Gender as an issue and a concept was, people believe, first formalized in a 1973 book on women’s rights written by our current vice-president, Annette Lu. In the book, New Feminism (《新女性主義》), put out by her own publishing house at the time, Lu proposed that you have to treat women as human beings before treating them as women （先做人再做女人）. I think that is usually considered to be the first document on feminism in Taiwan. The book was very influential. Even my husband, who was a college student then, and many other male scholars read the book with excitement. I was at the time leaving to do my master’s degree in the US so I didn’t really get a chance to read it then.
1970s was the days of martial law in Taiwan, and discussion of politics was strictly prohibited. The idea of women’s “human rights” was quite exciting because it was not as sensitive as talking about political rights; it was more like caring for the weak, thinking about the weaker sex – things like that. It was a delicate moment when women’s rights got a little bit of legitimacy because it could harbor a conception of “human rights” that would be closer to the way we use the concept today, rather than the way the ruling party, the KMT [Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party], had been using it to describe mainland China’s government, saying ‘They don’t honor human rights, but we do’ – when actually they don’t. So when Annette Lu talked about women’s human rights, the book found favorable readers mainly among male intellectuals. In other words, it didn’t have widespread repercussions among the general public who were fearful of political activism. Understandably, there was no movement to follow up on Annette Lu’s ideals of women’s human’s rights. Things would have to wait until the lifting of martial law in the late 1980s.
But even before that significant political moment, Taiwan’s social environment was changing rapidly as more and more women entered the job market with the shift in economic structure. And when that happened, family structure was experiencing dangers as women became more and more restless. Let me give you two symptomatic examples. In 1982 and 1983, there were two novels everyone in Taiwan was talking about; both were written about women by women novelists. The first one was Lee Ang’s (李昂) Sha Fu (《殺夫》), which literally means “killing the husband.” It’s about this girl who was raped by a neighbor butcher when she was like 15 or 16, and out of shame, she married the man as it was the common thing to do. The butcher tortured her, starved her, and raped her repeatedly. In the end, the woman butchered her husband as he used to do the pigs. This novel expressed a certain anger from women about being mistreated in marital relationships. The other novel was Liao Huei-Ying’s (廖輝英) Bu Gui Lu (《不歸路》). It’s about a woman who had an affair with a married man. But contrary to the enticing temptress in affairs, this women was everywoman and the affair dragged on and on in the novel. This novel was read as a reflection of the great number of single women who were filling the work places and developing complicated relationships with the married men around them. Both novels were very much talked about at the time, and I think they were the signs of the times: women were moving out of their traditional roles, if not in ideas, at least in action.
In the early 1980s, Taiwan was not without small women’s groups. But these were not really militant or consciousness-raising groups, just social gatherings where women, mostly housewives, talked about charity or environmental matters. They became more interested in political matters as Taiwan’s social movements picked up momentum in the democratization process toward the end of the 1980s. But it was only when a specific group of women arrived, armed with feminist concepts and feminist language, that a real “women’s movement” came into being.
In the ’80s and ’90s, you see a wave of Taiwanese overseas students returning from advanced studies in western countries. One reason was that the American economy was stagnating; there were fewer employment possibilities for overseas Chinese students so a bunch of intellectuals came back to Taiwan. And of course, the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987 accelerated the flow. There was hope, and the political atmosphere seemed to allow more possibilities. Personally, as someone who studies cultural change, I was also eager to find out what happens when the political arena loosens its grip on daily life? How do people cope? How do people change from this Red Scare mentality to normal life? So I came back to Taiwan in 1988.
BTW, there is a very interesting correlation between the American economy and the outflow of intellectual resources in Taiwan. In the ’60s and ’70s, everyone was going to the States, because that’s where the money was, that’s where jobs were, that’s where you went for your studies. But in the early ’80s, the Reagan years, American economy was getting tougher and a lot of overseas students were coming back to Taiwan seeking employment. At the time, the educational policy in Taiwan was also broadening, with new universities and new programs being established at a very fast speed. Now these people who returned were trained in the US in the ’80s when American feminism reached its stage of fruition on college campuses as previous protesting college students became college professors who turned their ideas into theory. This was exactly the environment in which many women leaders of Taiwan were trained.
