After a brief historiographical introduction that looks back at van Gulik's Sexual Life in Ancient China, Goldin covers three major topics. Chapter one surveys copulation imagery in pre-imperial literature, principally the Canon of Odes, the Tso-chuan (a commentary on the Springs and Autumns), and the Lyrics of Ch'u. Copulation was used as a metaphor for the relationship between worshipper and deity, or between ruler and adviser. And eating was used as a metaphor for copulation, which potentially involved the exchange of ching, or "refined essence". Goldin also examines possible connections with shamanism.
Chapter two examines Confucian views on sex roles and the status of women. While there were certainly misogynist elements in Confucianism,
"Confucian thinkers insisted on the moral autonomy of all human beings regardless of sex, and when this commitment forced them to break down the traditional categories of nei and wai [inner and outer], they were not reluctant to do so. Therefore it is not surprising that they were criticized bitterly in their own time for the extraordinary respect with which they regarded women."Goldin also argues that readings of Lao-tzu as more sympathetic to women than the Confucians are misguided.
In the early Empire sexual behaviour was linked to politics:
"Sexual relations had to be orderly and regulated, because sexual aberrations — like all aberrations — threatened the fragile unity of the new empire, and so were tantamount to rebellion. This was the early imperial sex ideology; it is one of the outstanding features of the Han intellectual world."Goldin illustrates this with the story of the First Emperor's paternity, the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien's castration, and the use of accusations of incest against political enemies in the early Han. He also explains how the puritanism of later Han ritualists, supposedly based on pre-imperial texts, was actually an invention.
An epilogue looks briefly at views of sex after the fall of the Han, when aristocrats struggled for local supremacy during the Six Dynasties. While puritan strands of thought continued, there were others that stressed "nonconformism, objection to moribund ritualism, and affirmation of personal autonomy" and even rights to privacy. Religious Taoism also offered an alternative view of sexuality.