By Gail Mallimson May 31, 2017
Last January, Richard Buggs, CIIS Dean of Alumni Relations, travelled to Beijing and Shanghai in mainland China to teach two public workshops on sex education. CIIS Associate Director of Communications Gail Mallimson asked Richard about his experiences in China.
G: Nihao! Can you tell me about your trip to China last January?
R: Yes. In a collaboration between CIIS and Stage A1, I went to Beijing to facilitate a human sexuality workshop as a guest of Yan Chen, one of our ICP alums and a member of Stage A1. Stage A1 provides the setting for non-traditional, more improv, less formal theater presentations. They wanted to have a human sexuality workshop for their audience, which includes students in an astrology school, actors, parents, mental health professionals, and couples. We had forty people in a workshop in Beijing that was over two days, touching on everything from sex education, to couples' intimacy, to infidelity. We talked about LGBTQ issues and ran the gamut of all kinds of special interests that people had interest in. The youngest participants were probably in their early twenties and the oldest were in their sixties - and then everybody in between.
G: How did you come to find out there was interest for this workshop in China?
R: We found that in families, and in the culture in general, there were no resources being devoted to these subjects at all. It used to be that if you had a problem in your relationship the advice would be to talk to your parents or your grandparents. That doesn't work anymore because some of the presenting problems today are different than what grandparents and parents experienced. Most of the grandparents have been through the Cultural Revolution. The younger people now are saying "I'm not going to live at home, I'm going to move to the city". There's a big middle class now, there's a lot of wealth, there's a lot of opportunity for people to be exposed to things that are outside of China. There are many people in China that are Skyping with therapists in the US, and engaging in Gestalt and psychoanalytic treatment and cognitive behavioral treatment, all online. A lot of people are in relationships and realizing that they need help, someone to talk to and they're breaking a lot of the taboos in taking this very personal material outside of the family. This is huge in China.
G: Is sex education taught in schools?
R: I asked them, "How did you learn about sex?" The stories range from people being told they were plucked from a rubbish pile, to coming out of a stone, to being pulled out of the toilet, somehow emerging from the mother's armpit! There's a whole generation who have no idea about biology, physiology, and sexual development and sexuality in general. Some basic things that we have here like children's books, and books about talking to your kids about sex, none of that is available there. Also, because of the internet, more and more people have access to pornography, and unfortunately that's how a lot of people in China are learning about sex. So, there's a big need to provide resources, and there's sex educators all over China that are slowly doing this work, but there is no general philosophy about educating the public.
G: What happened in the workshop?
R: We asked the participants to write down topics they would like us to cover, which spanned everything from health, sexual orientation, sex education, couples' intimacy, infidelity, LGBTQ issues, masturbation, sexual dysfunction - really a wide range of interests. We had two PCC alums at this workshop and we did a panel discussion, and then an evening presentation that was very experiential. I was warned that people might be very shy or anxious about sharing personal information and that I should be on the lookout for this kind of resistance, but I got just the opposite. I had people, it was mostly women, raise their hands and take the microphone and want to talk about having had an affair, and not wanting to stay with their husbands. A lot of the tradition there is to have children, and people talked about wrestling with that, "I really don't want to have children", and the pressure to have a child now or have two children because the one child policy has changed. What I was struck with is not only the courage but the vulnerability of people who would stand up in a workshop with a lot of strangers and just start putting out there all the things that had happened to them, including early childhood trauma, that they had never discussed before. Through some of the didactic material, they started to understand that there could be a direct link with early childhood experience and sexual functioning in adult relationships. For a lot of people this was new material, as was the permission to talk about it. Over the course of two days, people were crying and hugging and were so grateful to have someone to listen and be interested and track and ask questions the way we do here at CIIS. So, it was very experiential and we were very much in the moment depending on what was going to come up. I had tons of slide show material ready to go, but we tried to tailor this to what the participants expressed as the most needed. In Shanghai we had 180 women and 20 men attend. This is the most men I've ever seen at any workshop in China, with a lot of women bringing their male partners or men coming on their own. The sense I had is that people are very sincere and grateful and earnest in taking in all this material.
G: Is there repression of the LGBTQ community there?
R: I'd say there's more isolation and a lack of organization. It has been decriminalized. Homosexuality is not regarded as a mental illness disorder anymore and it's also not illegal to be in a same-sex arrangement, but there's really no gay community for people to find each other to connect, or for support. In Shanghai, the participants requested a whole day on LGBTQ, which is probably one of the first times that's happened in China. They wanted to know how to help families understand this phenomenon because more young people are out, and are pushing for gay marriage and gay pride celebrations. I also took several cases of condoms and passed them around. By some health experts estimate, there's been a 400% increase in HIV in China amongst some populations, largely due to the lack of safe sex education as well as a lack of condoms that are 100% latex with instructions on what kind of lubricants to use. So, I did some education on preventing pregnancy and information on sexually transmitted infections.
G: Apart from going back for more workshops, what else do you hope to achieve with this program?
R: My intention is to help build a network of sex educators and counselors in China so people could have each other as resources, share whatever material I had that could be useful for people to continue to investigate the healing that can sometimes result from talking about these personal experiences. CIIS is exploring an applied psychology Master's degree with the Academy of Sciences in Beijing. It will be a two-year masters program, a little different than the ones here but oriented toward helping fill this gap, because there's such a need in China now for counseling and psychotherapy and life coaching and there aren't nearly enough practitioners. There's a lot of people in the rural areas that don't have access to any of this, and I hope that there will be a many Chinese students that come to CIIS' programs and go back to China to do this work. I just got an email from one of my students who's going to register for ICP in the fall, so that's exciting! Because that's our goal - to take a lot of what we have across the Pacific back to China so that there can be more healing, more quality of life, more education.