Saturday, 17 November 2007

Biking Mad

A 51 year old Scottish man has been sentenced to 3 years' probation and placed on the Sex Offenders Register after admitting performing a sexual act with a bicycle.

Robert Stewart, an alcoholic, was living in a hostel at the time. Two female cleaners entered his room (using a master key) having failed to get a response when they knocked. Stewart was naked from the waist down, simulating sex with the machine.

The court sheriff, Colin Miller, told Stewart: "In almost four decades in the law, I thought I had come across every perversion known to mankind, but this is a new one on me. I have never heard of a 'cycle-sexualist'."

All together now:

"He was only riding a bike"

"Is that a cycle pump in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"

"So that's what Freddie Mercury was on about"

"He must have been bi-sexual"

"The technical term is pedalphilia"

"Isn't that what they used to call a bone-shaker?"

"They called it the town bike"

"Did the witnesses see the accused's helmet?"

"He appeared to be pumping hard"

"Obviously it was a mounting bike"

"Never get on a bike without protection"

"I always feel shagged out after riding my bike"

"Did his lawyer take a proper look at the briefs?"

Please feel free to add your own.

Now we've got that out of our system, what is actually going on here? The man was basically masturbating, on his own, behind a locked door. If the fact that the room was accessible using a master-key means that it was not a private space, then neither is any hotel room. Was it the fact that a bicycle was involved that made it a crime, or would a woman using a dildo, a man using his right hand, or indeed a man and a woman using each other, have been equally guilty in these circumstances?

That this case represents a serious infringement on Mr Stewart's personal liberty seems to be fairly uncontroversial. Indeed, it's hard to see how the case can be squared with the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the right to a private life and to personal privacy.

Human rights lawyer John Scott told BBC Scotland that it shouldn't be seen as a test case.

It certainly prompts questions about what people can and can't do behind closed doors with inanimate objects. However, the difficulty is that the man involved in this case pleaded guilty to a breach of the peace so these issues of privacy weren't considered by the court.

Which makes you wonder why it was ever brought.

There are many people to blame here. First of all the cleaners, for being so scandalised and making a complaint, rather than apologising for their intrusion and beating a hasty retreat. The hostel's manager, for calling in the police. The police, for taking it so seriously. The man's lawyer, for persuading him to plead guilty and then putting up a remarkably half-hearted defence (he referred to his client as "a sad little man"). And above all the sheriff, for imposing such a high penalty and, in the process, bringing the Sex Offenders Register (which is supposed to track paedophiles and potential rapists) into potential disrepute. His heavy-handed attempt at humour is worthy of the late Mr Justice Harman, a man who once noted of the footballer Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne, "Isn't that an opera by Rossini?"

All that said, the reaction, at least in personal conversations and in what I have found online, seems remarkably consistent. Not merely sympathetic and outraged, but uneasy, as though this isolated event somehow symbolises the creeping erosion of privacy and nonconformity in our over-monitored, regulated, and increasingly censorious society. This censoriousness seems strangely at odds with the public endorsement of social liberalism as seen, for example, in the institution of civil partnerships for gay couples. Yet the present government, which is currently attempting to outlaw the possession of "extreme pornography" (a category which would even include extracts from material classified by the BBFC if the person viewing it had a "sexual intent") has an alarmingly narrow concept of personal freedom.

Stewart was the victim of an unlovely combination of state intrusiveness and inappropriate moralism. But was it the long shadow of Scottish Presbyterianism, or the new puritanism of the Big Brother state?

In the meantime, if you want to see someone really enjoying a bike-ride, check out this site. But not if you are "easily offended", mind.