China / Cover Story

Taboo subject takes its toll on women

By Yang Wanli and Jiang Xueqing and He Na (China Daily) Updated: 2012-03-08 08:26

Male obsession with 'pure' brides highlights society's inequality, experts tell Yang Wanli in Anhui, and Jiang Xueqing and He Na in Beijing.

As the world marks International Women's Day on Thursday, China can reflect on many achievements in women's rights.

Yet, the issue of virginity appears to be just as divisive as ever.

Although attitudes toward sex have steadily become more relaxed over the last few decades, sociologists say little has changed when it comes to the desire among men for "pure" brides.

Taboo subject takes its toll on women

Gao Weiwei (right), a lecturer, talks to students about the human body at a summer camp focusing on sex education. The camp, believed to be the first of its kind in Shanghai, was established in 2009. [Zhang Dong / for China Daily]

Guo Jianmei, director of the Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center, said it is still common for men - especially in the countryside - to beat their wife if they discover she is not a virgin on their wedding day.

The center has recorded roughly 1,000 domestic violence cases since it was founded (originally as the Center for Women's Law and Legal Services at Peking University) in December 1995. Almost 30 percent were the result of a man becoming upset over the question of virginity, Guo said.

The situation is not much better in the cities.

Relatives of the Beijing bachelor Ma Fei, 39, have been trying to introduce him to potential girlfriends for some time. "A friend of my father said he knows a pretty girl studying at the Central Academy of Drama, but she is probably no longer a virgin, and so probably not good enough for me," Ma said.

"I have to admit, I still care about the virginity of a woman who might be my wife," he said. "If she has lost it, I need to know why."

"Non-virgins how can you have the nerve to get married?" read the headline of a recent post on Tianya, an Internet forum.

In the piece, the male author criticizes women who have had sex before marriage, denouncing them as cheap and having low moral fiber. They are unsuitable as wives, he says, because they will be easily seduced by other men.

The post received about 100 comments, with more than one-third supporting his view.

Wang Xingjuan, director of the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, said such an attitude shows double standard.

"Men want women to remain sexually as pure as ice and jade before getting married. Yet, they consider guys who fool around with women talented and romantic," she said. "This is discrimination against women."

Cause for divorce

Making sure their bride is a virgin on the wedding night can even be an obsession for some Chinese men as well as their parents.

Wang recalled the story of a rural mother in Shenyang, Liaoning province, who called her center for help a few years ago. The woman had been living with her husband for some time, and that he had just learned women often bleed when they have intercourse for the first time, which in China is referred to as "seeing red".

As he could not remember his wife bleeding on their wedding night, he assumed she had not been a virgin and accused her of sleeping around.

The couple received counselling at the Maple Center and Wang showed the husband scientific studies that proved about one-third of women do not have hymens, while another one-third break them at an early age due to physical activity. Shortly after, the couple reconciled, the psychologist said.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a couple represented last year by Wang Xiuquan, a senior divorce attorney at Beijing Chang An Law Firm.

"The husband was 25 and works at a Stated-owned enterprise," he said. "Both his parents are very conventional people. They wanted to know everything about their future daughter-in-law's past and background, and whether she was a virgin."

After being led to believe the bride had not been sexually active, they agreed to the union, the lawyer said. When they later discovered this was not the case, they were furious. After much arguing, the couple divorced.

"This is just an external symptom of China's deep-rooted gender inequality," said Xu Jin, a sexologist and director of Qingdao You&Me Youth Health Center.

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