The mediated lives of gay men in China came in for nuanced treatment when Brown University’s Cai Yifeng made a visit to Louisa Schein’s class “Introduction to Critical Sexualities Studies” on November 11th - all the way from Shanghai. Anthropology PhD candidate Cai - who is conducting fieldwork, writing his dissertation and otherwise situated in China because of the pandemic - was generous enough to join the zoom meeting at 3:15 AM China time and stayed for almost two sleepless hours to answer questions. The attendees included Schein’s 15 undergraduates and about 10 guests from both Rutgers and sites as far away as Washington, DC, Michigan and Oxford, U.K. You can watch the presentation on our video page.
The lecture was entitled “Contested Moralities in China’s App-Based Sexual Economy.” Using graphics, illustrations and illuminating keywords, Cai offered a theoretically informed argument that made vivid the values and norms by which gay men live in and around Shanghai. A key point that emerged was that many elements contribute to these men’s being valued within their highly selective communities. The scene features “circles” (quanzi 圈子) in which men aspire to be included. To achieve “value” (shenjia 身价) they must have a prized face, physique, reputation or prominence and education. Their sexual roles and skills are also taken into account.
This system of value, Cai explained, which should be termed “intimate-monetary exchange,” served to contest older moralities that might stigmatize getting paid for sex. As he showed, these forms of transactional sex, mediated and measured by smartphone apps, rejected the longstanding category of “Money Boy” (MB) as too instrumental. Instead, trysts and flirtations were undertaken as fun, pleasure, play. And having a “gold master” (jinzhu 金主) was a most prestigious and materially rewarding status, analogous to the “sugar daddy” phenomenon in the U.S.
The discussion was lively and began almost as soon as Cai began his lecture with audience members entering a range of questions in the chat thread. People wanted to know if there were risks and dangers in this exchange scene, and if gifts and goods were also transferred alongside money. Some wondered if the men in the study might ever feel objectified or commodified and what proportion were involved in the scene for survival rather than pleasure and self-worth. And was it really true that there was little to no stigma about getting cosmetic surgery? Cai offered illuminating answers based on his grounded fieldwork experience. Later, he reported getting a great deal out of the discussion toward revising his already well-developed piece. The conversation continued in a vein that was not only transnational but also collaborative, underscoring how generative it can be to talk across oceans, as long as someone is willing to sacrifice sleep!