Sex and Politics in the Orient: An Interview with James Farrer

 James Farrer is a sociologist at Sophia University in Tokyo.  Author of the book _Opening Up:  Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai_ (Chicago, 2002) he specializes in the study of modern and contemporary sexuality in China and Japan.  For several years, James and I have been collaborating on various projects surrounding nightlife cultures in Shanghai and Tokyo (see my previous blogs on Dr. Sex Life and on our special nightlife issue).  I've been meaning to post an interview with him about his various research projects for a while now.  Finally got round to it.  Here are my questions to James and his responses:

Andy: You have made an academic career out of the study of sexuality in China.  How did you first become interested in the topic?
James:  I first wrote about sexuality before I even travelled to China, and that was in the US in the context of running an undergraduate student magazine called The Phoenix at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The first sexual subject I focused on then was on gays and lesbians on campus, and the sexual politics of organizing a gay and lesbian association at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Another topic I covered then was interracial dating on campus, which surprisingly was still contraversial for many students then. Twenty years later, I remain committed to both issues: the rights of sexual minorities and the rights of people to form intimate relationships across national and ethnic boundaries. So in some ways I am just continuing to study issues I started out studying in the context of the American South, where I grew up, carrying these concerns to East Asia where they are suprisingly relevant. These include issues of sexual morality and sexual rights, and racial boundaries and sexual rights.
Another source of my academic interest in sexuality, also lies before my first experiences in China, and this was a year travelling through Asia before arriving in Taiwan in 1988. In some fairly long stays in predominantly Islamic, countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Bangladesh, I had many conversations with men in which sexual issues came up. I began to see that sexual freedom lies at the very heart of the very ambivalent imagination of the West in these countries. Sexuality thus seems to be a core issue in the cultural wars, not just in the US, but perhaps globally. That being said, my experiences in China, definitely added another focus to my interests, and that is the relationship of sexuality to human rights and personal freedoms, especially for women. When I first arrived in Taiwan, a year after graduating from UNC I saw that young women were breaking free of patriachal restrictions on premarital sexual activity for women. This was a very difficult process in Taiwan, but one I immediately recognized as important. In Shanghai in the 1990s, I think I happened upon a society undergoing one of the most momentous and swift "sexual revolutions" in history, as many types of sexual minorities claimed personal space and sexual freedoms. It was the right place and right time to write about these issues.

Andy:  In your first book _Opening Up_, based on research done in the 1990s, you describe the transformation of attitudes and practices relating to sexuality in contemporary Shanghai.  How have these attitudes and practices continued to change since you published the book?
James:  I think that when I wrote the book I was worried about exaggerating the scope of these changes. Now, I think the book probably doesn't do enough to suggest the scope of the changes in sexual culture that I was seeing. Some of the individual cases that I saw as rather extreme back then strike me as rather mainstream now. As Pan Suiming's research shows, Chinese young people really have experienced a sexual revolution in the past 10 years. I think Opening Up is perhaps best read as an ethnographic documentation of that sexual revolution in its early phases. The biggest change since I finished the book is the rise of the internet. This has led to a flourishing of sexual subcultures in China, and the vast increase in the scope of the "sexual public sphere," also enlarging the scope of the kinds of sexual politics that are possible in China.

Andy: Your upcoming book project is a study of foreigners in Shanghai.  What's your main thesis and why did you decide to focus on this topic?

James:  My interest in foreigners in Shanghai comes out of my own experience as a westerner living in Shanghai and then in Tokyo. Perhaps in some ways, my interest also relates to my experience of race relations in the American South growing up in that region. My study has been conducted over the past five years and I would say that it is largely completed except for the writing up.  In doing the research I have interviewed over 200 individuals in depth about the experiences of living in Shanghai. Most of my interviewees are long-term foreign residents in the city, with some living in the city as long as 20 years. I examine their ties to the larger Chinese community and the influences they collectively have on the development of Shanghai's cultural geography. I am still working on the book, so my theses may change, but at this point I would emphasize, first, that Shanghai has become an immigrant destination with a large community of long-term foreign settlers, and, two, the development of Shanghai as a global city is shaped very much by the presence and activities of this multinational foreign community.

Andy:  Relating to my question above, how has the presence of foreigners in China affected Chinese attitudes and practices relating to sexuality?
James:  It is difficult to quantify, but I believe that foreigners have become a significant element of the changing sexual geography of Shanghai. This is especially evident in the development of Shanghai's nightlife scenes in which sexual interactions with foreign residents and travellers are fairly common. Foreigners used to represent a special kind of sexual liberation or "openness" that Chinese couldn't normally enjoy. Increasingly, I think that they represent just another "sexual flavor" for urban sexual adventurers who already are enjoying a great deal of sexual freedom with other Chinese.

