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On July 8, two cops broke into a warehouse in Attleboro, Massachusetts, supposedly looking for stolen guitars. Instead, they found a rollicking sex party. Around fifty people, in various states of undress, were paddling one another with wooden spoons, whipping each other and otherwise engaging in sadomasochistic fun. The cops arrested two people, Ben Davis and Stefany Reed. The press had a field day with "Sex Party!" headlines ("Fetishists Defend the Pursuit of Pain"; "Spank Bust Ripped as Bum Rap"). And the leather and latex crew got organized.
Now, the district attorney has to make a convincing case. Comparisons to Stonewall (the New York police raid and ensuing riot that politicized the gay community) are rampant. The Attleboro case is quickly becoming a symbol of SM rights If we can punch each other legally in a ring, why can't we spank each other legally in a bedroom? with its own shorthand moniker lending it press appeal: it's Paddleboro. The term was coined by a support group organized around defendant Ben Davis. They call themselves the Paddleboro Defense League.
While the civil rights abuses may be clear to the sloganeers, the legal issues are more abstruse. First, the case may be dismissed on niggling factual details. Ben Davis, who hosted the party, is charged with running a business without a license and operating a prostitution ring, because he asked for a donation at the door; he claims he was not running a business. Stefany Reed, a Manhattan woman, is charged with assault, but says that she was not the paddler.
If the case is not thrown out, the defense may be forced to challenge an obsolete Puritan law, the so-called "Appleby Statute." In the name of "chastity, morality, decency and good order," this regulation deems "all objects for self-abuse and prevention of conception" illegal ("self-abuse" means masturbation). In 1976, a man named Appleby was prosecuted under this law and sentenced to eight to ten years in prison for whipping his partner with a riding crop. This law might not hold up as constitutional. But in order for it to be taken off the books, the defendant would have to be found guilty all the way through an appellate court. Davis, at least, would much prefer to end this before he spends years fighting an atavistic law all the way up the legal ladder.
But the real sticking point is consent. Stefany Reed has been charged with assault. If she can't prove that she didn't wield the spoon, then the prosecution may invoke the legal precedent that "consent is not a defense to assault." This might sound nonsensical at first, but in fact it's an argument which has been used in domestic violence cases, according to Susan Wright, policy director at the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an activist group that advocates for SM rights. "Women are hesitant to press charges against their spouses. She could say, 'Oh, no, I don't mind,' and they could still prosecute him. Of course, she didn't really want to get punched in the face. But applied to [the Attleboro] case, it doesn't make sense. No one was injured. Everybody involved did really want what was happening and enjoyed it." It's being used as a way of outlawing SM, she adds. "This is actually questioning whether or not you are allowed to practice SM, and whether spanking someone with a wooden spoon is assault."
With advocacy groups like the NCSF, the National Leather Association and the Paddleboro Defense League at the forefront, the entire SM community in Boston is rallying around the Attleboro accused. At Davis' pre-trial hearing, a dozen supporters sporting ribbons and little wooden pins in the shape of a spoon ran interference with reporters. Looking glaringly normal, they refused to talk specifics about the case but were forthcoming with righteous ire. A man who would identify himself only as "Fuzzy," and as a friend of Ben Davis, had a seasoned activist's gift for analogies: "I heard that the YMCA is holding a teen dance. Horny teens! Arrest them! It's a house of ill-repute!"
Clearly, the sadomasochists are not going to be the submissives here. The P.D.L. has already paid Davis' lawyer's $10,000 retainer (they raised the money at Boston's Fetish Fair Fleamarket and through their website), and the ACLU in Massachusetts is interested in pursuing a civil rights suit against the Attleboro police. A number of people inside the scene speculate that the cops went in knowing about the Appleby law in other words, prepared to find a sex party. Another source close to the case guesses that the small-town cops panicked, arrested people on reflex and looked for legal justification later.
While the SM community has proved unashamed and vocal, the people on the side of the prosecution have been notably quiet. Attleboro Mayor Judith H. Robbins broke the silence when she told the Providence Journal that she "does not want these kind of people in [her] community." Attleboro is a place of small businesses and triple-decker houses, with a sign at the highway exit proudly advertising the Boys Division Basketball victory. The prosecution's support seems to be coming not from high moral outrage, but rather from New England Puritan not-in-my-backyard objections. Letters to the Providence Journal complain about the "negative attention" being lavished on the town, and Attleboro locals have complained about the rougher elements they felt SM parties introduced. Most guests at the Attleboro party were not locals. In that sense, this is a classic American clash: one person's inalienable rights are another person's ruined neighborhood.
But the legal attack could have an upside for SM enthusiasts. "It has definitely catalyzed the community," says Kim Airs, the owner of Boston's best-known sex shop, Grand Opening, and a well-respected figure in bondage/discipline/sadomasochism (BDSM) groups. Having been accused in public, the SM community now has a platform on which to respond. "A lot more people are being vocal, and coming out and saying 'We like this' and 'This case is ridiculous.'" The PDL die-hards are far from alone: the Kinsey Institute estimates that somewhere between five and ten percent of the American population dabbles in sadomasochism.
Sadomasochistic sexual play is perceived as "not healthy, as damaged and out of control," says Donna Delone, a sex therapist at MacLane Hospital in Boston, "but when it's done the way it's supposed to be, as the community says, in a safe, sane and consensual manner, it really is healthy." Parties like the Attleboro party are organized at day-time socials called "munches," and are used as a way of educating the SM masses. Meant for stimulation, so-called "play parties" are also "places to learn to play safely, where people are watching, places to learn new skills," says Stephen Duhamel of the PDL and the Boston Dungeon Society.
Further legal proceedings have been postponed until November. Whatever the outcome, the SM community will be able to celebrate one small victory: even if it's no Stonewall, this case has brought the language of SM into the local media. And Attleboro residents will never look at a wooden spoon the same way again.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is at: http://www.ncsfreedom.org
The National Leather Association is at: http://www.nla-i.com
Michelle Chihara and Nerve.com