Locally, in the 1990s, after the lifting of martial law, social activism had gotten some degree of legitimacy through the workers’ movement and the political dissidents’ movement. And on the women’s front, study groups were beginning to be organized by college girls reading translations of feminist texts or even in the original English language. They were in desperate need for a set of concepts to grasp the changing social reality of Taiwan. So in the 1990s, you finally had a discourse, a way to talk about women’s plight. In the past, you would say, nu ren hen ku ming, women have bad fortune （女人很苦命）. You tended to see women as individuals: this one had a bad husband, this one was lucky, and things like that. But now women’s groups were developing a sense of identity, a sense of social grouping, social hierarchy, and ways to analyze society, ways to hope for a different standing. It was western texts that gave them the conceptual tools to understand the gender situation; but it was Taiwan’s rapid social change that provided the context in which these texts were understood and applied.
Those were exciting moments. Feminists were pretty much together then, but it didn’t last long. In 1994, there was a dramatic moment when the seeming uniformity of feminist ideals was broken—over the issue of female sexuality. Previously, everything said about sex by feminists had been “negative,” basically condemnations of rape and other types of abuse. But that year, when feminist condemnation of sexual harassment became more and more sex-phobic, some of us began talking about female sexuality in a more positive and self-empowering sense. This made some feminists really unhappy and uneasy because the paradigm went from one in which men were ‘sexual animals’ and women pristine ‘goddesses’ to one in which women had sexual feelings and desires too. Moreover, these sexual feelings could range, and didn’t have to be limited to the man you marry or to man at all.
What we, the “renegades,” were proposing in 1994 was this: sexuality refers to how I deal with my body and women should have full say in that. The conception of sexuality as being coterminous with the marital bond severely limits what women can do with their sexuality and how they develop their personality, even how they handle their intimate relationships. Of course, in a society that is highly sex-phobic and sex-negative, such talk by women was considered blasphemous and damaging. Media response was overwhelming and the “good women feminists” – the mainstream feminists – began thinking: ‘We don’t want a bad name and say that we could be sluts too, that we could have sexual needs too.’ In other words, the mainstreamers refuse to recognize that there are “other” women in this world, women who may have very different values and desires and pleasures. The end result of the split was people who talked about female sexuality positively were excommunicated from feminist groups. By “excommunicate” I mean “exile”: your name was stricken from upcoming programs, member’s name lists, or email listings. No communication is available.
But the really big split came in 1997 when the Taipei City mayor, now president, Chen Shui-bian ( 陳水扁), abolished the Taipei prostitute system. Licenses were taken away from 128 remaining legal prostitutes, mostly middle-aged or older, mostly illiterate or with elementary school education, earning moderate incomes, and had worked most of their lives as prostitutes. Of course we sex positive feminists stood by the sex workers and fought the government – and also the mainstream feminists. We organized panels, skits, and direct actions in front of City Hall, trying to win some breathing space for these sex workers. In the end, they got a two year grace period, but after that they went into history. Incidentally, those renegades who held positions as staff workers or whatever in women’s groups – NGOs – were fired from their posts for supporting sex workers and going against the mayor whom the good women’s groups supported.
In the process of these continuous battles, the Center for the Study of Sexualities was born. The three of us, Karl Ning, Ding Mai-fei, and myself were all teaching at National Central University and decided to create a platform by organizing a research collective. In 1995, we established the Center, deliberately putting a slash between the words xing (性, sex and sexuality) and bie (別, difference) in its Chinese title, because in Chinese, xingbie would mean ‘gender,’ conceived as ‘men and women,’ while we wanted to disturb that easy conception. So we put the slash there to not only pay attention to sexuality and difference, but also emphasize the semi-autonomy of Xing (性, sex and sexuality) from gender. That’s why the center was named the Center for the Study of Sexualities and Difference – but it was too long, so later we shortened the English to the Center for the Study of Sexualities. There are now 11 research collectives in Taiwanese universities devoted to the study of gender, but we are the only one that claims a theoretical position that will pay attention to other social differences and sexuality in particular.
The Sex Center is most famous for its publications, so far 19 books and other journal issues and even a comic book, and conferences. Before we held our first 4-sex conference (nicknamed thus because its title included sex education, sexology, homosexuality studies, and gender studies) in 1996, conferences where the subject of sexuality might come up were conducted along the lines of sociology, sexology or public health, but mostly along the line of medical science. We were the first one to introduce a historical-social-political dimension to the study of sexuality and to include movement-related issues. It is rumored that our conferences often turn into “come-out” sessions for gays and transgenders too.
The Sex Center is involved in a lot of direct action – activities sponsored by gay and lesbian groups or marginal sexuality groups. Looking back, I think that since 1995, the Center has intervened in every single controversy in relation to sexuality in Taiwan. If something happens, we react, we make a statement, we write to editors, hold press conferences, or we do research to counter and provide a different discourse. We are simply doing our best to counter existing prejudices.