East–West Disparities in Sex Information Access, Value, and Behavior inside China: A Sociocultural Perspective


Although compared to other countries and regions, mainland China has a relatively low rate of sexual activity among young adults, the consequences of unsafe sex are becoming more significant. As sexual behaviors are deeply embedded in social and cultural contexts, this study responds to the increasing rate of HIV/AIDS and the high rate of unplanned pregnancies among Chinese college students from a sociocultural perspective, aiming to investigate the influences of various sociocultural factors in shaping the sex-related beliefs and acts of Chinese college students. The effects of three sociocultural factors of economic development, cultural values, and the influence of sexual evolution are examined by comparing the sexual behavior and knowledge of female college students from eastern and western China, two distinct geographical regions in terms of those factors.

An online survey was conducted on a purposive sample of 1,286 female college students in four cities: Shanghai and Nanjing representing east China, Chongqing and Chengdu representing west China. Significant differences have emerged in the rate of sexual intercourse experience, rate of safer sex, traditional Confucian views of sex, sex education from authority, unofficial access to sex information, and knowledge of sex between the sampled students in the east and west. The results indicated the experience of sexual activity was significantly associated with local culture, as those in eastern China had a lower rate of sexual intercourse experience. The rate of sexual activity was lower if more traditional Confucian values regarding sex were held. As Confucianism originated in eastern China, it obviously has more influence there than in the west. The influence of ethnic minority cultures regarding the initiation of sexual intercourse experiences in the west is not negligible. However, a different pattern was found for safer sex. The level of consistency of condom use was significantly higher among students from the east than from the west. The consistency level was positively predicted by sex education from those in authority but negatively associated with the knowledge level. A higher level of sex knowledge was found to encourage the initiation of sexual experience but reduce safer sex behavior.

Our study demonstrates that in a large country such as China, regional disparities in the economy, social development, and culture are salient enough to influence the development of different beliefs and acts regarding sex. Although the east-west dichotomy has long been acknowledged in cross-cultural comparisons, the cultural differences inside China have only recently been examined. This study contributes to this line of research. Practically, the findings point to potential solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the Chinese younger generation. As gaining knowledge does not necessarily encourage safer sex, we may need to re-consider the specific sex knowledge that educators offer to protect young students. Given the sensitive nature of such knowledge, authorities may not be the most suitable educators for all sex-related issues. Peer and other types of education tailored to fit the local cultures and communities may be more appropriate in delivering sex-related information.

Keywords: East–West Disparity, Safer Sex, Chinese college students, Sociocultural perspective