Petula Ho Sik Ying: “I Choose to Live a Life at The Margin” (Aura)


Posted: May 14, 2012 | Author: Xinyan Yu

A faithful woman in her midlife, pursuing self-exploration and alternative relationships; a liberal professor taking a daring position to tell stories of subjugated women in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong- A soft-spoken woman of tiny frame, Petula Ho Sik Ying leaned on the table, stirred her honey tea with lemon, and listened attentively. She looked no more than 40 years old with her glossed lips and black frame glasses; her pitch-black hair bounced slightly over her skinny shoulders as she talked.

At first glance, it’s hard to relate Ho to the image of a liberal relationship counselor or a sex guru, but she has been one of the pioneers in sexual liberation in Hong Kong. As a scholar, the subjects she studies and writes about, such as “Sex and Housewives in Hong Kong”, “Beyond the vagina-clitoris debate: From naming the sex organ to the reclaiming of the body” and “The circle game: Reflections on sexual hierarchy through multiple sexual relationships”, makes her an inevitably controversial figure.

In Hong Kong, a metropolitan city where Chinese traditional culture prevails, Ho teaches her students to experiment with their sexuality and desires. She endorses women, especially those in their midlife crisis, to boost their “erotic energy” to feel sexy and beautiful despite women’s traditional image of being docile and submissive. She opposes marriage, and insists that every marriage will end in de facto divorce.

Frequently quoted in Hong Kong media famous for asking her female students “have you tried peeing while standing”, Ho is often labeled as “the professor who practices extramarital sex”, “the sex doctor” and “the female paragon”. Her bold comments may have misled many people to think of her as a sex maniac or a social dissident, but she is just an ordinary woman with her own dreams and endeavors who chooses to be different.

“I live a life at the margin. I have chosen to be more outspoken,” said Ho. “I know I offend people, but I have chosen to do this. It’s a freedom I have fought hard for. It’s a freedom of speech, expression and association for myself and others.”

Ho said:” Deep down, I must be a fearful person, too. I fear a lot about authority. I fear a lot about whether I’m good or successful enough like all women, but I don’t think we are better off if we live in fear, so everywhere I go, I want people to relax, and always say what’s on their minds.”

Fifty-three years old and unmarried, Ho is elegant and mature like most educated women in their midlife, but she gives off a much more confident, poised and energetic aura. When other women are busy raising children and arranging households goods, she tries to pick up video-making, ballet dancing, and writing books while keeping up her work at the University of Hong Kong, where she teaches a popular course called Love, Marriage and Sex inModern China.

She has been a radio hostess for 13 years, advising her female audiences to seek freedom and break away from troubled relationships and marriages, even at the expense of violating social norms. She is also a practitioner of her own belief. She has chosen to stay in a relationship with a married man for more than 12 years.

It is what she calls an alternative relationship, a chance for an idealist like her to taste the eternity of love. She believes it’s in the nature of both men and women to always look for new partners, so people should be granted the freedom to do so.

“Since I have known him (the married man), maybe I have been involved with other people in a broad sense, but even if I haven’t, this relationship in its true nature is already a multiple sexual relationship,” Ho said.

“To me it’s a one-to-one relationship, but to him, maybe not. But the question is do I care, or does it matter. Has he been involved with other women? I’m sure he was. I was mad. I was upset. But I loved him still the same. Over time it doesn’t matter any more.”

Ho said she didn’t know how many boyfriends she’s had over the years, because the criteria could be very “elusive and ambiguous”. “It’s difficult to define a relationship. If sex is a criteria, it could be a long list,” Ho said. “When it’s not just about sex, I still find it difficult to give any relationship a label.” She gave an example of her first relationship with a college mate who turned out to be gay.

It was a sexless relationship that awakened her to think about what sex and love mean to a woman. She had decided that even though two persons have different sexual preferences, and there would be no sex or marriage, they should still be able to relate to and love each other. The summer of 1989, Ho found out that her boyfriend then was homosexual, and from that point on, she went from a being devout Christian to following her own religion: the pursuit of alternative relationships.

“I believe there are different ways to love,” said Ho. “There are different models of relationships. I believe I could open a new pathway. I believe I could create a new space (for love).” That was how she grew to resist marriage or monogamy.

Some may call it pessimistic, some may call it liberal, from all the interviews and research she did, Ho believes marriage binds men and women in a rigid institution, and although only one-third of marriages end up in divorce, most of those who stay in marriage live a life pretending they were the lucky few“ It’s mostly because they are too afraid or there is too much at stake to get a divorce,” said Ho.

“If you find somebody in your 20s, of course you want to get married. You should go for it, enjoy it and be happy,” said Ho. “But you should also know that this definitely will not last. Being married doesn’t make you happier. I’m an idealist who can’t endorse marriage wholeheartedly, because every institution has its own problems and structural defects.”

Born to a Christian family of eight members living in public housing, Ho was a hard-working student who became the only college graduate in her family. In college, she was a typical good girl who insisted on sexual abstinence, but now she is religious in her own way.

Ho has started to learn ballet dancing recently, even though her instructor told her that the body of a fifty-year-old woman might not take the intensity of the exercises. She was also inspired by her students to begin videotaping all the interviews she did for her academic projects, recording men and women’s actions and emotions about love and relationships.

“I have lots of artists friends who encourage me to explore new aspects of myself, and get to know more things I don’t know about,” said Ho. “Academic pursuit may be important, but artistic pursuit is ultimate.”

An open-minded professor, Ho is very popular with her students, but her liberal teaching style can be offensive to some conservative students and colleagues. “It’s important to have a group of people who don’t like you. It’s a source of inspiration,” Ho said. “It’s like being a rock star. You need the anger to keep you going. In a big class, there are always one or two students who don’t like me, but I don’t feel bothered. Every year I’m always prepared to have some evaluations that say bad things about me. It’s valid criticism.”

However, she is not without her own regrets and fears about life. When Ho was younger, she was told that she had fibroids in her uterus, and she made the choice to treat it aggressively by having the uterus removed. Only after the operation did she start to regret her choice, because she had deprived herself of the ability to have children.

No children, no marriage, Ho knew that she would have to endure what most women are afraid of: spending the last years of their lives alone. She admits that she fears it too, but she sees it as a process that everyone has to go through.

“Everybody goes through old age alone. Even if I am married, I will still die alone. The man will die before me,” said Ho. “But on the other hand, I will never be on my own, because I will always have my own family, friends and students around me.”

See Dr. Ho’s academic works, essays and video projects here: