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Huiyan Wang / © Culture Trip
Huiyan Wang / © Culture Trip

Sex and Marriage in China, Where Generations of Men Outnumber Women

Picture of Nadia Elysse
US Editorial Team Lead
Updated: 7 February 2018

For millions of single, heterosexual men in China, their inability to find love isn’t necessarily something they can help. A natural consequence of the now defunct “one-child policy” is that a generation of men in the country far outnumber women—making sex, dating, and marriage a particularly high stakes game.

Where did all the women go?

Implemented in 1979, China’s one-child law awarded “certificates of honor” to families who limited themselves to one child and fined families who had more than one child, in an attempt to combat overpopulation. Given this constraint, the government showed a preference for boys, leading some families to terminate pregnancies, give their girl babies away, or worse, sell them.

“Baby-trafficking exists here because there is both supply and demand,” sociology professor Yu Qing told The New York Times when the policy was still going strong in 2003. “It is not that these people don’t love their babies, but they are very poor and if they can sell them for a few thousand yuan, they will do it. Also, the family planning limits encourage selling off girls. That way they can give birth again and hope for a boy.”

China ended its one-child rule in October 2015, allowing married couples to have two children rather than just one. The change came after officials belatedly realized the impact of having a disproportionately higher number of men than women in the country. But this isn’t a problem that’ll be solved overnight.

An estimated 30 million more Chinese men than women will be looking for mates by 2020. So, even with the one-child policy ended, the ramifications from 30+ years of girl babies being devalued will have lasting effects on the traditional family structure.

Single, sex-less, and looking for love

For now, though, it seems a majority male China is the new normal. So how are single men coping with the shortage of available mates? It’s hard to say. Some travel abroad to find wives. Others resort to blind dates set up by relatives.

A 2017 documentary entitled Love and Sex in China explores the trials of being a single man of marrying age, and the lengths some go to in search of love. At the top of the documentary, viewers meet Gavin—a single, 32-year-old manager still hoping to find a wife. He has tried dating sites and even charm school. But as cameras caught him on that day, Gavin was putting on his best duds and coiffing his hair to perfection before heading to the streets of Beijing to try to meet new women.

“I’m a little nervous but hopeful, too,” Gavin says. “The Chinese are shy. I don’t know how to have a relationship. I find that you have to open up your heart.”

Gavin’s story, of course, is one of a quest for love. But for some men sex is far more important than companionship. China supplies about 70 percent of the world’s sex toys so it’s no surprise that lonely men sometimes turn to toys to meet their sexual needs. Silicone sex dolls have become big business in China, with men using anatomically correct, waterproof replicas to fulfill physiological desires.

“There are more and more single men who cannot find a wife and are desperate,” Wu Xingliang, Director of Sales at a sex doll manufacturing company called Sweet Dolls, told France 24. “We decided to make life-sized dolls for them. These men are happy to pay the price because the alternative is to be alone for the rest of their lives.”

Love and marriage

The fact that men outnumber women doesn’t mean that relationships, or the lack thereof, aren’t a pressure for women. Both men and women in China who aren’t married by their late twenties are considered “leftovers.” Unmarried Chinese women tend to be young professionals in urban areas who prioritized career over marriage. The unmarried men, on the other hand, tend to hail from more rural areas, where meeting a mate often relies very heavily on proximity.

So, while a shortage of available women is a problem on its surface, the cure for loneliness may be a new twist on old tradition. Maybe millennials in China will have to expand their dating pools beyond their immediate age range…and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. And, for single men in rural areas, they might have to travel a bit outside their comfort zones to cities in search of love.

Still, the unintended consequences of China’s one-child policy will be felt for generations to come—a concept that is not lost on the Chinese people or historians. “I don’t think the one-child policy was worth it,” Mu Guangzong, a population expert at Peking University, told TIME. “The people who made the policy never imagined all the problems we’re facing right now. Their knowledge of demography was shallow. Now society has to pay heavily for their ignorance.”