The South African government’s proposal to amend the Marriage Act that would legalise polyandry—where a woman has multiple husbands simultaneously—has sent the country’s conservatives into a rage. Polygamy—where a man can have multiple wives at the same time—is already legal and accepted in the country and you guessed it, conservatives don’t seem to have a problem with it.
The leader of the opposition African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Kenneth Meshoe, stated that if South Africa were to extend the same marriage rights to women, then it would “destroy society.” Meshoe claimed in an interview that polyandry could never work because “men are jealous and possessive.” Other notable figures seem to agree—they all seem to be men, shockingly. Musa Mseleku, a polygamist with four wives, told the BBC, “This will destroy African culture. What about the children of those people? How will they know their identity?” The TV personality continued, stating that “the woman cannot now take the role of the man. It’s unheard of.”
The government first released the proposal in its Green Paper from its Department of Home Affairs in May 2021; legalising polyandry is just one of the many changes listed in the document that aims to make marriage more inclusive. For example, other religious marriages—including Hinduism, Judaism, Muslim and Rastafarian—have previously not been seen as legal unions in South Africa. The Green Paper seeks to legally recognise them as well as “the marriages of transgender persons” in the Marriage Act (same-sex marriage was legalised in 2006), a move that has gained support from those respective communities.
The Green Paper seems to disagree with the notion that polyamory is not “a part of African culture” as it undergoes one of the biggest overhauls of legislation since 1994. Despite having one of the most liberal constitutions, the document suggests that marriage laws are still “combinations of legacy legislation [from] the colonial and apartheid-era” and don’t completely align with their current constitution. The paper states that “the envisaged marriage statute will enable South Africans and residents of all sexual orientations, religious and cultural persuasions to conclude legal marriages that will accord with the principles of equality, non-discrimination, human dignity and unity in diversity, as encapsulated in the Constitution.”
Professor Collis Machoko—a respected academic, told the BBC in its reporting that the numerous objections to polyamory are all “about control.” Machoko suggested that “African societies are not ready for true equality. We don’t know what to do with women we cannot control.” One of the new marriage amendments the paper suggested to solve this debate would be to have a gender-neutral regime that would mean “all marriages, whether monogamous or polygamous, could be concluded regardless of sex or sexual orientation of the person.”
This, quite plainly, highlights the ties that the patriarchy and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has to colonisation—the remnants of which still live and breathe today. South Africa’s attempt to legalise polyamory (among many other changes) is not just a step towards women’s rights but also toward the goal of decolonisation.
In the third and final part of our Dating in China series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG, we look at China’s most stigmatised dating scenes such as BDSM (which stands for ‘bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism’) and polyamory (the practice of intimate relationships with more than one partner with the informed consent of all partners involved) as well as the technology allowing both communities to grow and connect them with like-minded daters. To truly get into the nitty gritty of China’s underground dating culture, we spoke to Lily, 25, about how she first got involved with this scene, the dating technology she used to explore her sexuality and the impact it has had on the way the country views and approaches these sexual preferences that are still deemed ‘unusual’ to this day.
Having touched upon the dating industry in China with a more global analysis in the first Deep Dive of this series and then shifting the narrative to focus on the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community in our second part, it made sense for Dating in China to end on a more niche dating culture in the country, one that can only grow from here. Although we live in an increasingly sexually liberated world, China’s culture added on top of its traditional government means that sexual self-expression and organised underground communities like the BDSM one have a hard time finding acceptance from the majority of the population.
That being said, all over the world, numerous kinks are still seen as taboo by many, leading them to remain stigmatised in most cultures. Kink, fetish and BDSM practices often involve consensual violence made up of both psychological and physical submission as well as domination and masochism, which can explain our society’s scepticism towards the community. According to an article published by Slate on China’s growing rope bondage community, until 2017, “most local bondage practitioners were self-taught, tying privately in their homes and relying on YouTube and Vimeo videos.” It should be noted that the two video-sharing platforms have been inaccessible from mainland China since 2009 because of their Western origin.
Until 2017, the subculture was not welcomed on China’s internet. In fact, still to this day, many BDSM communities choose to keep their circle as tight as possible—pun intended—in order to avoid getting shut down by the country’s government. However, slowly but surely, mainstream social and dating apps like WeChat and Tantan turned into breeding grounds for communities attracted to these somewhat unconventional sexual preferences. Here’s where it’s at in 2021.
From the BDSM community to non-mono—polyamorous—meet up events, it’s safe to say that Lily has a lot to share about her involvement in China’s underground dating scenes. When she first got in contact with Screen Shot Pro, Lily explained a bit more about how her interest was initially sparked by the world of BDSM, “In the first place, it wasn’t through your typical dating app, it was on WeChat using a feature that allows users to find people that are nearby.”
WeChat is a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. First released in 2011, it quickly became the world’s largest standalone mobile app in 2018, with over 1 billion monthly active users. Famously described as China’s “app for everything” because of its wide range of functions, WeChat provides its users with an impressive range of features such as text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, broadcast (one-to-many) messaging, video conferencing, video games, photographs, videos and location sharing.
At the time, Lily was a high school student living by herself in Anhui away from her family and friends who lived in Shanghai. She first started using WeChat’s “附近的人” feature (meaning “People nearby”) to meet new people in her area. “I didn’t know about any other social networking software, and since WeChat was something that everyone used, it was easy to download and convenient to use. Later on, I felt that WeChat’s ‘People Nearby’ feature showed very little content to strangers, as there were even fewer people I met that I could talk to and share common interests with. That’s when I discovered other social networking apps.”
From there, Lily turned to the dating app Tantan to connect with more like-minded people. One day in 2019, she matched with a man whose profile pictures “looked pretty interesting” and who openly shared his polyamorous status. Only then did Lily really decide to learn more about polyamory and shortly after, BDSM. However, it wasn’t the first time she came across these terms. Let’s rewind a little bit.
When asked about her opinion on BDSM and polyamory before she got involved in both, Lily admitted acknowledging their existence before actually experiencing them first hand. “I thought that there was nothing to blame as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone and respects the person’s wishes. When I was in college and heard that a student would play BDSM with his lover, instead of passing the rumour on again, I acted as usual, like learning from others what he likes to eat,” she shared.
When she ventured into the field of BDSM a few years later, Lily often thought of him and felt able to discuss some of the related issues with him. As for polyamory, she first learned about it through a YouTube video, “I thought that polyamory was a very difficult model of intimacy where you have to schedule it, deal with jealousy, and more.”
By the time Lily was back in Shanghai, which in turn led her to meet this mystery man on Tantan, she had been single for over a year and was yearning for intimacy. Although she had met a few people she liked, none of those had resulted in a serious relationship. “I just thought that because Shanghai is such a big city and people here are always moving, they might not be in the city for long. Actually, no one can be here all the time, and I don’t know why but the guys I met were not willing to commit to our relationship.”
After meeting this person who openly spoke about his polyamorous status and through learning more from him, Lily first decided to attend one of the polyamory guided discussions he had told her about. “I got the chance to be involved in the non-monogamy community and soon enough, I started my own open relationship with another guy I matched on Tantan.”
Speaking about the reasons why she chose to try polyamory, she reiterated the struggles she faced when dating people in Shanghai. In this light, polyamory seemed like a fitting solution, “so I wouldn’t be afraid that my lover would have to leave Shanghai, as I could still develop relationships with other people and not put too much pressure on each other.”
Only then did she simultaneously get involved within the BDSM community after learning more about it through, for example, the event mentioned above. “Trying something new excited me, and at the time BDSM was a mysterious new thing to me. At a non-monogamous party, I heard from seniors about their experiences with various BDSM relationships and their partners, and it was so interesting and new that I wanted to try it myself,” said Lily.
After matching with the second man she mentioned, Lily felt like she could share her newly found interest in polyamory as well as BDSM with him, who she thought seemed open-minded enough. “During our interactions, I found him to be polite and respectful of other people’s ideas as well as having his own. One night after hanging out for three months, we talked late into the night. I told him about my desire for intimacy and being part of a non-monogamous community, and after explaining to him what polyamory was, he expressed interest in trying an open relationship with me if I was serious, so we got together after that.”
Respect is one of the key values that keeps what kinksters do from being abusive. Similarly, in a non-monogamous relationship, all people involved not only need to consent, but feel respected too for it to work in a healthy way. According to Lily, that same key value is apparent through Shanghai’s BDSM and polyamory scenes, “The community I am in is mostly made of foreigners and everyone is quite friendly and follows the rules. Newcomers have to get at least three votes to join us after talking to ‘old’ members. We hold regular talks and workshops where people can suggest ideas for an event.”
Speaking of events, Lily went on to explain that no one will force anyone to do something they don’t enjoy. “If you want to play with someone, you have to ask them (and their partner) if it’s okay and what behaviour is not acceptable. It’s also worth mentioning that we have a girls’ group where girls can ask questions, discuss and share or complain about a man who has harassed or offended them online or offline, and depending on the seriousness of the behaviour, the person complained about can be warned or kicked out of the community.”
At the time of our interview, Lily had recently attended a ‘fetish ball’ in Shanghai with a strict dress code consisting of “leather, rubber, kinky, sm.” Most of the people attending the event were Chinese, and by looking at the posters, Lily expected a rope bondage show, “but I stayed until midnight and saw no sign of rope. Instead, there was a group of girls dressed in skin-showing clothes, breast patches, thongs, fishnet stockings, and collars in front of a DJ booth with a man spanking them with a long, loose whip.”
Lily continued to describe the evening, “The audience just gathered around them, watching and dancing. The lights were dim, the music was loud, and the scantily clad girls looked a bit shy, pushing and shoving as they were pushed out by the uproarious crowd to receive spanking. I think this might have been from some local Chinese BDSM community, but I’m not a big fan of events like this, they’re too casual, not private enough, and can give the wrong impression to those who don’t know BDSM.”
As for polyamory and the scene she has been involved in as a result of her interest in non-monogamous relationships, Lily explained that polyamory comes in many forms. “One girl who has dated two boyfriends at the same time and has taken them both to meet her parents is a good example for our non-monogamous community and the three of them can occasionally be seen at events together,” she first said.
“There are also married people,” continued Lily. “There is a couple that likes to go to events together and hook up with people who are attracted to them, and it’s only okay that one of them does something with someone else under the other one’s watchful eye. There also may be a couple where two men are gay, or prefer men over women, and the girls are bisexual—their union is mainly for spiritual support.”
Although Lily mentioned Tantan as the main dating app where she met potential partners and other members of her community, she also shared that nowadays, she tends to avoid spending too much time online. “I use social media platforms and dating apps to meet new people and do interesting things together, so I don’t spend too much time on the internet and don’t look for people who are far away from me,” she explained.
However, if you’re looking for advice on which popular apps to use in China when on the hunt for some kinky and like-minded people to connect with, Lily has a few suggestions: “If you care about the looks of your date, then your first choice should still be Tantan because of its large user base.”
If you don’t care much about looks, then she recommends Soul, “Compared to Tantan, I feel like Soul is a really feature-rich and safe app because you can talk through video calls on it without worrying too much.” That is because when videoing on the app, users can choose their own animated avatars, just like Apple’s Memoji. “If you don’t set an avatar, then your whole screen will be made of mosaic and therefore won’t give away any information that might put your privacy at risk. If you want to speak to someone, both parties must follow each other first; the number of active users on Soul is huge too, so when you comment on someone’s picture or chat, your username is randomly generated by the system.”
All of these features offered on the Soul app mean that users have more freedom to express themselves as well as their sexual kinks without having to worry about how privacy issues could impact them in real life. And this is only the beginning for the app, as rumours have recently started circulating about the company behind the dating app confidentially filing for an IPO in the US, according to The South China Morning Post.
As Lily told us, she has Tantan, WeChat and even the video-sharing platform YouTube to thank for first introducing her to these two alternative dating scenes and helping her connect with members who are part of the communities surrounding them. But after making those connections, Lily explained that her interest in social and dating technologies has not expanded much further. “Both communities have regular get-togethers where you can bring new people and talk about whatever you want. Members of the non-monogamous group can add people directly, whereas to join the BDSM group you have to come to the potluck and get at least three votes from old members. Newcomers to the group will be given a document with some basic information about BDSM, including the principle of informed consent and safe areas for spanking.”
This ‘real-life’ aspect of the communities and the way they interact with each other highlights how little a part technologies play in connecting people together once that initial meeting has been carried out. Looking back on the two previous Deep Dives of Dating in China, Lily explains that both heterosexuals and gays can find what they’re looking for on dating apps, “The basic functions of the software are the same as any other dating app—searching for people nearby, looking at bios, matching and chatting—but the LGBTQ+ community is more likely to use dating apps in order to find similar people or circles and get a sense of identity and belonging.”
On the other hand, “For heterosexuals, the purpose of using dating apps is probably more realistic. They may want to date, start a relationship, find a marriage partner, find a playmate or something like that, so their bios will be more realistic, such as graduating from a prestigious school, workplace, spouse selection criteria, etc,” adds Lily.
When it comes to the BDSM and polyamorous communities of Shanghai—and probably the rest of the country too—dating apps (and social networking apps too) have only enabled more of the Chinese population to find like-minded individuals who they feel like they can connect with and share the same interests. That being said, dating technologies do not have much say in how these relationships are then maintained or how they evolve. That is left for members of those communities to figure out on their own, through real-life interactions.
So, yes, dating apps are mostly used to create those very first connections, but how can users interested in BDSM or polyamory use them in ways that are as efficient as possible? Here are the last few tips Lily had to share, “Don’t chat online for too long. Instead, ask the person out for a meeting as soon as possible—an afternoon tea or dinner is a good option. When you’re face to face with someone, their appearance, dress and temperament will be very visible to you and this will help you to determine your feelings more. In the end, we’re all here to make friends with living, breathing people.”