Apps for casual sex

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There are so many people out there designing apps.  It's potentially a very lucrative business, since, if you come up with the right app to fill a need for millions of people, you can strike it rich.  Consequently, with thousands of people coming up with new apps all the time, there seems to be an app for almost everything under the sun (but not quite — so there's still plenty of room for the designers to come up with more seemingly specialized apps, yet nonetheless fulfilling somebody's requirements).

One app that I never in my wildest imagination would have dreamed of is for casual sex.  I may be naive or misinformed, but I don't think we have such apps in this country, though perhaps we have them and they are beyond my ken, because I never went looking for them.  As a matter of fact, I don't use any apps, because I don't even have a cell phone.

In any event, apps for casual sex are a hot item in China, which might surprise you if you were of the opinion that Chinese are by nature sexually conservative and shy.

The reason I am writing this post is because I came across the terms used to designate this type of apps and the business they facilitate.  I had never before seen or heard these words, and they sounded strange to me, so strange that I really didn't know what they meant until I made a concerted effort to investigate them.

Here are the terms that were so alien to me, but are actually popularly used for casual sex apps in China:

yuēpào 约炮 (lit., "agree / arrange cannon")

Neither Google Translate ("about guns") nor Bing Translator ("about cannon") know what this term means, but Baidu Fanyi surprisingly has "hook up".

pàoyǒu 炮友 (lit., "cannon friend")

Google Translate ("friends with benefits") doesn't understand the meaning of this term, but Bing Translator ("sex friends") and Baidu Fanyi ("sex partner") get the basic meaning.

I will explain the historical background and nuances of these terms in some detail below, but first I would like to quote the initial two paragraphs of an illuminating article on this subject:

"Yuepao apps and casual sex culture" by Haiqing Yu (China Policy Institute:  Analysis, 8/1/16).

“Every technological innovation creates deviant as well as respectable possibilities.” So opens an essay written by Charles Edgley and Kenneth Kiser in 1982. The invention of instant photography represented by the Polaroid Camera facilitated homemade pornography, known in its day as “Polaroid sex.” Polaroid sex allowed young women, who were identified as “bad girls”, to pose for “naughty” pictures and engage in more egalitarian sexual pursuits. It also facilitated casual and commercial sexual relationships among strangers. Fast forward to China in 2016, where the availability and immense popularity of social media services and mobile phone apps has rendered casual sex “mobile,” on-the-go, and at one’s finger tips. They have enabled all kinds of young adults to explore their sexuality, set new trends, and pose new questions about the linkage between technology and sex, “deviance” and respectability.

The perception that China is a sexually conservative society is outdated. People born after 1980 (the first ‘single-child’ generation) and 1990 (China’s “Millenials”) are willing to explore means of satisfying their romantic and sexual needs. This includes an extensive use of online social media platforms. Casual sexual relationships, including one-night stands, “friends with benefits”, “booty calls” and “fuck buddies” are now “mainstream” behaviours among students on Chinese university campuses. As such, yuepao (约炮) — a neologism meaning “meeting for sex” — has become entrenched in contemporary sex culture in China. Ask any urban dweller under 40 years old in China about yuepao and paoyou (炮友 “fuck buddy”) and they will tell you that they know about it, or have been there, done that.

Since when did 炮 come to mean the f-word?  How did it get that meaning?

First of all, we need to recognize that 炮 has three main pronunciations, each with its own set of meanings:

bāo — quick-fry; sauté; dry by heat

páo — prepare Chinese medicine by roasting / parching it in a pan

pào — big gun; cannon; firecrackers; artillery piece

Which is the right pronunciation and meaning in these new expressions for casual sex (and casual sex apps)?

According to the Baidu 百度 encyclopedia, one of the meanings of the term dǎpào 打炮 ("fire a gun [cannon]; put on a good performance") is to have sex with prostitutes, and this term was used in that sense during the late Qing period (1644-1912).  See the 5th entry here.

