THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

Freedom Enchained

'Man was born free; and everywhere he is in chains' (Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Cap.I)

Ever since the first tricoteuse clapped eyes on her first tumbrel, 'freedom' has been the buzz-word of Western politics. But to the slogan which sank the ancien regime the recent recommendations of the Law Commission have added a new dimension. The recommendations are that acts of sadomasochism between consenting adults - no privacy, so far as I can see, is required - should no longer be regarded as criminal.

In a society which is becoming increasingly squeamish about physical violence in any circumstance, it is indeed a strange proposal. Woe betide the teacher who, in a vain attempt to inculcate basic morality in an erring five year-old, has recourse to the mildest of slaps! In a world where boxing promoters have become pariahs, and demonstrators go to their deaths to save veal calves from crates, cruelty in the service of mere hedonism, it seems, is in process of rehabilitation. Why?

The answer seems to lie in the place which sex - and sexual freedom - occupies in the social morality of the politically correct. While the indulgence of other appetites is frowned upon (obesity and smoking come in for particularly harsh censure) sexual self-indulgence is taken to be the inalienable right of all but Tory MPs. The idea seems to be that what one does in one's bedroom is hermetically sealed from the world outside; that it has no resonances, no implications and no consequences. What is it to you, the Metropolitan Police and the Old Bailey that I spend my suburban evenings in the uniform of the Waffen-SS beating the living daylights out of my devoted lady wife?

It is one of the most ingrained superstitions of the liberal mind that sexual conduct is a purely private matter. "It's my body, and I can do what I like with it," said Mr Spencer Woodcock, of the Fetish Times. But such is not, and never could be the case. We should not be beguiled. Though sex is a private act, it is always a social act: it exists for the procreation of others, it is performed with others, and so central is it to the development of personality, so interwoven with the growth of love, tenderness, familial devotion and mutual respect, that society is always affected and altered by it.

Mr Woodcock's strong suit is consent. Why should he not do what his partner likes? A bit of role reversal here; a dash of bondage there; the uniform of the NYPD, the SAS or the Hell's Angels to add spice and verisimilitude? It seems so reasonable. But anyone who has counselled a battered wife will already have started to wonder where consent ends and exploitation begins. Half the battered wives in the world are said to like it half the time. Ask the date rapist to elucidate, and he will do so at length. The truth surely is that sex is an area where responsibility must inform freedom and where abstinence is the better part of valour. The path to 25 Cromwell Street is paved with many 'freedoms'.

None of this seems to affect the reasoning of the Law Commissioners. They are caught in a sixties time warp which obliges them to legalize what is popular, as long as it is sexual. 'Evidence' they have received apparently goes to show that sadism is on the increase. Rather quaintly they cite 'many celebrities, writers, film stars, artists, lawyers, politicians and judges', presumably to show that an altogether nicer class of person is taking to the whips and chains these days.

Christians, who are tired of being accused by the less-holy-than-thou brigade of an unhealthy obsession with sex, please take note: here is real obsession. This is a mode argument which would never be deployed to justify mere venality; though 'evidence' could no doubt be marshalled to show that tax evasion, for example, is at least as prevalent among consenting 'lawyers, politicians and judges' as the proclivities of the sinister Marquis.

But, in the end, Mr Woodcock is right. It all comes down to consent. But whose consent? On that score alone one wonders that the Law Commissioners were not more wary; for they have entered territory (notwithstanding their 'evidence' about lawyers politicians and judges) in which they are relative strangers. Perhaps they should consider the following case in point.

Mrs Susan Whitehead, 38, is a self proclaimed White Witch. In October last year she joined a Satanist coven in Northamptonshire run by John Kilminister, 50, a furniture restorer, member of the local Conservative Club and chairman of the Northampton Chess Circle. As a result of nocturnal activities at Mr Kilminister's place of work (cunningly altared as a meeting place of the English Church of Satan) no less than four members of the coven came before the courts on charges ranging from simple rape to conspiracy to murder Mrs Whitehead. Among them was Stephen Howe, 45, the commandant of the Northamptonshire Special Police Constabulary, Gregory Layton, a 46-year old business man, and Glynn Parry, 58, a former social worker. All the cases were eventually dismissed from lack of evidence.

Here is a cocktail of the sadistic, the sexual and the quasi-religious for which the Law Commissioners' proposals might seem to have been specifically engineered. But was 'consent' the only factor which a court of law ought to be have been considering? And whose consent? Whilst witch-hunts have become proverbially what no liberal-minded citizen can reasonably tolerate, is recreational Satanism really what we want from our social workers, police chiefs and business partners? Do we really believe that because it is consensual it is right? And do we believe it has no implications for conduct in other aspects of life?

Said a spokesman for Northamptonshire police: "There was nothing to suggest that Mr Howe was involved in anything which could bring discredit to the special constabulary". But don't you believe it.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark

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