Late one Saturday night in August, young men and women crowded into a pop-up pub deep in a narrow Beijing alley. They were gathered to talk about an unlikely topic in China: sexual consent.
Their host was Alex Chang, a TV producer-turned-social media celebrity who made a stir online in April when she discussed her own sexual assault in an interview. As she spoke to the attendees, a screen above her projected some of the go-to excuses young women in China use to turn down unwanted sexual advances: "I won't invite you upstairs because my room is too messy"; "I suddenly got my period today."
Frank discussion about sex is rare in China, a country where many people blush at even a passing reference to the birds and the bees. That reticence is reinforced by a government that censors online content addressing subjects like female sexual pleasure and bars television shows from featuring detailed scenes of prostitution or masturbation.
But China's younger generation has begun to jettison this buttoned-down attitude and speak more openly — especially in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.
Until recently, the Chinese public had been slow to embrace #MeToo, in part because the government views the movement as a way for hostile foreign influences to infiltrate China. In an op-ed on the website of the Communist Party-run People's Daily, Vice President of the All-China Women's Federation Song Xiuyan wrote that Western countries seek to meddle in Chinese domestic affairs by hawking feminism and equal-rights protection, with an ultimate goal of subverting the Party's rule.
Still, despite the government's effort to suppress #MeToo, the movement is gaining traction. To show support yet evade internet censors, social media users circulate slogans like #Mitu, a homophone that translates into "rice bunny" in Chinese.
The movement also inspired advocates on university campuses, including Luo Xixi, one of the first Chinese women to speak out about the sexual harassment of students. Inspired by the news media's reporting on Harvey Weinstein, she posted on Weibo (China's answer to Twitter) in January 2018 that she was sexually harassed by a professor when she was a Ph.D. student at Beihang University in 2004. This triggered accusations against professors at many prestigious institutions.
This recent history explains why the 20-somethings swaying to music in the bar that summer night weren't shy about sharing their thoughts about what signals "yes" or "no."
"This is a topic that I think we could talk out in the open, like I did with my college roommates for instance," says Ziqi, a 26-year-old woman (she and the other workshop participants were only comfortable using first names, and in some cases anonymity, because of the sensitive subject matter and potential government reaction). She chuckled when she admitted that when men couldn't take a hint, she would resort to her martial arts training.
Ziqi stood in line, waiting for her chance to be interviewed by Chang, who sports an asymmetric bob, a mischievous smile and a loyal following on Weibo.
Chang got her start as a producer for a politics-focused TV news show, but soon pivoted to a career producing and hosting videos for the internet. She has amassed a huge fan base by exploring her passions: feminism and gender equality.
Chang first openly talked about her own history with sexual assault when she appeared in a video with a handful of other survivors in April. She explained that, years ago, she woke up naked the morning after a date during which she had become so inebriated that she had lost consciousness. When she had first realized that she was assaulted, Chang was afraid to confront the perpetrator, because once she did, she feared she would get a reputation as a woman who was "too drunk to know better."
After the video describing her assault was posted, Chang received much vitriol online. In their Weibo comments, many people blamed her for "not being virtuous" or accused her of crying wolf. Rather than ignore the attacks, Chang wove them into her tale of self-forgiveness, as captured by a video she posted in June.
"The reason I put these hate comments here to narrate the story with me is that they seem familiar to me," Chang explained in the video. "Because in my mind, when the voice within me is accusing myself, she speaks the same as those people in the comments."
She quickly followed that up with a two-part project dedicated to sexual consent. First, she collected questions from her Weibo followers and interviewed three male figures in her life, including her husband. They discussed the challenges women face, like how to remain polite while turning down advances (without being seen as playing "hard to get") or feeling confident to say "no" at any stage of a romantic encounter.
This video, posted in August, has garnered over two million views. Her willingness and ability to speak candidly and eloquently, coupled with a growing appreciation of gender equality, has given her a unique space on the internet to explore women's rights issues.
The second half of the project was the pop-up bar event that called on her followers to discuss their thoughts on sexual consent. Decorating the bar were posters featuring personal anecdotes that Weibo fans had shared with Chang. On one, a woman recounted that she'd stepped back when her date leaned in for a kiss. The next thing she knew, the guy's tongue was down her throat for a goodbye kiss. Afterwards, he tried to explain by saying, "You didn't slap me away. If you didn't consent, you should have slapped me."
When faced with an aggressive romantic partner, many women Chang interviewed professed that they feel compelled to be courteous.
"In reality, the more you know someone, the harder it is to say no. Rejecting a stranger is the easiest; turning down your boyfriend or husband is the hardest," one woman said in the interview. She went on to describe herself as "hard core," but even for someone like her, she said rejection is easier said than done.
Another woman posited that while men are capable of detecting subtle cues of rejection, some choose to ignore them so they can "get what they want without feeling remorse afterwards."
It's also possible they don't understand that they've crossed a line.
Sex education, even though now incorporated into some primary and secondary school curricula, remains taboo in mainland households. Because of China's largely conservative social environment, parents and educators have to walk a fine line between dispensing knowledge and being overly explicit. For schools that do have sex-ed classes, emphasis is often placed on subjects like the biology behind reproduction. Students are left to their own devices when it comes to navigating gray areas like sexual consent and sexuality.
The absence of basic sex education is an issue that even the Chinese government itself acknowledges. In 2013, China Daily published an article calling for more sex ed classes, which it claimed could prevent children and minors from falling prey to molestation.
One person hoping to fix this lack of awareness is Fang Gang, a sociology professor at Beijing Forestry University who specializes in sex education. Gang has traveled the country giving lectures and holding group discussions for teachers and parents.
In his view, in order for China to come around on the importance of sexual consent, the public must develop "an elevated awareness of human rights." Helping people understand that gender equality is a form of civil liberty, Gang argues, is crucial to stamping out sexual violence.
That means it's not enough for women to learn to assert themselves. Their male counterparts need to be part of the solution too.
At the pop-up pub that night, recent college graduate Kyle talked about how he prefers to err on the side of caution — even over-caution — when it comes to physical intimacy with a new partner. Between couples, he hopes to see more direct dialogues about boundaries and safe-words. As Kyle explains, people learn how to say yes only after knowing how to say no.
When he was an exchange student in Germany, he took a photo of a poster he saw at a club: "Whatever you dress, wherever you go. No means no, yes means yes." He's kept the image as the cover of his social media page ever since.
The web is likely where these conversations will continue.
When the video of the pop-up bar night appeared online, it invited, as usual, a torrent of comments on Weibo. Some were inspired to share their own stories of past harassment and abuse, and many said they wanted to see Chang's video educate more people.
"If only I had met Ms. Chang in my twenties," one used posted. "Now I am thirty-something. But there are plenty of people in their twenties out there. Ms. Chang's voice is incredibly valuable and important to them. Hopefully they could get her message."
Emily Feng contributed additional reporting from Beijing.