Still today, dǎpào 打炮 ("fire a gun [cannon]; put on a good performance") has the slang meaning "to have sex." However, it usually means casual sex, one night stands, or sex without emotional attachment. Therefore, dǎpào 打炮 (similar to the English term "to bang") is different from zuò'ài 做爱 ("make love"). The Chinese terms yuēpào 约炮  ("booty calls") and pàoyǒu 炮友 ("f*ck buddies") both come from the term dǎpào 打炮 ("fire a gun [cannon]; put on a good performance; have sex with a prostitute").

According to Wiktionary, dǎpào 打炮 ("fire a gun [cannon]; put on a good performance") can also mean "to jerk off, to masturbate", which recalls this recent post and the ensuing discussion.

One of my informants, from Mainland China, states:

I first heard these words* in around 2007, and I was shocked, because I didn't know this use of 炮 and the concept of "pillow friend" or "fuck buddy" at that time, and these words express the concept perfectly. Other words like 性伙伴\床伴** are either too formal or too obvious. But I really have no idea when and how they got this meaning.

[*VHM:  yuēpào 约炮 ("arrange for sex; booty call") and pàoyǒu 炮友 ("f*ck buddy")

[**VHM: xìng huǒbàn 性伙伴 ("sexual partner"); chuángbàn 床伴 ("bed partner")]

Perhaps apps like these would be illegal in America because they would be considered as advertising / soliciting for prostitution.  Indeed, I'm surprised that the authorities have not cracked down on such operations in China, since they have harsh laws against prostitution on the books.

When, for some unknown reason, the police do decide to clamp down on prostitution, as happened recently much to the chagrin of feminists and johns alike, they will even go so far as to consider as evidence of prostitution possession of condoms by a woman.

It would be very easy to block use of these terms on electronic media and arrest those who attempt to do so.  Judging from what I know about Chinese hotels, barber shops, and so on, however, such anti-prostitution laws are "More honour'd in the breach than the observance".

"Warm Notice" (5/27/14)

"Keith Chen animated" (9/7/13)

A short concluding note:

When I began this post, I was wondering which was the correct English verb for bringing an app into existence.  Three I thought of right away were "create", "design", and "make", but I wasn't sure which of them was the right one.  So I asked some friends what they thought, and received the following additional suggestions:  "build", "write", "develop".

There were also the following more expansive explanations:


In my idiolect, create an app is more commonly used than design an app. The former seems semantically more general. An app creator can personally do everything or might hire an app designer for graphics.


On the basis of nothing more than my ear and memory I assert that "build" is used most within the tech community. You call yourself an "app developer" but do you "develop an app"? No, typically you "build an app." Create seems very context-specific. Of course I could be wrong.


The following were produced by searching in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) by specifying a verb (in any form) followed by "an app" and outputting lemmas. I have filtered out inapplicable entries like "is an app". The number preceding each entry is the frequency in the corpus. For the top two entries, I have additionalyl given a context breakdown).

7 develop (4 mag, 2 spok, 1 news)
5 create  (2 mag, 2 spok, 1 news)
3 make
3 build
2 release
2 offer
1 publish
1 provide
1 present
1 invent
1 do
1 code
1 design

[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Melvin Lee, Fangyi Cheng, Michael Carr, Kaiser Kuo, Bill Dove, Gene Hill, Stefan Krasowski, Joseph Mair, and Randy Alexander]


  1. Sockatume said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    If Google Translate is returning "Friends with benefits" as a translation, it definitely *does* grasp the meaning of the term! Your internal slang dictionary must be out of date. ;) It's interesting that Google Translate returns a matching slang term as a translation for a slang term, while the other sites provide a literal interpretation.

    Much of its corpus is based on doing comparisons between equivalent items in different languages, e.g. if someone has a page they've personally translated into a different language, their algorithms use it to learn which terms are equivalent.

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

    Da pao with those meanings was around in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Another for masturbating was da feigei (da feiji, "shoot down an airplane").
    Casual sex apps abound in the US–the best-known one is Tinder.

  3. leoboiko said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    There are a number of apps for casual sex in not-China, the most famous being Tinder (not strictly for sex but… well, often it is), and, for gay men, Grindr (most definitly for sex).

