Monday, 19 November 2007

Vicious Cycle

It seems like the start of a bad joke - What do you call a man who simulates sex with his bicycle?

If you're his defence counsel, it seems the answer is "a sad little man"1.
If you're the court sheriff, a "cycle-sexualist"2.

The man was in his locked room in a hostel in Ayrshire, Scotland "naked from the waist down" and accompanied by the bike when cleaners knocked and then gained entry using a master key. Despite the fact he was by all accounts on his own in his own room, he was charged with 'sexual breach of the peace' and (upon pleading guilty*) put on probation and on the Sex Offenders' Register for three years!

As this article3 at BBC News indicates, the aforementioned court decision has caused something of an uproar on online debate forums and blogs, with obvious concerns regarding privacy, state interference in sex lives and the misuse of the SOR being highlighted.

What fewer people who have been have read of this shocking but isolated injustice this week may be aware of is that a new law, part of a bill currently on its way through Parliament as I write, threatens to criminalise many more people for what they do behind closed doors.

Sections 64-67 of the Criminal Justice & Immigration bill4, nicknamed the 'Dangerous Pictures Act' by opponents5, provides for the creation of a new offence of 'Possession of extreme pornographic images', punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment and placement upon the Sex Offenders' Register. 'Extreme pornographic images', under the Bill, are images which appear to depict violence in a sexual context. As Frank Fisher alluded to on Comment is Free last month6, the legislation threatens to make a criminal offence the possession of practically any BDSM imagery, as well as recontextualised images from a host of mainstream films.

Surely such far-reaching legislation as this, threatening as it does to make thousands of people criminals for possessing imagery that was until the point of the Bill's enactment completely legal and will continue to be legal in most countries of the world, must be based on some very convincing evidence that, in at least a significant minority of cases, it can be harmful.

Well, no. In fact, as cited in a letter signed by 40 academics7 cited by the anti-censorship lobby group Backlash UK (the primary organisation campaigning against this law), the evidence assessment used by the proposers of the law to back it is "one-sided" and "ignores the considerable research tradition" into the sort of material that backers of the bill propose to make illegal. One of those, Martin Salter MP, at one point in the debate8 on the second reading of the Bill betrayed his prejudices against the BDSM community:

"I have received opposition...from groups claiming to represent the bondage, domination and sado-masochistic communities. I have learned that they organise themselves into munch clubs—I do not want to go any further into that...If people want to do weird things to each other they still can, but I say, "Don't put it on the internet.""
There is in fact some evidence that pornography is linked to a decrease in sexual violence9. As for bicycle sex - I don't think anyone's actually deigned to find out.

More on the campaign against the 'Dangerous Pictures Act': Backlash-UK

4. (PDF)

*Hardly surprising given the attitude of his defence counsel. As Matt Seaton on Comment is Free1 puts it,
"Who needs friends when you have a lawyer"?

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