I’m finishing up a week in Hong Kong, training psychologists and sex education teachers.
In some ways, Hong Kong is similar to India—part Asian, part Western/British. They drive on the left here, almost everyone speaks English, and the street names recall Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Connaught, the Prince of Wales, and other colonial icons.
Of course, Hong Kong is now part of the People’s Republic of China, which gives every historical reference, every financial transaction, and every conversation about media, culture, or the internet an added frisson. Hong Kongers are proud but practical, independent but not stupid. Both China and the locals want to keep the money spigot wide open, but conflict between the systems is inevitable, especially when Hong Kong is completely interdependent with capitalist troublemakers in Europe, America, and Japan.
When it comes to sexuality, Hong Kong is interesting, even unique in some ways. Just a few notes:
* Prostitution here is legal. But brothels are illegal, as is pimping. And so sex workers aren’t supposed to advertise. The city features “love hotels” that rent by the hour.
* The age of consent here is 16. This has lots of implications, because developmentally, most people are quite different at 16 than they are at 18. China’s age of consent is 18, and so some men who cross the border for business or tourism pursue these younger sex workers.
* One kind of sex work that has gotten lots of attention lately is “compensated dating.” This involves teens (usually, but not always, girls) going on “dates” with men they pick up in certain neighborhoods, generally involving a meal, perhaps shopping, and often some kind of sex—discretely followed by a gift or more shopping. The kids often say they do it because they need the cash to keep up with their peers’ high tech gadgets. And they loudly proclaim that it’s not prostitution because the sex is supposedly optional, which they can turn down any time for any reason.
Veteran sexologist Dr. Angela Ng says this is a growing phenomenon, and that some of these kids inevitably get involved in other risky behaviors.
* As in China, there are virtually no displays of sexy affection in public. Parents and grandparents fuss endlessly with small children in strollers on every street in the city, but parents rarely touch teens in public, and never touch each other—in restaurants, streetcars, streetcorners, even cars. One therapist in my seminar asked rhetorically, “how can couples expect to be comfortable with physical intimacy when they have so little practice?”
* Girlie bars: very big here. I strolled down Lockhart Road one night, which is like San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in its heyday—on steroids. I passed bar after bar after bar, each one with a bikini-clad 22-year-old and an old mama-san sitting out front. Occasionally one of them would grab my elbow and urge me to come through the red velvet curtain to sample the wondrous young women (and even more wondrously-priced drinks). As with many local businesses, each proprietor burned incense and fake paper money in front of their entrance to bring good luck.
* Massage parlors: very big here. A big part of the male-oriented business culture.
* Sex education: Program content and teacher training are decided on a school-by-school basis, which leads to a chaotic heterogeneity. I lectured an audience composed of teachers, government officials, family planning staff, and other professionals. I talked about the specifics of the most effective American programs, as well as the features of the worst programs. I also talked about parents’ anxiety, and—most importantly—the needs of young people. Those in attendance were very appreciative of the nuts and bolts of my talk.
Dr. Susan Fan of the Hong Kong Family Planning Association asked if I thought homosexuality should be discussed in sex education class. “Actually, no,” I said. “Sex ed programs should discuss sexual diversity, which includes sexual orientation, sexual identity, and confusing fantasies, along with homosexuality and same-gender experimentation.” Putting homosexuality in this sort of context makes it more understandable for kids, as well as making programs less vulnerable to religious attacks.
* Premarital sex: Frowned upon, but not rare. On the other hand, young people here start sex later than kids in the West do, and they have fewer partners before marriage. As in many places around the world, teen girls and young women here wear short skirts and high heels—but, unlike in the West, this isn’t considered a sexual statement or invitation.
In Hong Kong, it can be hard to tell the virgins from the hookers. What a perfect metaphor for this complex, fascinating place.