Andy: You've focused mostly on large urban areas (Shanghai, Tokyo) in your research and writing.  Do urban sexual cultures differ from rural ones or are these transformations more broadly occurring across the urban-rural divide?
James:  There is an urban-rural divide, but it is probably more a division of social class than simple geography. Men with money in China have the largest numbers of sexual partners, and this is because of the growth of the commercial sex sector throughout the country. This is by no means limited to urban areas, since there are many brothels in rural China. Sexual subcultures like the gay scenes, and the kind of "urban playgirl" scenes common among white-collar women in Beijing or Shanghai, probably remain limited to urban areas, but with the rise of the internet, this divide may be decreasing. Rural gays and adventurous singles in small towns and cities now have access to much the same information that an urban person might have. Even then, a rural gay man is likely to want to immigrate to a city where he can enjoy a community of like-minded people. Sex, after all, remains primarily an activity that people want to engage in a real, rather than purely virtual way. So cities will always remain centers for the enjoyment and expression of alternative sexualities.

Andy: How do attitudes and practices surrounding sexuality differ in China and Japan?  Are there any big differences or are they very similar?

James:  Sexual cultures in China and Japan have a very different history. Throughout the period from the Tang dynasty to the end of the Qing, the Chinese state increasingly regulated and restricted sexuality along Confucian lines. By the mid-18th century virtually any penetrative sexual intercourse other than sex with a wife or concubine was illegal. Premarital chastity was a very strong expectation for women. In Japan in contrast, premarital sex was fairly common, including practices of trial-marriage and premarital "night visits." Divorce and remarriage were very common, so that a bride's virginity was not a particularly important expectation for men or for women. With modernization, Japan's legal and social regulations became stricter, but Japan never seems to have bought into the cult of virginity to the extent that Chinese did. Even now, these differences can be noted. Chinese young people still are much more concerned about virginity than are Japanese young people. On the other hand, it seems that Japanese and Chinese urban youth live increasingly parallel lifestyles, with increasingly similar aspirations and institutionalized  life stages. Thus most people begin dating younger, and marry later, leaving a long period of young adulthood for sexual and relationship experimentation. As a university teacher, it's more and more difficult to seee large differences between students from China, Japan, Europe or the US.

Andy:  Speaking of China and Japan, you've published some articles recently concerning Sino-Japanese relations.  Do you think that China and Japan can reconcile their issues relating to the violent history of the first half of the 20th century?  Or are these countries destined to continue to come into conflict in the future over their interpretations of the past?

James: I think recent moves by the Chinese and Japanese governments have put bilateral state-to-state relations on a much stronger and more stable footing.  Beneath this political level, there are also very strong bilateral economic, social and cultural exchanges. Japan, in particular, is an important destination for Chinese students. I hope that both countries can increase these educational, cultural and person-to-person exchanges. I would like to seem more short-term exchanges at the university level, in particular, because they will have a long-term impact on changing minds and getting past the feelings of emnity and mistrust that still exist.

Andy:  You and I have both studied and written about nightlife and we've collaborated on research projects and now a book.  We've also gone clubbing together in Shanghai and Tokyo.  In your opinion, which is the better party town? How do the nightlife scenes in these cities differ? How are they similar?
James:  For a person new to both Shanghai definitely is more exciting, because it is such an open city. You never get turned down at the door of a Shanghai club, and you usually don't easily feel "too old" or too "foreign" for a given scene. Even if you feel a bit out of place, you generally can find a way of having a good time. Relative to other big cities, like New York or London, Shanghai is not a snobby city, even though many of the Hong Kong club entrepreneurs would like to bring more of that metropolitan snobbery into the scene (with VIP rooms, etc).  Tokyo is more interesting in a purely intellectual and cultural sense. Nighlife is much more specialized or balkanized in Tokyo. There are thousands of tiny nightlife venues, each it's own little world.  Most are clearly defined by subcultural taste, music, age and even nationality. A novice clubber can get to know Shanghai in a year or two, but no one would ever be able to penetrate all the varied and secretive little scenes in Tokyo. On the other hand, it also means you never can get bored with Tokyo's intimate and querky nightlife, and at this point it intrigues me more than the Shanghai scene.