BEIJING – A series of arrests in a lurid case of alleged wife-swapping has sparked a fierce national debate over criminalization of private sexual mores at a time when people are demanding greater freedom.
Ma Yaohai, a 53-year-old computer science professor, and 21 alleged members of a wife-swapping Internet chat room were charged with "group licentiousness" in the southeastern city of Nanjing.
Ma, the oldest and most well educated of the group of 13 other men and eight women, reportedly held group sex parties at his home between 2007 and 2009. They could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Ma says he was first introduced to the idea of "wife swapping" in 2003, although he didn't have a wife at the time. Actually, he said that his two failed marriages are the reason for his interest in group sex – so he could distract himself from his feelings of depression.
"It was purely consensual. There was no threat or any money involved," Ma said during a phone interview with NBC News. "Most of the people would just watch and leave, very few of them really engaged in real activities."
In 2007 he started his own online chat group that was described as a forum for "making friends through couple travel." During the next two years, Ma allegedly organized 18 orgies in the apartment where he lives with his Alzheimers-stricken mother.
Ma said that sometimes he would participate in the orgies, sometimes he would watch and sometimes he would just have a cigarette in the next room. The participants varied from young to old, white-collar workers to taxi drivers. Some were husbands and wives, but most didn't have regular sex partners. Ma stopped hosting the groups during the summer of 2009 after his sexual demands were refused by a few young girls and because, he says, he felt his health was deteriorating.
While prostitution is rampant in China, very few Chinese have ever heard of the crime of "group licentiousness," which was written into China's criminal law in 1997 as an amendment.
The law stipulates that a "leader" or anyone who participates in group sex with three or more people can face up to five years in jail. This makes a threesome technically a crime in China, although in reality, people are rarely prosecuted for it.
"I'm innocent," said Ma. "I've never heard of this crime before. It's all done at home privately and willingly. Nobody has forced anyone else to have sex."
The case is being debated by liberals and conservatives on television, Web portals and newspaper pages across China.
Ma explained why he believes there is nothing wrong with the practice. "Marriage is like plain water: You have to drink it no matter what. But wife swapping is like drinking wine: You could choose to do it or not, it's all up to your own will."
But many have accused him of violating morality. When asked about that allegation, he became very emotional. "Has my private life changed the way of your life? Has it hurt anyone? We don't have sex as you imagine and they just demonize me."
Ma is getting some support on the Net. In an online survey of more than 54,000 readers by Sina.com, one of China's biggest Web portals, 59.1 percent agreed that "citizens have the right to do whatever they want to do to their bodies at their own will."
But in response to the question: "What do you think of Ma's charge on the crime 'group licentiousness?'" 29 percent of respondents said, "His behavior has violated traditional moral ethics and will easily lead people to sinful sex indulgence." Another 11.5 percent said, "It's hard to say."
On the bulletin board of another major Website, Sohu.com
, almost half of the survey participants said they supported Ma's right to do what he did.
"This is purely someone's own business, there's no need to hunt him for that, just like having an affair. Why do they even bother? If they have time, why don't they take care of all those corrupt officials?" said one reader who went by the alias langyujun2008so.
Others expressed anger over Ma's behavior. "These animals, do they have any morals? In this society, moral ethics just don't work anymore!" said another reader.
Li Yinhe, a renowned sexologist and sociologist in China, has openly supported Ma in her blog.
"The key point is how you define social ethics. If you define ethics within the boundary of marriage and sexual behavior is only confined with marriage, it is very outdated and stays in the Middle Ages," wrote Li. "Since China entered modern society, citizens have their own choices. Some choose not to have marriage and some prefer sex outside marriages. It does not harm themselves or others … Therefore I think 'group licentiousness' is an old-fashioned and wrong law. Abolishing this law is not going to hurt social customs or moral ethics."
Ma and the 21 other defendants were tried in a closed court on Wednesday, but the verdict has not been announced yet.