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Sexless in the City 無慾都市

The notion that Asian folks take a backseat in the sex department has been debunked time and again. The Japanese, for instance, make no secret of their bent for dominatrices and cosplayers. Korean men, on the other hand, can’t seem to find their way home without a stop at the neighborhood hostess bar. The Thai and the Filipino are equally comfortable with expressing their God-given sexuality. In Anything-goes Bangkok and No-tell Manila, the sex trade has gone mainstream and become a main draw for tourists.

What about Hong Kong, a place where skyscrapers rise like phallic symbols and animal genitals are eaten with gusto?

It turns out that Asia’s World City is also one of the world’s most sex-deprived. In a recent poll by the city’s Family Planning Association, 20% of the female respondents said they had no sexual desire, while 24% said they did not achieve orgasm during sex. Another local study found that one in five adult males had not gotten off in the last six months. As if that’s not miserable enough, an online survey conducted by condom-maker Durex ranks Hong Kong the third lowest in sexual satisfaction out of 26 territories. Despite our reputation as pleasure seekers — of luxury goods and world class cuisine – the joy of sex continues to elude us like Moby Dick.

So what went wrong?

Only in movies

The obvious answer is stress. By the time we get home after a 12-hour day in the office and 45 gruelling minutes on a crowded bus, few are in the mood for bedroom romance. Even a quickie doesn’t seem quick enough for time-pressed Hong Kongers. Another major turn-off is the lack of space and privacy. There isn’t much fun in making out on a tiny mattress covered with stuffed animals, while nosy parents may be eavesdropping next door. As a result, the only thing that gets fingered between the sheets is the iPhone screen, and all we get is a lousy peck on the cheek, before we, as Neil Diamond famously put it, “roll over and turn out the light.”

Stress and off-putting living conditions, however, only tell half the story. A closer look at Hong Kong society reveals two cultural forces that conspire to suck the fun out of our bedroom: conservatism and materialism.

Not conducive to romance

We may be a decade and a half into the new millennium, but the city’s attitude towards sex remains largely medieval. Chinese parents avoid the subject at home like a plague, and children growing up in single-gender schools — which account for most primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong — don’t get much exposure besides hearsay and myths. The knowledge gap is filled by social conservatism, a hotchpotch of traditional Confucius beliefs mixed with Christian values from the West, with a bunch of clichés and conventional wisdom tossed in. The resulting Frankenstein of moral ideology is inconsistent at best and traumatizing at worst. For instance, because sex is supposed to be dirty and dangerous, young adults are taught to practice strict abstinence until they graduate from university. But because sex is also special and sacred, grown-ups are advised to defer the pleasure to their wedding night. This arbitrary code of conduct has seeped into our subconscious and turned a basic biological behavior into a thing we don’t speak of – and keep deferring.

Materialism is the other cultural factor that explains our flaccid sex life. Rampant consumerism and in-your-face peer rivalry mean that our happiness is often measured by what we possess that others don’t. As economic creatures, we prefer making money to making love; we calculate, not fornicate. To the hard-driving man, sex is as much a distraction for the weak-minded as it is a social anesthesia for the poor. Whereas men in the West aspire to be fictional womanizers like James Bond and Tony Stark, being a playboy in practical Hong Kong confers very little bragging right. Instead, he is either branded a pervert or written off as a loser who wastes his time chasing girls rather than a job promotion.

Sex education means avoidance and deferral

The picture of the Hong Kong bedroom is grim. Our low libido is now a forgone conclusion and a cause for concern for both policy-makers and condom-makers. But just as I was finishing up my obituary for the city’s sex life, I spotted a glimmer of hope on Facebook. A few days ago, my friend Elaine shared a picture of her birthday gift from her husband CJ. It was a book titled Position of the Day: Sex Everyday in Every Way. I was impressed by how this thirty-something Chinese couple openly celebrate their sexuality on social media, and it prompted me to sit them down for a chat.

Like me, Elaine is miffed by the demonization of sex in Hong Kong. “I remember asking my mom about a kissing scene on television when I was five,” she recounted. “She told me the actors had to put scotch tapes on their lips for hygiene purposes. It was baloney of course, but she made me believe that sex was dirty, like politics.”

“I went to an all-girls secondary school and I wasn’t allowed to date anybody in my entire teens,” Elaine continued. “Other than my cousins, I had zero interaction with boys. The irony is that as soon as I graduated from university and found a job, my parents changed their tune: ‘When are you going to find a husband and have kids?’ It was surreal.”

By our standard, Li Ka Shing is the sexiest man alive

For a guy, CJ is surprisingly comfortable discussing sex in the presence of his wife. He believes open communication is the key to a happy sex life. “Men have to check our egos at the bedroom door, especially if we aren’t satisfied with the amount of sex we get.” He gave an example. “After Elaine had our first child, we pretty much stopped doing it. I decided to tell her how I felt instead of keeping it to myself. It turned out she was worried that I wasn’t attracted to her after she gave birth to a baby. It was a big misunderstanding.”

CJ said many sexually frustrated men in Hong Kong simply turn to the Internet for quick relief. “It’s much more efficient that way,” he admitted. “Hong Kong people value efficiency and ambition. Most of my guy friends are so career-minded that sex gets pushed way down their priority list.”

The couple was quick to point out that the sex-averse culture is slowly changing. “Young people these days are more adventurous and resourceful than we were,” said Elaine. CJ chimed in with a tidbit of his own: “Love hotels like Victoria and Park Excellent are popular venues for a ‘test drive.’ A short trip to Macau or Taipei will do the trick too.” He gave Elaine a wink, recalling their first sexcapade in Bangkok. The two had only just started dating at the time and told family members they were spending the weekend with “a group of friends from work.”

“Looking back, it seems really silly that we had to lie about sleeping together,” said CJ. “How else would we know we were right for each other?” He made a good point, but it was Elaine who had the last word: “Sex is just sex and there’s nothing holy or evil about it. It’s just like food: we have to eat when we are hungry and we eat more if the food is good. It’s as simple as that.”

Finally, there is a couple with a healthy attitude toward sex. So forget about sex books and Viagra. To save Hong Kong’s flagging sex life, we need more people who think like them.

The most popular hourly hotel
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This article was published in the October 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column “The Urban Confessional.”

As published in MANIFESTO

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