Photo par Jamie Fullerton
In a cheap yellow curtain-draped private room inside a northwest Beijing teahouse, 15 men are attempting to pinpoint the clitoris. One plucks up the courage to step towards a crudely drawn depiction of female genitalia (it looks more like a mildly mutated Pac-Man than a vagina) on a whiteboard, marker pen in hand."Quite close!" says group leader Dr. Fang Gang as the man picks his spot. Another member of the group steps up to correct the drawing. "OK," says Fang. "We've got it — that's the clitoris!"
Fang continues his anatomical tour as the men sit and write notes. "How many of you have licked your partner's clitoris?" he asks. Many arms shoot up, school classroom style. "How many of you have had your partner perform a blow job?" A group discussion about how to negotiate mutually enjoyable foreplay ensues. Then it's tea break.
It's early afternoon on Tuesday, on the second of the three-day "Good Father, Good Partner" course, which has been organized by the China White Ribbon Volunteers Network (CWRVN) as part of their attempts to increase gender equality and challenge accepted norms of masculinity in the country. The foreplay masterclass is just one section of it. There are also classes on the role of the father, housework, basic baby care, and the causes of domestic violence.Fang, director of CWRVN, is on a mission to solve societal problems such as domestic violence that he believes funnel down from outdated yet prevalent norms of what it means to be a man in China. Namely: a tough, masculine household leader who leaves raising kids and chores to his wife. He wants more men to be "warm guys": a term coined recently to describe caring, sensitive men who believe in gender equality. It all starts in this stuffy room with a drawing of a vagina in it.
"I want to encourage men to be involved in promoting gender equality," he said. "Including taking care of children, sharing housework, and fighting against job discrimination. In the past our work focused on people who committed violence and their victims, now we want to go back further and target regular people, asking what we should do to prevent men from committing violence in the first place."
'If a girl wants a more masculine kind of person then she can go for it. I am not that type'
The tone of today's course, attended mainly by CWRVN members keen to pass on the messages around China, is jovial. But the underlying goal of tackling domestic violence runs through the various subjects covered.It is timely — China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress is currently reviewing what could become the country's first dedicated domestic violence law following a series of high-profile domestic violence cases and reports. Most surveys suggest that 25 to 40 percent of Chinese women suffer domestic violence, but many think the real figure is much higher. Fang thinks it's more like 50 percent.
One of the reasons why domestic violence is so common in China is general social acceptance of such abuse. This notion is illustrated by the confessions of one of today's attendees. In front of his volunteer peers, plus invited local female journalists, he openly talks about how he used to beat his heavily pregnant partner."I kicked her when she was on the bed," he said. "I can't even remember why I did it. She said she would turn to a women's federation for help but I didn't care. Later I called a White Ribbon hotline and spoke to a consultant who told me that I did this because I didn't receive enough love and care as a child. My father used to beat me."This man, perhaps out of guilt, has become an active member of CWRVN after acknowledging how terrible his actions were. Not many men in China would be so quick to try and follow a path of redemption. "Most Chinese guys are chauvinists," said Fang, somewhat unfairly. "It is exactly these people who need the most training. But it's so difficult — we can't force them to do it."
Related: Music Festivals Are Being Stamped out in BeijingFang acknowledged that it's unrealistic to expect perpetrators of domestic abuse, or even just slightly chauvinistic men in need of a bit of gender equality training, to suddenly decide to pay money and sign up to one of his courses.Instead, having invited loads of Chinese journalists to attend his classes, he hopes the message will spread via media reports about it and of further classes led by volunteers across China. "Due to profound historical and cultural reasons it will take a long time for us to change society," he said. "But we want to do it step by step. Small drops make a shower."Fang says that promoting anti-domestic violence ideas is a hugely important issue he addresses, but he is equally keen to promote other characteristics that make up a "warm guy." Later in the afternoon he instructs the class members to walk around a table contemplating if they are ready for fatherhood. Shortly afterwards he hands out plastic baby dolls and gets the group to scream like babies while the doll holders attach newspaper nappies on their prosthetic precious ones.
But is this the kind of man that most women in China really want? Is traditional masculinity really something that has to be directly countered and viewed as a negative attribute? Fang insists it is. "Everything we do contradicts masculinity," he said. "When we put the advert for this course online we got comments from women praising it, saying they would marry men who finished it. But I'll admit, male commenters said it was a course training men to be slaves for women."
The course does, at least, have a satisfied customer in 24-year-old Han Yang. Mild-mannered, bespectacled, and with a friendly demeanor, he paid the 2,000 yuan ($315) course fee and traveled to Beijing from the neighboring Hebei province to attend. "My parents argued a lot and weren't happy, so I was worried I'd end up like them if I didn't learn otherwise," Han said when asked why he signed up. "I need to learn how to manage my emotions."Related: Beijing Tries to Stub Out Smoking With Hand Signals and SnitchesHan is single. Does he worry that his newly stoked caring and sensitive leanings might not be what girls his age are after on the dating scene? With a recent report suggesting that by 2020 there will be 24 million more men than women in China's 1.35 billion population, competition for mates is getting more and more fierce.He shrugged. "If a girl wants a more masculine kind of person then she can go for it," he said. "I am not that type. I just care about whether I am happy and comfortable."
Rao Xiutao, a middle school teacher from the city of Huainan in central Anhui province, is optimistic that Fang's message will spread far beyond the walls of the tearoom. He's a CWRVN volunteer and is planning to set up his own classes in his home city, inspired by today's lessons. He sought out the CWRVN after suffering problems in his marriage. One of his main issues is, he says, that because he is a teacher he is used to speaking loudly in class so raises his voice to his wife without realizing it.
"The course testifies to social progress," he said, referring to the domestic violence law in the works rather than the issue of slightly raising your voice to your wife by mistake. "But this is only the start. The law change is coming but what's important is awareness around it. We have a long journey ahead of us and it's hard to change ideas in a short time. But a single spark can start a prairie fire."It's 6pm when Fang calls time on the class and everyone filters out to load up trays from the teahouse buffet. Perhaps the moral lessons being preached will, in time, ripple across China and cause some men to reassess their relationships and change for the better. Fang is ever-hopeful that the government will see a media report about his work and help with funding. Perhaps his awareness-raising efforts will dovetail with the introduction of the domestic violence law and the boulder will begin to shift.It's a big boulder and it'll need a big shift. But before all that can potentially kick in, of course, 15 women can look forward to some drastically improved clitoral attention from their partners.Additional reporting by Cissy YoungFollow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1