By Li Xiaoshu
He jumped at the middle-aged woman, unzipping himself and unbuckling her. They tangled uncomfortably for a few minutes and disengaged with a groan. He didn't remember her name.
"That was awful," Hu Yingxi, 36, an office worker at a public institution in Chongqing Municipality, recalled his first taste of swinging, a non-monogamous social activity, lifestyle and subculture that can be experienced as a couple.
"My wife and I agreed to do something different but neither of us enjoyed it," he told the Global Times.
The couple of eight years cried in each other's arms after their sour experience of the sexual adventure that secretly flourished among some urbanites.
The practice is no longer taboo for Chinese yuppies given the country's dramatic social trans-formation in recent decades.
Such social activities are increasingly attempted, usually after gathering at public entertainment venues and chatting on the Internet, according to Hu.
"Swingers include those who are highly educated, moneyed and ready for polygamous sex in order to raise their quality of life," Hu said.
However, a recent case of alleged wife-swapping on China's east coast, which triggered a fierce national debate over criminalization of private sexual activities, has caused alarm.
Ma Xiaohai, a 53-year-old associate professor and 21 other suspected members of a wife-swapping Internet chat room in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, were accused of "group licentiousness" in a closed court on April 7. The verdict is yet to be announced.
If convicted, Ma and others face up to five years in prison, marking the worst punishment for the offence since the Criminal Law was amended in 2007.
Some are worried that the law enforcement departments will violate their sexual rights at a time when people are demanding greater freedom in China.
Law and swinging
The Criminal Law stipulates that an organizer or anyone who participates in group sex with three or more people can face up to five years in jail, although few people know of the provision or were prosecuted.
Yao Yong'an, Ma's attorney, told the Global Times that the root-cause for the criminalization was a bold attempt by officials in the Nanjing judicial system to showcase their achievement and power.
"The accusation is totally against the rule of law," he said. "It would be a joke when we look back in the future."
Liberals and conservatives debated Ma's case on television, Web portals and newspapers across China.
"Swinging may push society back to the primitive period," said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist in Peking University. "It will have a negative impact on social norms, ethics, morality and law."
Swingers only focus on joys of the flesh and ignore the social cost, which can't be measured, argued Qiu Feng, independent researcher at the Beijing-based Jiuding Public Affairs Institution.
"It's a self-damaging addiction," he said.
In contrast, Li Yinhe, a renowned sexologist and sociologist in China, supported the swingers' and considered the law "old-fashioned, wrong and a violation of the Constitution".
"No other country punishes swingers because adult private activity won't disturb social order or harm the public," she told the Global Times.
"Swinging creates no victim and does not necessarily lead to marriage collapse."
A total of 59 percent Internet users agreed that "citizens have the right to do whatever they want to themselves", according to an online poll of more than 54,000 by sina. com, one of China's biggest portals.
In fact, China has recorded instances of swinging in history
For example, Qing Feng, the grand councillor who assisted King Jing of Qi (547-490 BC), swapped wives with Lu Pu, a chancellor in his own party. The couples even lived together, drinking and fooling around all day, according to the Zuo's Commentary, the earliest Chinese work of narrative history.
Partners and others
Three years before Professor Ma's incident, Su Jing, 34, a former policewoman in Liquan county of Xianyang, Shaanxi Province, shocked mainlanders by publicizing her two swinging experiences on an Internet TV show.
She fell in love at first sight with Xu Dayong, a driver in the county's public security bureau, and married him a week later in 1998.
Some six years later, the pair agreed to seek intimacy out of wedlock to sustain their relationship. They established an online forum for couples to exchange ideas and hang out.
"Fatigue is natural when lovers are too familiar, " Su told the Global Times. "But people should respect the needs and feelings of their partners."
Most friendship explorers are independent, honest and easy-going couples deeply in love but lacking passion, she said.
"We meet friends through random chats, usually initiated by the husband via instant communi-cation software, then choose those with mutual affinity and common ground," disclosed Su. "Wives have the final say."
Swinging activities should be conducted privately with the consent of all parties among healthy couples who don't know each other much over a limited period, according to a principal on Su's blog.
"It's like having new boyfriends and girlfriends, which helps couples to sublimate their re-pressed longings and to cherish the old relationship better," she said. "I strongly oppose sex-oriented communication because the purpose of having friends is to improve the quality of marriage, a divine and legal relationship. Physical contact, of course, can be the byproduct at a certain stage."
