The conviction of a 53-year-old university professor in China who engaged in group sex raises questions about an authoritarian government's attempts to curb sexual freedom and limit privacy in a society where rapid economic growth and the ubiquity of the Internet have upended traditional values.

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BEIJING — In public, he was a twice-divorced computer-science professor dedicated to his students and caring for a mother who has Alzheimer’s disease.

In private, Ma Yaohai, 53, led a life that became intolerable to Chinese authorities: For the past six years, he was a member of informal swingers clubs that practiced group sex and partner swapping. In online chat rooms, his handle was Roaring Virile Fire. He organized and engaged in at least 18 orgies, most in the two-bedroom apartment in Nanjing where he lived with his mother, prosecutors said.

A court sentenced Ma on Thursday to 3 ½ years in prison, a severe penalty for a crime that the Chinese government calls “crowd licentiousness.” Ma remains defiant and plans to appeal, saying his sex life is his own business, not subject to the law as long as he causes no social disturbance, according to his lawyer, Yao Yong’an.

“Privacy needs to be protected,” Yao said.

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The case of Ma, who was arrested in August and went on trial last month, has drawn attention across China for its titillating details and because it raises questions about an authoritarian government’s attempts to curb sexual freedom and limit privacy in a society where rapid economic growth and the ubiquity of the Internet have upended traditional values.

Sex-toy shops and brothels — often thinly disguised as hair salons or massage parlors — proliferate across cities and in many villages, while premarital sex is common among young couples.

Tens of thousands of Chinese engage in swinging (or partner swapping, as the relevant Chinese term more directly translates to), said Li Yinhe, China’s most prominent sexologist. One Web site, Happy Village, has a chat forum openly dedicated to swinging.

In an interview after his arrest, Ma defended his lifestyle.

“Marriage is like water,” he said. “You have to drink it. Swinging is like wine. Some people feel it’s delicious the first time they try it, so they keep drinking. Some people try it and think it tastes bad, so they never drink it again. It’s completely voluntary. No one is forcing you.”

The Communist Party no longer maintains the tight control over people’s private lives that it did decades ago. Yet some officials still try to prosecute citizens based on laws that seem increasingly out of step with social mores. One example is criminal law 301, under which Ma and 21 fellow swingers were prosecuted, and which can result in a five-year prison term.

Legal scholars say Qinhuai District Court, which tried Ma, took an unusually long time to reach the verdict, which could indicate judicial officials had to weigh a variety of legal and political factors in deciding how to enforce this law.

“Because this has raised such a debate, it means that people are increasingly aware that their sexual rights and freedoms are being encroached upon,” said Li, who in March unsuccessfully lobbied legislative advisers to abolish the law. Li is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The law against group sex, generally interpreted by judges as involving three or more people, is left over from an earlier law against “hooliganism” that was used to prosecute people who had sex outside of marriage, Li said. The hooliganism law was scrapped in 1997. One notable swingers case took place in the early 1980s, when the leader of a swingers club involving four couples was executed, she added.

At least three recent surveys have shown that prosecution of group sex does not enjoy widespread support today.

Several Chinese news Web sites posted editorials echoing that sentiment after the verdict was announced.

“This kind of behavior is a citizen’s personal freedom; this is a part of the private rights of citizens,” wrote one author, Yi Bo, on a site maintained by the propaganda department of Shanxi Province.

Ma did not answer calls seeking comment after the verdict.

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