Vice Squad
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The Mosley Case

Repugnance is a funny thing. Many things that were widely viewed as repugnant years ago, such as blood transfusions or charging interest for loans, are widely accepted today. And other practices that used to be common and accepted -- indentured servitude, say -- have come to be viewed with repugnance. (See economist Alvin Roth's paper for more on repugnance.) Out-of-the mainstream sexual behaviors seem to be losing their repugnance for many people; there was no hint of residual repugnance in the Supreme Court's 2003 overturning of anti-sodomy statutes. And now, in Britain, there is a trial that holds the prospect of reducing the repugnance that sometimes is induced by or aimed at sadomasochism. The case involves a claim of invasion of privacy.

The basic story is that a British tabloid solicited some footage of a sadomasochistic afternoon involving 5 prostitutes and a prominent 68-year old motor-sport and married man, Max Mosley, whose father Oswald was a leading British fascist of the 1930s. [Oswald and his second wife, Max's mother, were interred by the British during the war, around the time that Max was born and toddling through his early years.] The sadomasochistic scene involved some German authoritarian role play, which the tabloid deemed to be Nazi-themed; the not-safe-for-work footage is you-tubeable. (The dominatrix who recorded the activities, slated to be a chief witness for the newspaper, has been dropped from testifying.) Max is contending that the S&M session was a private matter of no public interest. The newspaper's best defence, I suppose, is that the session involved illegal S&M, and the fact that the behavior was criminal provides a public interest. (Prostitution per se is not illegal in Britain, and that angle does not appear to be helpful to the newspaper. Some of the prostitutes have testified for Mosley, and there is no whiff of coercion in the pricey five hour affair, which ended with a cup of tea, of course.)

Is S&M illegal in Britain? Yes, if the practice involves lasting bodily damage -- though there is some dispute over how lasting that damage has to be. The legal standard dates from a 1980's case (the Spanner case) arising out of consensual homosexual S&M activities.

But win or lose, the Mosley case might be reducing the repugnance that is sometimes felt towards sadomasochism. Seemingly normal people enjoy it and practice it -- why should others care? Mosley claims that he has been an S&M enthusiast for 45 years, and he defended the behavior in court:
Impassive in a charcoal suit and sober tie he [Mosley] told the court: “I definitely disagree with the suggestion that any of this is depraved or immoral” adding that it was a “perfectly harmless act between consenting adults.”
Mosley's position has been gaining broad support -- and perhaps increasing the acceptance of S&M by non-practitioners.

Vice Squad, now back in Chicago after a (masochistic?) couple of months abroad, proposes some regulation of adult extreme S&M (6-page pdf here).

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