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China’s Only Sex Coach is One in a Billion

China’s Only Sex Coach is One in a Billion: Sean Noyce

Sean Noyce

When Ma Li opens the door to her office—down a long, carpeted hallway inside a modest hotel in central Shanghai—she looks like I imagine a sex coach should look: wide-faced, with a reassuring smile, wearing flowing, comfortable clothing in understated colors. She is warm, at ease, and modestly dressed. Everything about her, at first glance, is G-rated. When she set up shop here a few years ago, she replaced the beds and televisions with a plush sofa, and decorated the room with books, vases, and statues from ancient China. It could be your run-of-the-mill psychiatrist’s place except, on closer examination; the vase in the bookcase is decorated with a Ming Dynasty threesome. A makeup case a level below shows off a handful of courtesans going at it in a garden. Next to the case, Ma Li has placed a statue of a couple eternally frozen in reverse cowgirl.

“Our ancestors were much more open about sex than we are!” says Ma Li—who has risen to fame thanks to her frank, sex-advice blog and credentials as China’s only internationally-certified sex coach. “We can learn a thing or two from the attitudes back then.”

Pre-Communist China may have been home to the to one of the world’s most sexually open societies. Texts passed around during the Han Dynasty (most notably, The Handbook of the Plain Girl), dispensed advice on breathing techniques and multiple orgasms. Good sex was considered a cure for a range of illnesses. Homosexuality was tolerated, and occasionally celebrated, until more conservative attitudes took over in the late 1700s (A Chinese euphemism for homosexuality, “passion of the cut sleeve,” comes from a story in which an emperor, rather than wake his sleeping boyfriend, cut off part of his garment). Communism, on the other hand—with its emphasis on work and self-sacrifice—put an end to all that. “Mao wrapped the country in a cocoon of chastity,” says Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door, quite literally the book on sex in China. “Any mention of sex outside the closed doors of one’s bedrooms was unthinkable. Prostitution was totally and successfully outlawed. Even in art classes it was forbidden to use naked models.”

As China began loosening its economy in 1980s, attitudes toward sex started, slowly, to change. In the 1990s, homosexuality was taken off the list of criminal offenses, and premarital sex started to become more commonplace. In 2012, a survey revealed that more than 70 percent of the population had engaged in premarital sex, up from 30 percent in the 1990s. “But even in the big cities, sex was and is a taboo topic,” Burger says.

This is where Ma Li comes in. She is a sex coach in the mold of Dr. Ruth—credentialed, unassuming and unflappable. Her online advice on lackluster marriages, the importance of communication, and the female orgasm has earned her two million followers. At her hotel room in Shanghai, a mostly female clientele pays up to $200 per hour for help with problems that, more often than not, display a fundamental lack of knowledge about sex, anatomy and, occasionally, how babies are made. “People have come to me three years into a marriage without having had sex yet,” she tells me. “And they wonder why they can’t get pregnant!”

That’s less surprising than it should be, seeing as sex education of any kind is extremely limited in China. High school biology classes teach basic anatomy but leave the way the parts fit together up to the imagination. Popular culture isn’t much more revealing. On TV, even racy dating shows can get taken down for promoting immoral behavior (let alone graphic sex), while pornography is frequently wiped from the internet. So limited are avenues for learning about sex that an animated sex-ed video—with information on what makes girls and boys different and how children can avoid molestation— actually went viral last year.

The lack of information about sex is beginning to have an impact as people have more of it outside of marriage. STIs are on the rise in China, while clinics now administer an estimated 13 million annual abortions (approximately one for every 100 people, a rate that’s about five times as high as in the U.S.). In a study focusing on sex workers in Southern China, nearly fifteen percent of those surveyed had chlamydia. Ma Li points to progress at elite universities, for example, where students can slip condoms on bananas in a limited number of sex-ed classes, and in Southern China, where a popular radio program dishes out tough-love style sex advice. But most people are left to fend for themselves, an experience which Ma Li knows all too well.

“Growing up, I was just as uninformed as everyone else,” she says. “I really liked literature, though, and there are a lot of books that discuss sex, so I started out understanding sex from a cultural, artistic perspective.” Her love life mirrored millions of Chinese women. She moved out of her parent’s house only when she married. By the time Ma Li was studying for her psychology degree, she already had children. Sexually, she was conventional, but now experimenting is part of her job description. “I can’t recommend things to my clients without trying them first!” she says. Ma Li took her first step toward sex therapy by chance. On the day students were asked to select a focus of study, all the women in the class were asked to put their names down next to specific areas of expertise. “All the women went up and chose emotional problems, marriage problems, family problems. Nobody put their name next to sexual problems…they didn’t dare. That was 2004.” Ma Li decided to put her name in the least competitive column. Not much came of it, however. “Most of what I did was marriage counseling, anyway,” she says.

Starting off her career, most of Ma Li’s clients didn’t see sex as relevant to their relationships problems. “Sexual problems would come up every once and awhile, but I never had a professional way of dealing with them.” A friend first introduced Ma Li to the concept of sex coaching after reading an article about it in Cosmopolitan. Ma Li decided to find out more, and signed up for a program at The World Association of Sex Coaches in New York in 2012. (“You just can’t train to be a sex coach in China.”) There she found out that the difference between working as a psychologist and coaching is simple. “As a coach, you’re more proactive,” she says. “You give assignments, you use education to solve a problem.”

The clients that pass through Ma Li’s Shanghai hotel room come mostly from her online following, flying from around the country for sessions. “I primarily meet with women who are looking to improve their marriages, but also women who are single, women who are dating and women who haven’t had sex yet and just want to know what they’re getting into.” And not to mention, women who are rich enough to pay the steep prices that Ma Li charges: upwards of $400 for a weekend class.

For her more adventurous clients, Ma Li keeps a series of binders, some informational and some activity-based. Ma Li suggests sex toys, new positions and masturbation tips. (“Putting aside everything else, climax is also a self-cultivated exercise,” she writes on her blog. “With the right techniques, you can achieve all kinds of orgasm.”) Supportive husbands will sometimes rent hotel rooms to help with take-home assignments. Other times husbands aren’t allowed: a new weekend group class is female only, designed for women who feel they aren’t having enough sex or orgasms, who are worried about their boyfriends’ potentially abnormal desires, or who simply want to know themselves better. Women suffer most from the lack of sex education in China, Ma Li says. Mistresses are widely tolerated in China and chastity, in women, is highly valued. “Men can just go outside their relationship if they aren’t getting what they want,” says Ma Li. “If women aren’t getting what they want, they’re stuck.”

More often than not, Ma Li’s advice is directed at complete beginners. She frequently fields questions from women worried about the pain involved in losing their virginity. “They have heard that it will hurt, and they have no idea how much.”

Like everyone else in China whose work deals with sex, Ma Li is careful to strike a balance with her tone and with her image. She chooses her words carefully online—too many raunchy details could get her blog posts removed by China’s online censors. It could also scare off any of Ma Li’s more conservative customers. “They talk to me because it’s like talking to a doctor,” she observed. The three-star hotel room was also strategically selected; she didn’t want people feeling like they were sneaking into a back alley, but it would have been strange to set up her office in the middle of Shanghai’s upscale financial district. “It makes people feel comfortable,” she said, surveying the granite-floor room while sipping tea out of a Statue-of-Liberty mug (the only non-sex-related piece of ceramic in the room). As the only sex coach in a country of 1.3 billion potential customers, Ma Li has her work cut out for her.

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