    And Sockatume's right; "friends with benefits" is not only a valid translation, but it's the best translation out of the ones you cited.

  4. AB said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    Does Mr Mair have his tongue in his cheek, or is he seriously asking whether there are hook-up apps in the West?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 4:33 pm


  6. Rubrick said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

    Actually it's unclear to me whether "friends with benefits" is an apt translation or not in this context. To me that term denotes a relationship that's mostly about friendship, with occasional sex thrown in as an option, whereas a hookup suggests sex without a prerequisite relationship of any kind. Both seem to fall under the rubric of "casual sex", though.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    friends with benefits

  8. Steve Politzer-Ahles said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

    I wonder if the use of 炮 pào for "fuck" has any relation to 泡 in e.g. 泡妞 pào niū "pick up chicks"? There seems to be some clear phonological analogy. But between 泡妞 and 约炮/炮友/etc. I don't know which predates the other, and I'm also not sure how 泡 came to take on the meaning "to pick up".

  9. Ari Corcoran said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

    Such a pleasure to find @ Victor Mair you don't own a cell phone. I have one, but can best be described as a stupid one, i.e. it just makes and receives phone calls and messages, and is singularly incapable of utilising apps, let alone take photos etc. It's an ancient Nokia, and far from being a smartphone. I wonder, though, if there were a "casual linguistics" app might both of us change our tune? Casual sex, I assume, often involves the use of the tongue.

  10. Ajax said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

    Ari, some people call that a dumbphone.

  11. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 5:31 am

    @Ajax, Ari Corcoran: the industry term is feature phone, a nice retronym.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 6:02 am

    I'm a tad surprised anyone is surprised at the existence of apps for casual sex. I mean, I didn't independently think up the concept for myself, but when I heard of it it definitely fell into the obvious-in-retrospect department.

    In Brazil, the government has been leaning on operators to shut down dating/hookup/sex apps during carnival etc., to limit the spread of STD's.

  13. S said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    they will even go so far as to consider as evidence of prostitution possession of condoms by a woman.

    Wherever did they get that idea from?

  14. oulenz said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

    The different verbs to use with apps for me imply different types of involvement. So I would say e.g. that Microsoft have _created_ a new app, but that there is a team within Microsoft _building_ the app. The option that for me implies most direct involvement is _writing_ an app, since that is what one actually does, one sits behind a computer and writes lines of code. If John Doe had created an app in their spare time I would say John Doe had _written_ an app.

  15. Brian K said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    Coming from a technical background, I read "building" a piece of software as the process of compiling its source code into executable files, not that of conceiving, writing, and launching it. Of course, it can be applied to the whole process by synecdoche, but I doubt that is what most people actually think they are doing. See, for instance, this Microsoft tutorial, which uses "build an app" only in this more restricted sense.

  16. JS said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

    I got a smartphone only relatively recently but had often heard tell of exciting "apps". When I did get one, I discovered these were just what were once called "programs".

  17. chris said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    @Brian K: and the closely related noun use of "build" to mean the result of a specific instance of compiling: "what's new in this build?" Even more fine-grained than a version, because version implies publication outside development circles; there are many builds but few of them are released as versions.

  18. Bathrobe said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

    I had always assumed that Japanese セックスフレンド sekkusu-furendo was equivalent to English 'friend with benefits'. It means a friend who is not your 'girlfriend' (or 'boyfriend') but will give you sex.

    You could argue that there is a difference between a 'friend with benefits', which suggests a 'friend' who happened to turn into a sex partner, and a 'fuck-buddy', which suggests a relationship that is purely focussed on no-strings-attached sex, but in practical terms I don't think there is a big difference. Both are about a person who will give you regular sex without a romantic relationship.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    My feeling is that the 泡 pào in 泡妞 pào niū is a different word from the 炮 pào in 打炮 dǎ pào. 泡 pào originally meant 'to steep, soak', but has the derived meaning of 'wasting time'. So 泡妞 pào niū means to waste time playing about with women, although the actual content of the wasted time is probably 打炮 dǎ pào.

