BEIJING – China's law enforcers are having an unusually public debate about a delicate topic: Do paid sexual services known as "happy endings" at massage parlors count as crimes if they don't involve actual sexual intercourse?
While prostitution is illegal in China, its boundaries are being discussed with rare candor by courts, police and state media -- even the usually stodgy flagship newspaper of the Communist Party.
"Various places have different standards for whether masturbation services are a crime; judicial interpretation urgently needed," read a headline of the People's Daily newspaper, which usually spends its time lecturing party members about discipline or obscure ideological issues.
The debate centers on sexual services provided by employees of usually low-end massage parlors or hair salons, advertised to customers with colorful phrases such as "hitting the airplane" and "breast massage."
While common in Beijing and many other Chinese cities, the services became part of a conspicuous national conversation only this week, following newspaper reports about a crackdown that fizzled in southern Guangdong province.
Police in the city of Foshan arrested hair salon staff for providing sexual services, only to have prostitution charges against them overturned by a local court. A precedent apparently was set last year when the Foshan Intermediate People's Court threw out a verdict against a group of salon staff, including three managers who had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment for "organizing prostitution."
Now courts, police, prosecutors, lawyers and academics are being quoted discussing oral sex and other types of sexual services facilitated by body parts excluding genitals, typically taboo topics that have captured the public's attention.
The question is whether such services can be considered prostitution if there is no intercourse.
Technically, no -- at least according to the highest court in Guangdong province, which says such services fall outside the legal definition of prostitution.
On its official microblog, the court pressed the legislature to clear up the matter, saying that although no law bars such services, they "significantly damage social order and have a certain degree of social harm."
The high court in eastern Zhejiang reportedly concurs that if there is no intercourse, there's no prostitution, but police in the capital Beijing, southern Guiyang and elsewhere disagree. The discrepancy in views is unusual in a society where police, prosecutors and courts are often seen as working in lock-step with one another.
The debate also highlights how much more open urban Chinese have become in their attitudes toward sex, as prosperity rises and government controls on personal freedoms ease. Attitudes remain more traditional in the countryside.
Sociologist and sex expert Li Yinhe said the debate showed the country has come a long way since two decades ago, when displays of public affection and even dancing with members of the opposite sex could be punished.
"The whole social atmosphere has changed. Even in the 1980s the crackdowns were very strong, very severe," Li said. "... In the past, organizing prostitution used to be punishable by death."
She took in the unexpected court verdict with mock horror, saying, "This is simply too subversive."