Katrien Jacobs’ People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet has an arresting cover that made it difficult to read this book in public anywhere in Kuala Lumpur. It’s also liberally illustrated with pictures and photographs that reading it at home was also a bit of a challenge – I carried a big enough notebook to cover the cover should anyone walk past while I was reading. It was a furtive reading experience and (predictably?) rather enjoyable because of it. It also brought home the significance of an interesting passage in Jacobs’ book on the gendered approach to pornography consumption, where some women “furtively check out selections that friends and boy/girlfriends have forwarded to them”:
“In a previous study about Chinese women and sexually explicit media, it was found that young women resist repressive attitudes precisely by casting these kinds of furtive glances (Ho and Ka 2002). It is in these ‘sneaky’ or ‘stealthy’ types of gazing that female agency can be located.”
It also reminded me of another version of the furtive female glance, enacted with brilliant and disturbing intensity by Isabelle Huppert in La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher). Huppert’s character in the film spies on couples at the drive-in having sex in their cars. Her character, based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel of the same name, is that rare breed in cinema and literature: a female pervert, an actual female sociopath who is more desiring than desired, to borrow a phrase from Virginie Despentes, and one who muddies and perhaps redefines the concept of female agency and sexual roles through her harmful yet pleasurable furtive glances.
Jacobs is a cultural studies associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and she interviews students from universities in Hong Kong and mainland China in her chapter titled “Gender Variations on the Aching Sex Scene”. There’s a sameness to the responses that adhere quite neatly to stereotypes of gender roles: men like pornography because they like sex, while most of the women believe that pornography is a political right but not particularly enjoyable because “it’s just sex”. Whether these students felt compelled to give such predictable answers due to the nature of the interview sessions or directed questions is hard to tell, of course, but there is one particularly revealing response from a young woman who talks about her ambivalence to pornography:
“It’s very interesting, you know, my male friends, especially for the boys I hang out with, they always show a great deal of interest in such things. And one of my friends, he is very interested, he told me, ‘if you ever want to see such movies, and if you ever have such needs, you can ask me, and I can show something to you.’ And then I said ‘Oh well, so far I don’t have such kind of needs, and I also don’t understand why boys love them so much.’ And my friend said something very interesting, he said ‘Well, it’s a kind of male romance, you girls will never understand it.’ I think he’s right, because I really don’t understand it.”
Much of the pornography that Jacobs looks at and analyses in this book fall within mainstream, heterosexist norms, and it’s worth noting that the man quoted in the example above has framed it as a “male romance”. The phrase can be read in two ways: either heterosexual romance for men = sex, or mainstream heterosexual pornography = homosocial bonding for heterosexual men (i.e., “romance”). And indeed, the book is peppered with comments from Chinese male consumers of porn about how porn is a means of knowledge and education that teaches them how to be “better” at sex, and also a means of conspicuous consumption in terms of how much they can amass, catalogue, and collect to share with other (more often than not, male) friends.
As Jacobs tells us in the introduction, pornography has been banned in the People’s Republic of China since its formation in 1949. Jacobs’ project is a positive one that occasionally neatly fits into liberal narratives because it frames “porn culture and porn taste as an aspect of civil sexual emancipation”. It shows that the emergence and current prevalence of internet and DIY porn is seen by some citizens as almost a modernising, civilising mission that will allow Chinese subjects to become properly cosmopolitan in a globalised, late-capitalist world. Such forms of “sex entertainment”, Jacobs explains, “aims at a kind of patriotism or social configuration of China’s place in the world.” It’s almost as if it’s one’s duty, as a Chinese citizen and a citizen of the world, to participate in expressions of the self and desire that have liberatory potential through predictable narratives of pornography: amateur sex videos, obligatory close-up shots of body parts, and a carefully cultivated digital sexual presence.
One cannot, however, accept this premise without running straight into Foucault, who reminds us of this in Volume One of The History of Sexuality: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality.” Jacobs’ book reveals the numerous Chinese citizens who have said “Yes!” to sex as a means of shedding Confucian and communist values, many of which are carefully-manipulated stereotypes of gender roles much like the capitalist, liberal values of the first world. But while there’s plenty of discussion of government control in Jacobs’ book, there is little discussion on forms of control enacted by the corporations who are meant to provide us with a free and democratic internet, and how carefully crafted “individual identities” tend to exist as mere data to be fed into the ever-churning social media algorithms.
It must be said that Jacobs’ enthusiastic exploration of contemporary Chinese digital sexual expression covers interesting territory, from sex bloggers and Ai Wei Wei to Edison Chen’s sex “scandal” and queer love in the animation fan and cosplay communities. Among the more interesting segments are the ones of female sex workers and producers/creators of porn and online art: women who situate their naked bodies against China’s growing industrial urbanscape, or who place their bored, expressionless faces against a backdrop of middle-aged men in suits. The neoliberal dream, as it turns out, is as tedious and mind-numbing in China as it is in the rest of the world.
Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.
These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.
Jacobs tells us that “China’s cultural-erotic mindset is in constant dialogue with the products of Japanese sex entertainment,” and points to Japanese Sola Aoi as the ultimate sex symbol for a Chinese male fantasy that desires youth, docility, and submissiveness, preferably within a small, slender, well-endowed female body. This preference for a cute, unthreatening female sexual presence brings to mind Sianne Ngai’s formulation in this interview in Cabinet: “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.” Ngai reminds us that “there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion”, while also emphasising that cuteness is a “commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption”. This certainly complicates the notion of the liberatory potential of Chinese porn consumption when the most popular object of straight heterosexual male desire, Sola Aoi, personifies cute submissiveness.
Further on in her interview, Ngai also discusses the idea of cute as “a dynamic and complex power struggle” which explains why it plays a significant part in cosplay. Jacobs traces the queer dynamics at play in Chinese cosplay and shows how it provides an avenue for transgender people to inhabit their process of transition through costume and stylised images, where “cute” looks may provide camouflage or protection for marginalised sexual and gender practices. In this way, then, cute can be a power struggle in the way that Ngai talks about, but the reification of trans* experiences and identities may go hand-in-hand with its potential capacity for liberation.
However, homegrown women sex bloggers who present the radically disturbing image of themselves as women who are neither cute nor young are often denounced on websites and forums, Jacobs tells us, for being fat, ugly, and/or old. The Edison Chen scandal is also interesting because of how it automatically positioned his female companions as victims; Gillian Chung had to make a tearful “confession”, while Chen himself was made to apologise to his female lovers for what were consensual sexual encounters. In this familiar sexist narrative, women can be acted upon in sex, but are very rarely accorded the position of actors. Furtive glances and furtive fucking, apparently, bookend the realm of female sexual agency.
While liberals may read Jacobs’ project as proof that China is finally “becoming modern”, or “open”, or “liberal”, or – much preferred in our hierarchy of democratic terms – “progressive” (Just like the West! People having sex and others watching! And all the choices!), others may be less celebratory about the proliferation of largely heterosexist internet porn within capitalist structures. With apologies to Rousseau, it appears that sex is everywhere, and everywhere man is (still) in chains. Jacobs doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of her subjects or her audience, and while her book strikes a positive note both at the beginning and at the end, the numerous examples throughout show us that sexual expression in China is in a constant state of conflict between individual and collective desires and the ever-present and increasingly noisy demands of capital.