  20. Dave Cragin said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    Ari – A 4/2016 article in the Wall St. J. noted that in the USA flip-phone sales were almost 2 million units HIGHER in 2015 than in 2014. Personally, I was a late adopter of a smart phone (an iphone), but I love it, particularly in regards to helping me with my Chinese.

    On it, I have 4 dictionary apps. Also, over 50% of my daily battery usage goes to Wechat, the Chinese messaging app, and many calls are to Chinese friends (wechat allows free calls), so my iphone is primarily a Chinese-language learning device and secondarily a phone.

    Regarding sex, several Chinese friends have independently told me the same thing: That they are comfortable discussing sex in English, but saying the equivalent in Chinese makes them uncomfortable. They note that the English words don’t have the same cultural-baggage that the Chinese words do for them.

    Context note: These friends are highly fluent in English and more than 30 yrs old.

    The lack of cultural baggage is similar to comments from European friends who say inserting words like “sh*t” or “f**k” into normal conversation just adds impact. Once in airport shuttle van in Copenhagen, a French woman next to me managed to insert “sh*t” twice into our short conversation. However, she wasn’t really swearing – because to her, it wasn't a swear word.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    August 6, 2016 @ 1:34 am

    @Bathrobe: I definitely distinguish between "friends with benefits" and "fuck-buddy." I've also noticed the lack of a term in between those two terms for a fuck-buddy that one occasionally/rarely does friend-type-stuff with. "Fuck buddy with benefits" is the term that occurred to me, but I think most people wouldn't get that.

  22. Bathrobe said,

    August 6, 2016 @ 2:32 am

    @ Chas Belov

    I stand corrected.

    At any rate, I don't think that Google's 'friend with benefits' is as far off as has been suggested. Sekkusu-furendo, which I first heard in the early 1990s, is somewhere between 'friend with benefits' and 'fuck-buddy'. I usually heard it from men, and the implication was definitely of a girl who would put out for you without the need for a 'proper' relationship. 'Friend with benefits' is at the nice end of the spectrum, 'fuck-buddy' is at the coarse end, but both could be regarded as sekkusu-furendo, which is a mixture of the blatant (sekkusu) and the nice (furendo), plus the distancing effect of using English. Of course, a sekkusu-furendo is exactly what many young men would like to have….

    However, I take it that 炮友 pàoyǒu is closer to the 'fuck-buddy' end of the spectrum, given that 打炮 dǎ pào is somewhat vulgar and, it seems, more likely to be applied to doing it with a professional than with your girlfriend.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    That's interesting about 约炮 'schedule a bang [or eventually a whimper]'. I didn't know 约炮/打炮/炮友 were that common among straight people, or suspect the word went back to late-Qing times. I haven't got much to add, except perhaps the term 固炮 (= 固定炮友). You might like the vocabulary here.

    It includes a bit of gay slang, digraphia, English and Cantonese loanwords (基佬) and the distich


    which includes a Chinese medicine reference to 'kidneys' – another interesting topic.

    A commenter brought up 打飞机. I wonder if you've ever posted about that? The HK origin, which I didn't know about, could explain how just decades ago people could publish titles like «如何打飞机» with a straight face. See, for example, here.

    There are several such books. The Chinese Innernets went mad over them some time ago.

  24. DWalker said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    Apps for casual hookups do not necessarily run afoul of laws against prostitution, UNLESS you know that payment is taking place. Often, with hookup apps, neither party is paying the other any cash.

  25. Axel said,

    August 9, 2016 @ 10:50 pm

    セックスフレンド (sekkusufurendo) has of course undergone the usual Japanese compression, and is now セフレ (sefure) in anything but explanatory prose/speech.
    Just in case some industrious person decides to do an NGRAM frequency comparison or suchlike.

    It's quite rare (or it seems quite rare to me) for a loan word or neologism to retain more than three or four of its original morae after it's gotten popular in Japan.

  26. Asking for a friend said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 9:35 am

    All the terms for masturbation are male-oriented. What phrase would a woman use to describe masturbation in Chinese?

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