Yesterday, Ma Yaohai, a 53 year old college professor, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison in China. He and 21 others were charged with "group licentiousness," a 1997 law that has never before been prosecuted. Because he was the only member of the group that went to trial, he received the longest prison term and quite a bit of publicity. The law was initially written as a way to prosecute people who had sex outside of marriage.
Mr. Ma became interested in swinging in 2003 after his second failed marriage. He initially joined chat rooms on the internet and then set up his own online group in 2007, eventually gaining 200 members. This group has been described as a "modern day swinger's club," gathering in homes or hotels for group sex parties. Mr. Ma was originally arrested with three others in a hotel room, but he was also accused of having parties in his home.
In Chinese, "swinging" is known as "partner swapping," and is part of a new era in China of relative sexual freedom, where extramaratial affairs and prostitution are more common, especially in urban areas. According to Li Yinhe, China's most prominent sex expert, Chinese attitudes towards sex have changed dramatically during the last 20 years, including more acceptance of everything from holding hands and kissing in public to premarital sex and homosexuality. Of course, the growth of the internet in China has played a major role in this change; the largest online site about group sex, Happy Village, has more than 380,000 registered members.
From the press coverage, even the Chinese press, it appears that Mr. Ma has garnered more support from the Chinese then condemnation - the majority of people polled did not feel he should be prosecuted for a crime even if they disapproved of his behavior. However, there are some, such as Yuan Jiuhong, a professor at Nanjing Southeast University, who state that wife swapping should be banned because it "violates moral ethics, which will affect social order and harm interpersonal relationships."
Mr. Ma has been quoted as stating that, "Marriage is like water: you have to drink it. Swinging is like a cup of wine: You can drink it if you like. If you don't like it, don't drink it." He has defended his actions by stating that he participated in sexual activity with consenting adults in private, and that there should be no government interference as long as these standards are met. Read in the way he intended, the quote about wine is about choice, and having the freedom to choose. However, it is an interesting analogy to use given that China has the world's largest number of internet users (290 million), with 70% under the age of 30. It has been estimated (Dr. Tao Ran, Chinese psychologist) that 4 to 6 percent of Chinese internet users (which includes more than 13% of college students) are "addicts" - defined as anyone who spends more than 6 hours per day for three months or more on non work or study related internet use. That amounts to 17 million "net junkies" in China.
Is there a relationship between the two? Maybe for some, maybe not for others. However, if swinging is truly "like wine" there is real danger in "drinking" too much. Certainly a more open and accepting attitude towards different or alternative lifestyles, different sexual orientations, and minority groups is something that many would evaluate as positive. In the United States we may view the debate in China over prosecuting someone for having more than one sexual partner as antiquated and unfair. But by the same token, in the US we still struggle to figure out what it means to have a "sexual addiction," and how much is too much to be healthy. We debate over laws regarding who may partner (and marry) whom, and how we deal with underage sexual behaviors. These debates are far from over, and as the internet brings people from all over the world into closer and far more frequent contact, it's a debate we are all in together.