jacobs.


KJ3


The author also notes a political awareness that didn’t exist ten years ago. In one Hong Kong fantasy, the central gay character, Alexter, is based on the fictional love child of real pro-democracy students Alex Chow and Lester Shum, leaders of the ongoing Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.


And it seems people on the Mainland are equally craving pornography and sex-themed media, despite it being banned and media reports of Government crackdowns.


‘There are all kinds of anachronistic laws against sexually explicit media and policies against nudity and cleavage on TV, but Mainland people look for breasts and genitalia elsewhere and do not seem to be vehemently anti-pornography,’ says Jacobs.


The Afterglow of Women’s Pornography in Post-Digital China is now available to order, priced around 590RMB. Check out Katrien Jacobs' online blog.

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