Like many others who have irregular menstrual cycles, I have explored options to regulate mine and cope with the severe pain during my period. Unsure of whether I was prepared to face the potential side effects of the birth control pill, a referral to an experienced traditional Chinese medicine doctor became an option during a visit to Shanghai.
On that day, I visited a large gynaecology and obstetrics hospital in the Minhang District with my mother. Inside the room, the doctor peeked at me a few times through her reading glasses. She read my name and date of birth on the patient card. I heard her mutter, “19 years old, so young.” A little puzzled by her comment, I tried to catch her eye. She looked to be in her 50s. Her long hair tied back to emphasise a sense of sterile cleanliness. She spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shanghainese accent.
After answering some general questions about my usual cycle length and flow, the doctor asked without lifting her pen, “Boyfriend or no?” “Yes,” I answered truthfully.
There were no follow-up questions on whether there was a possibility that I could be pregnant. I found myself escorted, rather forcefully, to the examination room for an ultrasound. I was not told what the procedure was but assumed it was needed to be performed in order to receive the treatment I sought.
It wasn’t until the radiologist prepared a long metal rod that I realised a vaginal ultrasound was far beyond what I was comfortable with.
The examination was traumatising, probably more so because every muscle in my body tensed with fear. I sat up from the bed feeling vulnerable with blood between my legs, sobbing uncontrollably. Perhaps in an attempt to console me, the radiologists explained that there was no sign of pregnancy and the blood was not from an injury but from my period. Soon proven to be ineffective, I was told to leave the room immediately as my actions would lead other patients to think I had been violated against my will.
Back in the doctor’s room for a final consultation, a radiating pain in my lower abdomen reminded me of what had occurred earlier. To my dismay, the doctor had no intention of answering my enquiries but berated my ignorance on how pre-marital sex would damage my reputation and future. She claimed that ‘safe sex’ did not exist because men simply do not want to wear condoms due to ‘discomfort’ and birth control pills would lead to women becoming indefinitely infertile. Other forms of contraception such as the IUD and vasectomy would only be performed for married couples after the birth of their children. She questioned what my future mother-in-law would think of me for not being a virgin bride. She said my boyfriend would leave me, and was probably cheating on me at that very moment.
There is no doubt her views form an overgeneralised attitude towards pre-marital sex and birth control. It does, however, provide an insight into how, in some circumstances, the Chinese healthcare system bears the burden of poor sex education outcomes in the country. Legal abortion in China has recorded 9 million procedures every year according to the National Health Commission. Amongst those who choose to undergo the procedure, a vast number of unmarried young women have performed terminations.
Given this, it is not difficult to understand the disillusionment often felt by gynaecologists towards unplanned pregnancies, performing several abortion procedures daily in a society which stigmatises every step of that process. As a result, it has become easier for them to promote abstinence in women by distributing false information such as the pill leading to infertility rather than providing knowledge on forms of contraceptives.
Confucian culture may also play a role in upholding abstinence in unmarried women. Under the ‘Three Obediences and Four Virtues’, a woman is expected to remain a virgin until marriage to pledge loyalty to her husband and the family, by extension. Ironically, the long-held belief in a virgin bride is predominantly being upheld by middle-aged women in society. They pass down the same expectations that were placed on them before marriage. In turn, they are affirmed by popular culture. The popular Chinese TV drama ‘Ode to Joy’ echoed this perspective in an episode in which a young woman’s virginity before marriage was depicted as an admirable quality for a good daughter-in-law according to a mother.
However, some things seem to be changing. In recent years young parents have realised the importance of comprehensive sex education for their children. Programs such as the ‘Sex-ed Camp’ where sex-ed lectures by government licensed practitioners have been planned across 20 districts across China are ways for children to receive guidance on safe sex outside of public schooling.
It is also the attitudes of a younger generation that will help to overcome the cultural view that sex is taboo. For now, this may help to normalise sexual freedoms for future generations. I’m quietly optimistic.