BEIJING - A college professor in East China was sentenced to be jailed for three and a half years on Thursday for organizing group sex parties, renewing nationwide debate on sexual freedom in the country.
Ma Yaohai and 21 other people were the first group in 20 years to be convicted of group licentiousness, which some sociologists believe to be a moral and private issue.
The Qinhuai District People's Court in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, handed down jail terms of up to two and a half years to 18 others, while the rest of the three people convicted were exempted from criminal penalties as they turned themselves in.
"Ma, 53, received a relatively more severe punishment because he didn't admit the malicious and illegal nature of his conduct," the court said.
Under the country's Criminal Law, the maximum sentence for the crime is five years in prison.
Ma was the only one of the accused to plead not guilty and will appeal his sentence, his lawyer Xue Huogen told China Daily after the verdict was announced.
The other 21 co-defendants have reportedly accepted their verdicts.
On April 7 and 8, the court heard how 14 men and eight women met through an online chat room and engaged in group sex activities from 2007 to 2009.
The twice-divorced Ma became interested in the activities, also known as swinging, in 2003 after his marriages failed. He initially joined chat rooms on the Internet and set up his own online group "fraternity games" in 2007.
The procurators found that Ma had organized and participated in 18 orgies, 14 of which took place at his home, where his mother was also living. Media reports said Ma once entertained up to eight people in his 15-square-meter bedroom.
The 21 others each participated in or organized three to 16 parties.
The group, comprised of white-collar workers, taxi drivers and salesclerks, also held some of the parties in hotels, the court heard.
Ma, a computer science professor at Nanjing University of Technology, admitted the facts, but argued that as all the defendants were voluntary adult participants, they were not guilty of any crime.
"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 said.
However, the chief judge said group licentiousness infringed upon public order.
Some of the defendants were caught during a police raid at a hotel in Qinhuai district in August 2009. Their confessions led to others' arrest.
The punishment has renewed heated debate on whether group sex is just a moral issue and not a criminal one.
By 7 pm on Thursday, a survey on ifeng.com, a major news portal, showed that 70.7 percent of the 15,871 respondents said Ma should not have been brought to trial.
"Voluntary sex in private places, which does not disturb social order or hurt public sentiments, should not be established as a crime," the lawyer Xue Huogen said.
"At worst, they could have gotten administrative punishment like those given for prostitution. There was no need to give a criminal verdict," he said in a telephone interview.
Sociologist and sex expert Li Yinhe said the crime itself should be abolished because it is outdated and the practice only challenges morality.
"Swinging is very private. In this case, public authorities have interfered with people's private lives," Li was quoted by the Shenzhen-based newspaper Daily Sunshine as saying.
"It's a big project (to figure out) what judicial authorities really should do, on what areas and to what extent," Li said.
Xue also said the proceedings show the clash between public power and individuals' rights.
But other legal experts said the punishment is proper.
Pang Zheng, the vice-dean of law school of the Jiangsu-based Nanjing Normal University, said several people having sex in the same place made up a "group" - which goes beyond individual freedom and in which public power can interfere.
Sun Guoxiang, a law professor from Nanjing University, said the "contagious" conduct cannot be accepted by the public.
"It disturbs social order and is harmful to society," Sun said.
"Monogamy is mainstream ideology and the charge is set to protect the sexual relations of mainstream society."