Article: Scared Of The Real World – The British Fear Of Kinky Sex

Thirty years after Operation Spanner, the case of John O’Neill shows that BDSM is the consensual adult sexuality that it is still okay to demonise.

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Fifty Shades of Grey – the movie

In 1987, sixteen gay men in Britain were arrested and ultimately convicted of carrying out consensual BDSM acts with each other – the infamous Operation Spanner case. The arrests followed a police investigation sparked when Greater Manchester Police – of course it would that James Anderton’s moralising bully boys – discovered a videotape of the acts in question and were supposedly convinced that the footage showed real torture and murder. Police forces in the 1980s (and beyond) were obsessed by the belief that snuff movies were actually a thing. Once it became clear that the ‘victims’ were in fact alive and well, and had happily consented to their ‘torture’, then the case should have been dropped, but police forces don’t like to admit the innocence of anyone arrested, and so those involved were taken to court, charged with assault. The judge in the original trial declared – based on rather dodgy precedent involving a 19th century boxing match – that consent was no defence. Unsuccessful appeals went all the way ip to the House of Lords, where the original verdict was upheld, with Lord Templeman stating “In principle there is a difference between violence which is incidental and violence which is inflicted for the indulgence of cruelty. The violence of sadomasochistic encounters involves the indulgence of cruelty by sadists and the degradation of victims. Such violence is injurious to the participants and unpredictably dangerous. I am not prepared to invent a defence of consent for sadomasochistic encounters which breed and glorify cruelty. Society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence. Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is uncivilised.”

Of course, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, which stated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” was just around the corner. In a country where the mere thought of people being gay provoked such paranoid and homophobic legislation, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that the idea of gay men engaging in BDSM acts would be entirely beyond the pale.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then. Section 28 has been long since abolished, gay marriage is a thing and no part of society can get away with any sort of homophobia any more.

What a pity then, that for all the progress in realising that gay men (and it’s always men) are not a threat to society merely by existing, we have stood still – or possibly gone backwards – when it comes to BDSM.

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John O’Neill

John O’Neill is an otherwise nondescript 45 year old man who has made headlines since being outed – by the courts – as the British man who has to tell police 24 hours before having any sort of sexual contact – that includes sex talk and kissing – with a woman. This is despite – well, actually because of – the fact that he was acquitted of rape, unanimously and quickly, by a jury in a trial earlier this year. He is, legally and morally, an innocent man.

Yet the judge in his trial decided that he was, regardless of this, a dangerous man, and encouraged the police to apply for a Sexual Risk Order (SRO). And as we said earlier, the police don’t like to admit the innocence of anyone that they have arrested – let alone charged – and so they were happy to do so. A compliant Magistrates court was happy to grant it. If O’Neill doesn’t inform the police 24 hours in advance of any sexual activity – and presumably this must include chatting someone up – then he faces five years in prison. What the police do with this information is a little unclear, but presumably they will inform any potential partner that O’Neill poses a risk of sexual harm – which one imagines might bite into his chances of actually having sex with anyone. In August, he has to undergo a full hearing to see if the interim order will be extended to five years – effectively a rerun of the trial in which he was already acquitted, but this time in front of magistrates, who tend to be more conservative when it comes to sexual matters than many juries, and have less troubling believing whatever the police tell them.

Given his acquittal in court, the only reason for this belief by the authorities is because O’Neill has an interest in BDSM and used to visit a fetish club. This isn’t a guess – it’s been stated quite clearly that those are the reasons that he is dangerous. In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is a best seller (with a hit movie and a successful range of licensed bondage sex toys to its name)and fetish clubs across the UK attract thousands of people every month, such interests are still seem by the authorities as evidence that you are a threat to society. Imagine if a gay man was banned from working with children because of his sexuality (as has been the case in the past)? We would be rightfully outraged. Yet a man who has never been shown to have carried out a single non-consensual sexual act with anyone is now effectively stopped from having a sex life with other adults because the same sort of people who used to arrest and jail men for cottaging now think that BDSm is the same sort of deviant, criminal mental illness that they once labelled homosexuality as.

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Fifty Shades sex toys – for damaged brains only, clearly

Or, like censorious former Labour MP turned censorious Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird – a frequent campaigner against strip clubs who appeared on the BBC this morning and cynically, nastily tried to muddy the waters by shifting the conversation on SROs to theoretical stories of men grooming underage girls – you simply refuse to believe that any woman can actively consent to a BDSM relationship, especially if she is the sub. Baird and her ilk have a similarly hard time in believing that any woman could choose to work in the sex industry, after all. There must always be abuse, manipulation and coercion, because women just don’t like that sort of thing, do they?

This sort of thinking is also behind the recent Extreme Porn laws, which ban the possession of ‘realistic’ (which is, of course, rather different from ‘real’) images of sexual violence, even if everyone involved has consented – a law so deliberately vaguely worded that the authorities have tried to use it again horror-themed sexy web sites… and recent attacks on fetish and BDSM web sites by OFCOM, who not only demand that adult sites in the UK comply with onerous licensing regulations but will also refuse to license any site that features BDSM, not matter how staged.

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SM Pride march, 2003

In a world where people are falling over themselves to accommodate, support and celebrate our sexual differences, be they any variation on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, pansexuality, gender fluidness or asexuality – BDSM remains, uniquely, the one form of adult consensual sexual preference or desire that it is okay to demonise and criminalise, by the police, the courts and the media. This is an affront to any civilised society, and the treatment of O’Neill (not to mention parents who have their desires used against them in divorce battles, teachers who lose their jobs and others who remain closeted because they fear the backlash against them from friends, employers or angry mobs of idiots who the law encourages to see BDSM as equivalent to paedophilia) should be a national shame. Perhaps it is time for those SM Pride marches to return…

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