Lydia Wong, whose previous disappointments in marriage prompted her to abandon monogamy, said the attempt "could be helpful for women to liberate themselves emotionally and physically."
"It's a challenge to patriarchy. Chinese women are no longer the possession of their husbands," she said.
Fang Gang, a sexologist in Beijing who began his study on swinging since 2006, has made little progress as the experience was too "sensitive to share".
"Alternative sex is always under fire in China," Fang told the Global Times.
He said that swinging is unlikely to be widely accepted in the short term, because it overthrows the mainstream values.
"Ironically, a high proportion among some 30 swingers I studied, found their marriage reinforced," said Fang, who examined the couples' power struggle, persuasion and lobbying, emotional communi-cation and self-protection to avoid social control.
"There's no integrated morality in human history. It's fascist and hegemonic to use the majority's standard to attack the minorities," he said. "Everyone is equal in terms of their sexual right, part of the basic human right."
Fang believed that an advanced society should respect citizens' private right, choice and freedom.
"The resentment against swinging shows that the Chinese still denies pluralism," Fang said.
"It's sad to see Ma and others becoming the victims of the transforming society, where contra-dictory values confront each other in a deadlock."
Web of connection
The practice was not uncommon in the country with rising social tolerance and demand for diversity.
Swinging chat rooms, forums and Web pages, some with paid service, are secretly popularized on the Internet. The Global Times discovered that at least 12 large websites featuring "couple friend-ship" via Baidu, China's largest search engine, and 53 active groups named "club butterfly", another graceful expression for swinging, on the mainland's most popular instant messaging software.
Meanwhile, a few online test fields were detected by the Internet police and closed down during a yearlong crackdown on online pornography.
The Shenzhen-based 69park. com, a swinging website with more than 400,000 club members, 68 percent of whom are married couples, employed an encrypted SSL link last week to prevent visi-tors being tracked either in the office or at home.
The website charges 68 yuan ($10) annually for its high-ranking membership and 168 yuan for a life-long VIP service.
Many swinging website operators are aware of the dangers under the Internet watchdog's tightening control, according to Zhang Mingliang, an executive manager of the website.
"The website license was approved by authorities. There's no pornography here," he said. "The users' online and offline activities can't be considered illegal. They're just playing on the edge. "
The trend has created a new business in big cities of China.
A party at the UK bar in Shenzhen's Sanjiu Hotel last Saturday charged male swingers 300 yuan, said Chen Huisa, a 37-year-old private businessman who organized a swinging group on-line.
"Many couples are desperate for excitement, and some are willing to pay 3,000 yuan for a party," said Zhang Bin, 30, an agent for swingers in Nanjing.
Hu Yingxi and his wife felt more rewarded during their second attempt. Their partners were two university teachers and the four had quite a good time.
However, he realized that swinging was "only a quick fix that won't solve the fundamental problems in a marriage".
"You can't take it too seriously, and everything will flow," he said. "Some swingers feel like they are falling into an abyss, because they don't know what exactly went wrong with them and what price they might pay for it."
Office clerkHu says that "sex is a private journey with those you deeply trust and few couples in reality meet the criteria".
"Be cautious about your lust," he warned. The couple couldn't forget the innocent face of their 6-year-old daughter, once they returned home at midnight.
Swinging Professor Ma Xiaohai
"I'm totally innocent," Ma defended himself to a group of reporters at Nanjing court gate.
Ma, the oldest and most educated in the ring of 14 men and eight women, has reportedly held 18 group sex parties between 2007 and 2009 in the apartment where he lives with his Alz-heimer-stricken mother.
He was first introduced to the idea of "wife swapping" in 2003 after two failed marriages.
Ma started his own online chat group described as a forum for "making friends through couple travel" in 2007.
Ma said he would sometimes participate in the orgies, sometimes watch and sometimes do other things in another room.
"There was no threat or money involved," he said.
Ma stopped hosting the groups in 2009 after a few young girls turned down his sexual demands.
Unexpectedly, the Bailuzhou police station of Qinhuai district, Nanjing, launched a special attack to break the ring, arrested Ma and five other Internet users in a local chain hotel on August 17, 2009.
"I've never heard of 'group licentiousness' before. Has my privacy hurt anyone?" Ma was confused.
The man was fired by the university and entirely relies on his mother's pension.
"I have nothing left," the man under house arrest told the Global Times in a phone interview.
"I should keep my mouth shut."