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China: Sex, Censorship and the Rise of ‘People's Porn'

Much of the discussion surrounding Chinese Internet culture has centered on the rise of online human rights activism, but the emergence of an online erotic culture that openly describes individuals' personal sexual activities has also been evident in recent years.

Associate Professor Katrien Jacobs‘ research at The Chinese University of Hong Kong on “People's Pornography” has investigated the culture of ‘Do It Yourself' amateur porn on the Chinese Internet, as well as the interplay between pornography producers and consumers within the state's censorship mechanism.

Below is a transcript of an interview conducted by Ronald Yick and Oiwan Lam about the upcoming publication of Professor Jacobs' new book, People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet.

Professor Jacobs' new book, 'People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet'

Professor Jacobs' new book, 'People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet'

Global Voices (GV): Can you explain what you mean by “People's Pornography” in your book?

Katrien Jacobs (KJ): First of all, the term “People's Pornography” covers the meaning of DIY pornography, which reclaims pornography by amateurs. But it also refers to pornography made in China. It sounds satirical because officially there is no Chinese pornography, it is officially banned, even though everybody knows that there are many porn sites, including amateur porn, in China.

GV: Since you are an expert in the research of DIY pornography in western societies, can you compare the culture in China and in the West?

KJ: In the developed western society, alternative culture is strong and you can see artists or members of weird communities making websites to promote their own kinds of pornography in different ways. Sites like Beautiful agony, which only depicts orgasm as seen from people’s faces, is a kind of critique of commercial pornography, which is too much focused on genitals. That’s the background I came out of. I’ve met people who are interested in or actually making those sites. Of course this culture has very soon been commercialized. So you also have a DIY porn movement that is not really for people, by people, it’s just promoting girl next-door look, a kind of amateur look. So in the West, there are two competing movements, i.e. the real amateurs and the commercial forces.

In China and in Hong Kong, you do have people who upload their own videos and photographs. Sometimes on designated sites like the Pornotube, which is the Youtube for pornography. These sites are open to all people in the world. Of course, people from mainland China cannot get access to these sites and it is still much more uncommon for people to participate in DIY porn movement. But we've noticed that younger people have started makig their sex videos in secret places or hidden places, like empty classrooms, medical rooms, elevators, or just corridors. This kind of porn is definitely being made in China right now and being uploaded, because I found lots of videos compiled or archived on various websites. For sure the movement is very scattered and people say it’s quite juvenile. But I think it is a sign of change.

GV: You've used the term “erotic liberation” in your book - what do you mean by that?

KJ: First of all, I see liberation in the fact that people can have access to pornography and the second point is that, people can express their cultural and sexual identities through pornography. So in these young people’s videos, it’s powerful for them to have sex somewhere and film it and upload it and share it, despite the fact that this is totally forbidden and officially banned in China. But nevertheless it’s happening. We shouldn’t think it so seriously, in terms of political liberation because after all these people are just having fun. But they are breaking law by being naughty in two different ways, by doing sexually what they want, and by uploading it. Their excitement comes from that double kind of breaking the rule.

GV: Are they aware of being subversive in spreading their pornography?

KJ: The interviews I did in mainland were netizens, but not necessarily those netizens that are uploading. I did also interview netizens in universities. It’s really interesting, they are completely aware of the Chinese war of pornography, that the Chinese government bans pornography, controls pornography, or uses pornography towards controlling the Internet. However they can find what they’re looking for by jumping over the Great Firewall and share their secret websites with each other.

But sexual minorities are more vulnerable as they are still having a hard time being recognized in China. And for them to launch a porn movement would be probably out of the question.

GV: In recent years, more and more amateur porn has been uploaded online. Chinese netizens like to uncover the identity of those performing in sex videos, in particular when they involve corrupt government officials. What's your view on that? Do you think it is related to gender and power relations in China?

KJ: Yes, of course. If they can catch the corrupt government official, they may have indeed challenged the power relations and exhibited their own power. But it is problematic, because in terms of sexuality, so often they will also try to just go for people’s hidden sex lives. I really don’t think that we can do that because even if this person is a party official, with too much power, I still think we cannot judge his or her sex life. I would prefer people complain more about the lack of sexuality.

I think Han Han's comment about propaganda of impotence is very interesting. What has been promoted in the mainstream society it that we should not have pornography, maybe we can have sex, but we cannot have pornography. We should not document our joy, our orgasm. His idea challenges China’s history of asexuality. To attack the officials for having illicit sex affairs can hardly change the corrupted system.

GV: What is the relationship between the anti-censorship battle and sex activism in China?

KJ: In China, netizens seem to be aware of the pornography war, the fights of pornography, the fights of filtering software. In fact, the Grass Mud Horse, a symbol for fighting against the filtering software in 2009, is a sex related expression. The rapid spread of Grass Mud Horse was a powerful moment in the netizens’ fight for civil liberty, or freedom of expression. In China, more than in other countries, the fight of sexually explicit media is at the heart of netizens’ struggle.

Of course, for people who are very into political dialogue, they do not want to deal with pornography questions, or even with sexuality questions. So to some extent, I think the discourses are marginalized, but if you look at it closely, you can find it’s actually in the middle of whole debate and the female bloggers are at the heart of it. For example, bloggers like Muzi Mei and Liumangyan (sex workers activist) are two very good examples of what females and feminist bloggers who are doing around sexuality and they wouldn’t try to separate political activism from sex activism.

I think there is male tradition of political activism that separates the sexual questions from the political questions and there is the tradition of female bloggers, more exhibitionistic and more down-to-earth, and so I think they are from different angles. When I was writing my chapter on bloggers, I just noticed this kind of gap between the male tradition and female tradition, and I couldn’t really deny that it was there.

GV: In your other interviews you mentioned that you were surprised by the Chinese male fantasy of having sex with underage females. Where does such a fantasy stem from?

KJ: I think it comes from Japan, because Japanese pornography is so dominant here and they really promote the image of young innocent submissive female, and they appear to be underage. I interviewed a lot of guys who say that, yes, this is my primary fantasy. I want to see this submissive girl. What does it mean? I think it means that it gives the guy the sense of empowerment. They can handle the submissive girl. So in this fantasy world, they can deal with this kind of girl, but it doesn’t mean that they have this girl in real life but the fact that they have to probably deal with the quite powerful women around them. In Japan there are studies explaining that this fantasy is a reversal, a sense of weakness and incompetence that Japanese male was like spoiled by mothers also. In China it’s a little bit similar.

GV: Does your book touch upon race and sexual relations in the Chinese Internet?

KJ: Actually I have a chapter that I interviewed people in Internet sex sites about their sexual fantasies in terms of who they want to date. There is common coupling zeal between a Caucasian male and Chinese female. Even though there is also more and more Chinese males interested in foreign women. I interviewed Chinese guys who were interested in dating me and they did pour out a lot of frustration onto me, about their inability to date or just seduce local Chinese women. From that research into dating mechanisms in Hong Kong, I realize that in the heterosexual world, there is a real disconnect between men and women. I found a lot of Chinese men and Chinese women have different aspirations…so does it have anything to do with the fact that they create the fantasy of easy submissive girl. Maybe it’s related. It’s a kind of reversal, that they can dream about submissive girl, but in reality, those Chinese men are rejected so badly by Chinese women, for instance on dating sites. The Chinese women are very demanding, and they publicize their requirements. And the Chinese men feel quite bad in a way. So I can see that Hong Kong and China is patriarchic. And I know that in reality, in the workplace, and at home, men have a lot of power. But that’s also just one way of investigating the reality. There’s also other realities where women have a lot of power as well.

Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei

GV: A final question, when the Chinese authorities detained prominent artist activist Ai Weiwei, one of the excuses was his nude pictures. Why do you think Ai's naked pictures have become a threat to the Chinese government?

KJ: I know when he was detained, one of the many accusations against him was that he was spreading pornography. I think he is powerful and threatening to the authorities because he has a very good sense of humor and he made these witty photographs of himself jumping around with naked grass mud horses. He’s such a big emblem of in the fight of freedom of speech and sexuality is part of it. If you’re free person, you’re artistic and free person, you have an eccentric personality, then you can do these things, you can jump around naked sometimes. He represents this kind of sense of humor and freedom that is totally dangerous in China.

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