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Inside China’s Infamous Sex Shop

Inside China’s Infamous Sex Shop:

Sitting in her Beijing sex shop, stuffed into the plush insides of egg-shaped chairs with pink and blue plastic sperm swimming across the ceiling over our heads, Ma Jiajia quietly leafed through a Chinese version of Cosmopolitan magazine. She had breezed in a few minutes earlier in a flouncy black skirt that nearly swallowed her, shaking my hand and then passing by the multi-colored, penis-shaped tables and the canopy bed in the middle of the shop to find her way to the chair and the magazine, leaving me to chat with her assistant, who was trailing her with folders and cell phone in hand (“Most the time I have him answer my phone.” Ma told me later). We talked and she flipped through the pages of the magazine until, at some invisible signal, Ma paused. She adjusted her bangs and smoothed out her skirt, and leaned forward out of the egg. “Look,” she said. “I didn’t come here to talk about my business. I want to talk about feminism.”

Ma Jiajia is 24 and has two years of business experience and fame under her belt. Her feminism is, in China, famously sex-positive. It is also business savvy. In fact, it is impossible to talk about Ma Jiajia without talking about her business—selling sex toys. Her store, Powerful Sex Shop, has been promoted more visibly in China than any adult store that has come before it. In a fancy development in Beijing’s Sanlitun area, it offers a colorful array of leather whips, costumes, lubricants and high-end vibrators from the Swedish brand LELO. A display of glass butt plugs shows them off on velvet pillows. The store is staffed by a group of preppily dressed, young, gay men who chat and hang out by the register. “Many of my fans are gay,” Ma admits. Her personal assistant, a slight, toned man in a polo shirt, nods enthusiastically.

China has other “adult” stores, but they lean so heavily toward the clinical that browsing for vibrators feels more pharmaceutical than sexy. The country’s first officially sanctioned sex shop opened in 1993, an overly sanitized outlet called Adam and Eve in Beijing. Most Chinese stores still follow their model; they are cold and antiseptic, staffed by middle-aged men and women in white lab coats. It’s like buying a dildo from your maiden aunt.

Powerful’s departure from that norm—all color and whimsy—made it a hit when Ma opened her shop as a 22-year-old student at Beijing’s College of Communications, right near the entrance to campus. Students flooded the shop within days. People started asking her for jobs. And then, as word of the shop spread, Ma Jiajia and her partners saw their customer base expand—older couples from the surrounding neighborhood, migrant workers and students from other campuses.

As a businesswoman, it turned out Ma Jiajia was perfectly positioned to open up discussion about conservative China’s biggest taboo. “People in China are unwilling to talk about sex,” Ma told me. “But there is no problem talking about the business of sex.” More than eighty percent of the world’s sex toys are manufactured in China. Prostitution, according to Richard Burger, the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, accounts for 6 to 8 percent of the country’s GDP. And many young women see becoming a mistress as a viable career option, says Annie Wang, the Beijing-based author of ’The People’s Republic of Desire. “Women want people to believe that they are very traditional, but when they think of sex, they think of what they can get from it.”

Ma has become the voice for that sort of pragmatic female sexuality—mostly over social media. On the Chinese versions of Twitter, Facebook and a mobile app called WeChat, she combines toy recommendations with selfies in bathing suits that showcase her big breasts, musings on lingerie, and videos that compare masturbation to flying an airplane (“If you can’t get off the ground…study up!”). Promotional photos show Ma posing with butt plugs and dangling an egg-shaped vibrator in front of her face, looking thrilled and girly, with pigtails and bangs. Over email she spelled out her views on women’s liberation in three simple steps: “The first is the economy (production), the second is sex (contraception) and the third is controlling the nature of beauty (plastic surgery.)” (When I met Ma, a barely-visible line of hair plugs was creeping down from her natural hairline. She’s turned her effort to cover her large forehead into an online documentation project.)

As Ma’s personal brand has grown beyond the scope of the sex shop alone. Ma Jiajia believes her popularity was also driven by her open and irreverent attitude about sex. She’s saying the things her fans wish they could themselves, “but people don’t dare,” she told me. “They need someone to stand up for them.” She has been heralded in the Chinese press as a brilliant promoter for a new generation of consumers. “Ma Jiajia did not receive any formal business education,” one profile explained. “But she has an innate and creative gift. When she stands up to represent Powerful, she is brazen and fascinating. Of course people are interested to follow her life.”

Ma’s goals extend from expanding sex education in China into fashion, advertising and media. She wants to run magazines and start clothing lines. She tosses out names like Vivian Westwood and Helen Gurley Brown. China has been plagued with misinformation about sex, she says, and that misinformation has turned into “moral shackles” for everyone—women and men together. “I want to inspire confidence in women. I want to get to a place where sex is no longer a sensitive topic,” she says, flipping through the magazine, looking for a photo of herself. If Ma Jiajia gets her way, the butt plugs and toy whips are only the beginning—with every new selfie and magazine spread, she’s bringing sex positivity to the masses.


This is second piece our Sex in China Series. Read yesterday’s on China’s only certified sex coach

Lauren Hilgers is a reporter specializing in China who has written for Harper’s, Wired, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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