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There's a remarkably national debate going on in China which has reached the front pages of the country' papers: should "happy endings" at massage parlors count as prostitution? Currently, due to loopholes in the country's penal code, they are not, even though China has a strict policy against the oldest profession in the world.

"Various places have different standards for whether masturbation services are a crime; judicial interpretation urgently needed," reads a headline of the People’s Daily newspaper, which was picked up and translated by the AP. First off, "masturbation services" might be the politest way to phrase the act in question, though according to the AP, the purveyors of such services have more colorful terms to lure in customers like "hitting the airplane" and "breast massage." Whatever floats your—umm, hits your airplane. 

But back to the national debate, the fact that it's reached the People's Daily, a newspaper run by China's ruling communist party, sort of indicates that the conversation is bubbling up. As the AP notes, the People's Daily dalliance into happy endings is a departure from its M.O. of "lecturing party members about discipline." 

The reason they're talking about this is because law officials in the city of Foshan (a local news report appears on the right) had a hard time convicting a massage parlor owner whose employees were giving out the services. The massage owner was acquitted because manual stimulation does not fit into the strict definition of prostitution—which involves intercourse. "After further investigation, the defendants were found 'not criminally responsible' and were subsequently acquitted due to 'unclear facts and improper application of the law'. The court said manual stimulation did not belong in the realm of prostitution," the South China Morning Post explained, basing its information on a local report.

It may not be so simple. According to the AP, the law varies: "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." Further, the SCMP cites a 2001 decree by the Ministry of Public Security which classifies masturbation, sodomy, and oral sex as prostitution—but again, that's just a decree. Essentially, "hitting the airplane" in China is all about the fine print. 

Of course there are chuckles to be had, because well, it's sex and in part because of the unshakable stereotype that Asian massage parlors are dens full of happy endings. But Anthony Tao, over at the Beijing Cream blog, explains through the magic of math and statistics why China will never fully shake this "problem." Mathematically, Tao facetiously points out, men will always outnumber women in China, leading to some very lonely nights of hitting the airplane. Tao writes: 

The world’s oldest profession will never go away, especially not in China, where there are approximately 120 boys for every 100 girls. Assuming (generously and for convenience) that 10 percent are gay, that means there are 108 heterosexual boys for every 90 available girls, i.e. 18 out of 108 men who will never find a mate, which is 16.7 percent. Multiplied by China’s current population of men, about 733 million, that means 122 million men aren’t getting it on. Mercy. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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