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What a Failed Sex Doll-Sharing Service Tells Us About Sexual Repression in China

To glance at a few recent headlines about Taqu (or “Touch”), a Chinese company that unveiled a sex doll rental app with disastrous results, you might think the Communist government had directly ordered an end to the service: It was “suspended” or “foiled” or “shut down” or “killed” by authorities, western outlets reported. But on a closer read, it seems police had far bigger problems with Taqu’s promotional campaign, which included condom giveaways and advertising that declared, “With one touch of a key, you are no longer single!” Then there was the matter of their public pop-up display in Beijing, where prospective customers could check out five available models: “Greek bikini model,” “U.S. Wonder Woman,” “Korean housewife,” “Russian teenager” and “Hong Kong car race cheerleader.” It was this event that appeared to cross a line, with employees questioned by police and eventually asked to leave for being “vulgar.”

Withdrawing the so-called “Girlfriend Sharing” service, then, had more to do with Taqu playing it safe in a country where sexual norms have fluctuated intensely over the last half-century, from the height of the Cultural Revolution — when discussion of carnal intimacy “was considered bourgeois and hence taboo” — to an era when sex bloggers and TV shows can challenge the status quo but disseminating porn means risking serious jail time. “Because our third-party marketing staff failed to comply with related regulations, certain promotion campaigns were suspended by regulatory agencies; considering the widespread controversy, we decided to stop the project,” the company explained in a statement translated by Gizmodo. The sex dolls weren’t the problem (Taqu has sold them successfully, along with other sex toys, for years). It was that the dubious “sharing” concept had gone massively viral, thanks in part to a brazen sales strategy, inviting a backlash not just from a bureaucracy but the public at large.

Had some Silicon Valley bro secured funding for this idea — and I don’t doubt that a few wish they had — we’d have seen the same viral curiosity and disbelief, though with a different denouement: You’d get a few media profiles, a few subscribers, and then, I suspect, a quick fizzle-out. The first question an American is bound to have about communal sex dolls would be hygiene-related; Taqu promised to wash and replace the dolls’ “lower parts” between uses, but U.S. public health authorities, while unable to pull the plug on such a business, might still sound the alarm about potential disease transmission. In short, the venture would fail because the product itself was “gross,” not because the marketing around it was inappropriate or violated some basic propriety.

In China, meanwhile, it’s hard to get to the question of hygiene at all, let alone a debate as to healthy erotic practices. The sex education that many American students take for granted is relatively new there, and not without fierce critics, while common myths and stigmas have contributed to a terrible spike in HIV/AIDS among gay men and widespread resistance to tampons. In many cases, one finds sexual issues lumped together with an array of taboos, illuminating their subconscious connections: The ban on advertising feminine products on TV during primetime also applies to to commercials “for hemorrhoid treatments and foot disease remedies,” all of which are deemed “disgusting.” Pop songs are suppressed for violent content as well as steamy lyrics. And while the state has a longstanding rationale for banning foreign movies about the supernatural — ghosts abound in Chinese culture, but they can be powerful political symbols — this can also be an excuse to censor nudity and sexual themes.

Branding their sex dolls as a means of “heartwarming companionship” rather than an explosive orgasm, and even pitching them as surrogates for out-of-town wives, looks to have been Taqu’s attempt to bypass sex-negative conventions. More alarming is language like: “They have perfect bodies, are totally submissive, and can meet the needs of the single home boy.” But if the company’s message in the service of “actively exploring [a] healthy and harmonious sexual lifestyle” is scattered and inconsistent, that could come down to its most essential function: as an online forum where half a million active users can discuss exactly that. For China, freedom of political speech and the freedom to talk about intercourse are entwined, as embodied in Li Yinhe, a sex sociologist and LGBT rights activist who has denounced internet censorship. And when sex and subversion of the political order go hand-in-hand, you can anticipate messy results now and then; the late 1960s right here in the U.S. come immediately to mind.

Yes, Taqu overstepped a blurred and shifting boundary when they tried to sell Chinese men on one-night stands with previously used sex dolls, and government pressure did lead them to scrap the project. I’d note, however, that they’re doing so “temporarily” and that no other services have been affected by the shutdown. Overall, “Girlfriend Sharing” will not prove to be a fatal error for its innovators, but a misstep in China’s progress toward social liberalization — which we shouldn’t assume will resemble ours. When we laugh at these news stories, when we’re smug in our own sexual enlightenment, we ought to remind ourselves that in every sense of the word, China is working some kinks out.