Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Elanah Uretsky's "Occupational Hazards"

Elanah Uretsky is Assistant Professor of Global Health, Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Occupational Hazards: Sex, Business, and HIV in Post-Mao China, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Occupational Hazards offers thoughts on state regulation of sexuality:
“The state,” argue Elizabeth Bernstein and Laurie Shaffner, “has a sexual agenda” (Bernstein and Shaffner 2005:xiii). In the West states rely on a moral vision to regulate sexual conduct. The Chinese state does not regulate sexual conduct. Instead, it has historically relegated sex in a way that allows individuals to express themselves sexually in spaces that protect the state from the threat of personal expression. Confucian order relegated erotic desire outside the home as a means of preserving both family and its associated state order. Prohibitions against sex, still for the purpose of state preservation, did not come until the late Qing dynasty when the Yongzheng Emperor declared that gender and not status should be used to structure China’s system of sexual values. He made this decision in an effort to avoid the potential disruption in marriage markets and a rise in concubinage that often preceded dynastic decline (Sommer 2000). Consequently, sex, which had been celebrated as a vital force of both health and enjoyment for the individual in premodern China, was suddenly transformed into a burden truly reserved to serve the state (Van Gulik 1974).
Discussions of sexuality in China often focus on an ongoing sexual revolution and awakening. But China has a long and rich sexual history that was traditionally celebrated as an essential part of life. But it was not only a private affair. As we see from the quote on page 99, sex was also integral to maintaining state order.

Confucian political order relied on a continuum between the individual, family, and state where the family was a microcosm of the government. An individual who had his personal and family affairs in order was capable of maintaining a harmonious state. While Confucius recognized the primordial function of sex he also recognized that erotic sex could introduce chaos into the family and hence the state. Erotic sex, he cautioned government officials, should thus be reserved for outside the home.

This continuum between state and individual still exists in China today. The communist party expects individuals to be loyal, first and foremost, to the state. This protects the state and supports its legitimacy. The post-Mao state has receded from many of its duties but it still monitors private life as a means of maintaining harmony and protecting party legitimacy. Representatives of the government and the Party are first and foremost expected to serve as moral role models. Any transgression on their part is a reflection on the Party. Many men in China still adhere to Confucian principles when it comes to their sexual lives. Stories of government officials and businessmen who keep multiple wives and/or lovers are not rare but these days their behavior is associated with inciting chaos in the government through corruption rather than protecting state order. Market reforms under a Leninist government have given rise to a series of activities needed to build the type of trust traditionally needed to redistribute resources within a Leninist economy, including the exchange of commercial sex between the businessmen and government officials who have fueled the rise of China’s economy. These practices are socially sanctioned but politically proscribed, leaving these men in a virtual vacuum where they strive to fulfill their Confucian ideals and serve their party obligations.

This argument is vital to the book, which demonstrates how these types of competing discourses incited and shaped China’s HIV epidemic.
Learn more about Occupational Hazards at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue