On Sex In The US, and How My Husband Taught Me the Word “Sao”

A red wall w/ the words "Sex" spray-painted on it in yellow
(photo by Stuart Caie via Flickr)

One Chinese word that’s guaranteed to make my husband laugh is sāo (骚). Most Chinese-English dictionaries translate the meaning he’s thinking of as “flirty” or “coquettish” — words that don’t come close to describing what’s really on his mind.

I’ll never forget that first apartment John and I rented in Cleveland, an apartment that schooled me in the true meaning of sāo.

One afternoon, while in the bedroom, I suddenly heard the unmistakable moaning through a heating vent. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” she screamed, a phrase that rose in volume with every creak and bounce of their bed. I couldn’t believe the show from my first-floor neighbors — either because it had been years since I lived in the US, or perhaps because all of my previous apartment or dormitory-style buildings had much thicker walls. Of course, I couldn’t help but tell John, who smirked when he finally heard the girl’s screams. Not long after, he gave the two girls downstairs a new nickname — sāo qīngnián (骚青年). Qingnian means youth or young person. But sāo, as I came to discover, is also a way to describe people who are more uninhibited when it comes to sex.

Our first floor neighbors weren’t the last to regale us with their sexual escapades — and remind John of the word sāo . We also had an upstairs neighbor who started dating a guy. One afternoon, while John was working in our office, he heard a banging noise upstairs, as if someone was running on a treadmill. But once he heard a guy’s loud groan at the very end of the banging, John realized it wasn’t the sort of “working out he had imagined. We’ve also done our share of camping in parks all across the United States — and heard our share of outdoor exhibitionists, “sāo” folks who boinked out loud, complete with tents that shook with ecstasy.

In a way, though, perhaps it’s easy for John to see the “sāo” in my country. Many Chinese still view America through a “Sex and the City” filter, believing that our sex lives are as spicy and salacious as the plotlines in that popular series (even though, for most of us, it’s not the reality). “But it’s not as though people in China don’t do crazy things in bed,” I once said to him. “Maybe the difference is, in China it’s more hidden at times, harder to see.”

Meanwhile, years of living in the US have uncovered sides of my husband I never saw in China — such as how he’s the one who suggested we buy that Nerve.com Position Of The Day Playbook: Sex Every Day In Every Way, or how he dared to kiss me in public last summer in a crowded bus station in Hangzhou, China. While I don’t know that he’ll ever be as “sāo” as the neighbors we’ve known in the US, I am certain of one thing — he’s never been more sexy to me, in any language.

20 Replies to “On Sex In The US, and How My Husband Taught Me the Word “Sao””

  1. Mordern construction method creates tough frame but thin walls. Loud women/men created free sound tracts for their love/sex life.

  2. @Jocelyn. YOU GO WHITE GIRL!!!!!!! “Bang” that Chinese husband of yours and make a lot of noise so that your neighbors can hear both of you engaged in hot passion. Make us Whites proud!!!! I am extremely proud of you, White girl. Keep up the good work.

  3. this word has probably evolved from a traditionally negative connotation mainly describes women to a modern-day (in most recent 10 years) less derogatory more edgy meaning.

  4. Try to use that word to any Chinese woman and see how she will respond. People tolerate profanity during sex. But that is a different situation. “Sao” never implies sexy in a good context.

  5. My Korean ex once talked about a neighbor who had a loud girlfriend during lovemaking… I was curious if she was as he has told me, but never found out the answer.

  6. If you go to a Portuguese-speaking country, you’ll see a lot of cities with “sao” in the name. (OK, actually it’s “são”). That’s their word for Saint. So São Paulo translates to St. Paul, but your column gives us a more interesting translation of that!!

  7. I still think you do not have a very clear understanding on the word ‘sao’. Sao is really only used on women who flirts shamelessly in a promiscuous fashion with any non-romantically involved men. It is similar to slut, expect in this case it is used to describe the female who talk-out random guys and sleep around, not the guys talking her out and then sleep with her. I have never heard of the word being ever used on males.

  8. I hate to say it but I really doubt Chinese people do crazy things in bed. If you can get them to open up about sex they haven’t experienced a lot – no masturbating or oral sex. I would be shocked if I heard people in my building having sex.

  9. Joy,

    Chinese people really do crazy things in bed. You mean they save all the crazy things with prostitutes or at the hooker houses? Define crazy things in beds for me. Dripping candle wax on the body ? Domintrix (leather and ass cheeks sticking out? ? or maybe tie hands and legs onto the bed and tease with a feather ( let him bite onto a stick or a rolled up towel )? I know they do okay and they do it quietly without much sound. Maybe they respect their neighbors by not being too loud. They do masturbate and oral sex too but not like westerners ,too hardcore . China is very different and you won’t see or hear alot of naughty stuff there unless in the big cities… Maybe . That’s why a lot westerners assume too often.

  10. Most Chinese girls (the ones in China) don’t really talk openly about sex. Guys do talk in vague terms if you are drinking together. But people share among close friends. I think the vocabulary is different and limited. From my own experience, I can say Chinese women tend to be more passive and less passionate during sex. And they are less demanding and willing to give.
    Depending on how you define crazy, some girls there can be wild. Sex is using your body to communicate. I do find western girls are better in general and carry less baggage. What you do in your own bedroom is your own business. I am sure there are people who can surprise you.

    1. @Joy,

      I tend to agree w/ a lot of what askdsk mentioned — there are definitely people in China who might surprise you. Outside the bedroom, you might see a person one way…but behind closed doors, you’d be surprised what they’re really like.

      I certainly don’t go into great detail into what goes on in my bedroom, but I can guarantee you my husband is a very passionate and sexy guy behind closed doors. I’d say the same for my first Chinese boyfriend as well.

  11. I don’t think people cares about too many details when they emotionally connect with someone. Sex should not be too glorified. If you want to make someone happy in the bedroom, the rest is easy.

  12. I agree with askdsk that Chinese men share sexual talks among their male friends. For example, if you mean me in person, I won’t talk about sex like with my pals. You have to know that’s the difference between westerners and Chinese. Westerners go into sexual details even with strangers. That is like you have no taste and no respect. Eventhough Jocelyn wants to talk about her bedroom sex life, we won’t let her. Her reputation is very important and we don’t want people to judge her. Some of you can’t talk about sex here but I can 🙂 and I have full support from you :). Chinese men like me love doing “crazy things” in bed including oral ,too :). I know Joy loves to hear things like this 🙂

    I think Joy is talking about crazy things like threesome, different sexual positions, sex toys, having sex in the parks , elevator or the beach. She could mean crazy things like a*** sex . My friend tried a*** sex with a woman and scared the daylight out of him because she didn’t ” prepared ” for that action. My friend was terrified and never ever tried again. I was laughing my ass off and crying at the same time when he told me. Years and years ago , a woman told me to ask another female friend to have a threesome. I told her to ask but she didn’t ask :(. To be honest , all this talks about sex I don’t feel like there is anything exciting anymore. It’s all in our head that we have to try this and that but at the end you just like this only. When I talk to my friends about sex, we all say ” it’s the same s**t , anything will do”. When you haven’t tried lobster before, you anxiously want to try ;however, you get tired after eating 20 lobsters. I don’t want to sound nasty trying to explain this . If you are a very smart person, you know what I mean.


  13. This post really make me laugh. I think it is always helpful to understand the meaning of a Chinese character by tracing back to its origin. How a character is written or used is not random.

    ‘Sao’ is original used to describe the unpleasant smell of a animal, such as a fox. From how it is written, there is a part shows this character is related to animals. In modern Chinese, it is mainly used in a negative way if it describes a woman; It means someone has demonstrated a certain unwelcome trait that is so pungent everyone can feel it.

    However, its meanings also depends on the context and connotation. For example, close guy friends sometimes greeting each other with “sao stuff”.

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