Ma Yaohai is a man who stands up for his beliefs. That has caused problems for the former computer science teacher, because one of his beliefs is in the virtues of group sex, which is against the law in China. On May 20, Ma was sentenced by a Nanjing court to a three-and-a-half year prison term for the crime of "group licentiousness." But he maintains he did nothing wrong, and his case has provoked broad public debate in this rapidly changing nation about sexuality and the lines between government control and personal freedom.
Prosecutors say the 53-year-old Ma, who divorced in 2003, began pursuing group sex in 2007. According to authorities, he used online chat groups to set up 35 meetings over a two-year period, half of which he participated in. Some, they claim, even occurred in the small apartment belonging to his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.
Police tracked down the group and Ma was arrested last year, along with 13 other men and eight women, for organizing group sex sessions. His co-defendants all pleaded guilty; 18 were sentenced to jail terms of up to two-and-a-half years, while three were released without punishment. Ma, however, remains defiant. While he admits to organizing and participating in swingers' clubs, he says that because the activities occurred between consenting adults behind closed doors, he shouldn't be punished.
"Marriage is like water: you have to drink it. Swinging is like a glass of fine wine: you can choose to drink it or not," he was quoted as saying by the government's official paper China Daily. "What we did, we did for our own happiness. People chose to do it of their own free will and they knew they could stop at any time. We disturbed no one."
Ma's is a view that some in China share. While experts estimate the number of Chinese participating in group sex at under 100,000 a tiny figure in a country of 1.3 billion some commentators have argued that the practice shouldn't be prohibited. "If there is no victim, then I think the government shouldn't interfere," says Li Yinhe, a prominent sexologist in Beijing. "It's a private matter."
Comments posted online show a mixed opinion. Many are critical of Ma's behavior. "You led a 22-person orgy. You have destroyed ethics and morality," writes one person on a Chinese microblog service at sohu.com. "This behavior has caused social chaos. People like you should be punished severely." But others argue that China shouldn't regulate the behavior of consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. "What Teacher Ma did violates society's ethics and morality, but it's his private life," another person wrote on a bulletin board at xici.net. "Moreover, everyone was an adult, and everyone was a voluntary participant. What crime is there in that?"
The debate over Ma's conviction and sentencing reflects larger uncertainties about sexuality in China. While conservative laws remain on the books, Chinese society is stumbling toward a more liberal attitude about sexuality. Pornography is banned, for instance, but the blocks on adult-oriented websites have inspired some Chinese users to acquire specialized software to circumvent the government's system of web censorship. Shops filled with sex toys, often called "adult health stores," are common in every Chinese city. People who have enthusiastically documented their promiscuity in writing have found wide readerships on the Internet. It's common for prominent and wealthy men to indulge in affairs, so much so that every story of a fallen corrupt official is inevitably paired with tales of his pampered mistresses. At least 90% of high-level cadres convicted of graft also kept mistresses, according to a report by Chinese prosecutors in 2007. Prostitution, too, is as ubiquitous as it is illegal, with most cities playing host to brothels poorly disguised as hair salons.
Earlier this year, Beijing sexologist Li proposed that the 1997 law banning "group
licentiousness" should be dropped. "If the nation's laws interfere with
this sort of activity of people in private, then it seems like the
participants' bodies aren't their own, they're the government's," she
wrote on her blog. While China's legislature didn't act on her
suggestion, there are signs that official views toward group sex are
moderating. In the 1980s, people convicted of the now defunct crime of
"hooliganism" which prohibited several types of sexual activity
including group sex could be executed, Li says. While Ma's supporters are critical of his conviction, the first under the
"group licentiousness" law in two decades, they know that in the past
his punishment could have been far worse.
With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing