[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
July 27 - August 3, 2000


Assault on common sense

The Attleboro S&M bust is an outrageous instance of police misconduct compounded by prosecutorial abuse

Editorial In a small sense, the outrageous recent police raid on a sadomasochistic party in Attleboro is evidence of progress: media reports have focused not just on the details of the case, but also on the terrible judgment shown by law-enforcement officials for pressing criminal charges in response to activities engaged in by consenting adults. The Boston Herald, in its inimitable way, managed to address those legitimate concerns and wallow in sensationalism with this front-page headline: SPANK BUST RIPPED AS BUM RAP.

But despite this limited degree of enlightenment, the fact remains that two people face prosecution in the wake of a misguided abuse of police power.

The party's host, Benjamin Davis, of Hudson, New Hampshire, has been hit with 13 charges, including assault and battery on a police officer and keeping a house of prostitution. The former charge, though serious, could not have come about if police had respected the participants' privacy. The latter apparently resulted from Davis's asking people for a $25 donation to help pay for refreshments.

Even more troubling is the case of Stefany Reed, described in news reports as a New York City businesswoman, who was charged with assault and battery for allegedly spanking a mostly undressed woman with a wooden spatula. The charge against Reed is apparently based on a state law that prohibits assault even in entirely consensual situations. Reasonable? Well, yes, sometimes. Obviously society can't condone, say, consensual leg-breaking. But Reed and her partner were engaged in nothing more than rough sexual play. The key to officialdom's mindset might be found in the fact that authorities also seized what have been described as "sex toys." Be forewarned: if you're getting off in Bristol County, you and your partner had best not turn the vibrator up to "high."

Let's be clear. There's a good case to be made that prostitution should be legalized and regulated, but the Attleboro S&M case isn't about prostitution, because it's not really about sex. Those who participate in S&M parties say that such events do not involve the sex act per se, likening the goings-on instead to extended foreplay. Nor is the case about Massachusetts's archaic sex laws, which can be traced back to Puritan times and which, believe it or not, prohibit oral and anal sex, even within marriage. Those laws should be overturned; but that would not help Benjamin Davis and Stefany Reed.

Rather, this is a case about police misconduct, prosecutorial abuse, and society's passiv-ity whenever people are persecuted for having the nerve to lead alternative lifestyles. Another example: when the Fenway Community Health Center reported this past spring that violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people increased in Massachusetts by 20 percent in 1999, the news was met with a collective yawn. But when Richard Sharpe, the North Shore dermatologist charged with murdering his wife, turned out to have his own gender issues, the media practically salivated. The fact is that violence against people who are different is an enormous social problem; violence by people who are different is rare.

It's great that organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (an S&M advocacy group) have spoken out against the repression in Attleboro. The solution to outrages such as this, though, is not to create new laws or repeal old ones. It is, rather, the vigorous application of common sense -- a commodity that is apparently in short supply both at the Attleboro police station and in the office of District Attorney Paul Walsh.

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