Operation Spanner was a British police investigation that culminated in the conviction of 16 men for causing marks, bruises, cuts and other non-serious injuries during consensual SM (meaning sadism and masochism) sex.
Investigation and Related Trials
The Operation Spanner investigation, led by the Obscene Publications Squad of the Metropolitan Police, began in 1987 and ran for three years, during which approximately 100 gay and bisexual men were questioned by police.
The investigation culminated in a report naming 43 individuals, of whom the Director of Public Prosecutions chose to prosecute 16 men for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, unlawful wounding and other offenses related to consensual, private sadomasochistic (meaning sadistic and masochistic) sex sessions held in various locations between 1978 and 1987.
The first trial related to these accusations began at the Old Bailey, on 29 October 1990, before Judge James Rant. The judge heard legal arguments from some of the accused that they could not be guilty because everyone involved had consented to what took place. However, Judge Rant rejected the argument and ruled that consent was not a defense, commenting that “people must sometimes be protected from themselves”. His decision relied heavily on R v Coney, an 1882 case in which participants in a bare-knuckle boxing match were found guilty of assault despite their consent to take part, and R v Donovan, a 1934 case in which a man was convicted of assault for caning a woman with her consent. After Judge Rant’s ruling, the defendants changed their pleas to guilty, and were convicted on 7 November 1990. On 19 December, Judge Rant sentenced the men, handing down eight prison sentences of between 12 months and 4+1⁄2 years.
Five of the defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal in February 1992. Three judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane, upheld the men’s convictions, ruling that their consent to the activities involved was “immaterial”. However, Lord Lane acknowledged that the men did not appreciate that their acts were criminal, and therefore reduced five of the prison sentences handed down by Judge Rant, cutting the longest down to six months. Lord Lane also granted the men leave to appeal to the House of Lords, which at the time was the UK’s highest court of appeal, saying there was a “general public importance” in settling the question of whether the prosecution must prove that a victim did not consent before it could obtain a conviction for assault or wounding.
In March 1993, the five defendants who had previously appealed to the Court of Appeal then appealed their case to the House of Lords.
The appeal was dismissed by a 3–2 majority of the Lords, with Lord Templeman declaring that:
In principle there is a difference between violence which is incidental and violence which is inflicted for the indulgence of cruelty. The violence of sadomasochistic encounters involves the indulgence of cruelty by sadists and the degradation of victims. … Society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence. Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is uncivilised.
This is known as the House of Lords judgement R v Brown  UKHL 19,  1 AC 212. The case is colloquially known as the Spanner case, named after Operation Spanner, the investigation which led to it.
In the British case of R v Wilson (1996) a conviction for non-sexual consensual branding within a marriage was overturned, the appeal court ruling that R v Brown was not an authority in all cases of consensual injury and criticizing the decision to prosecute. In R v Emmett (1999), the lower court of binding precedent, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, held the same rules apply to heterosexual participants in SM acts as to gay participants. Another relevant case in the United Kingdom was that of Stephen Lock in 2013, who was cleared of actual bodily harm on the grounds that the woman consented.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 1999 in Laskey, Jaggard and Brown v. United Kingdom that no violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights occurred in the Spanner case because the amount of physical or psychological harm that the law allows between any two people, even consenting adults, is to be determined by the jurisdiction the individuals live in, as it is the State’s responsibility to balance the concerns of public health and well-being with the amount of control a State should be allowed to exercise over its citizens.
In the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007, the British Government cited the Spanner case as justification for criminalizing images of consensual acts, as part of its proposed criminalization of possession of “extreme pornography”, which criminalization eventually occurred in 2009. That 2009 law (as the Spanner Trust’s website notes), “makes it illegal to possess pornographic images which show an act which threatens a person’s life, an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive).” There was an unsuccessful prosecution in the United Kingdom in 2012 where it was argued by the prosecution that images of anal fisting constitute extreme pornography and thus are illegal to possess because the act is “likely to result in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals”. Specifically, in August 2012, Simon Walsh, a former aide to then London mayor Boris Johnson, was charged with possessing five images of “extreme pornography”, which were not found by police on his computers, but as email attachments on a Hotmail server account. He was found not guilty on all counts. Three images were of urethral sounding, and two of anal fisting. The images were all of consensual adult sexual activity. The Crown Prosecution Service maintained that the acts depicted were “extreme” even if the jury disagreed in this case.
Notable Related Organizations
SM Gays is a British group formed to encourage gay men who practice SM (meaning sadism and masochism) to do so safely. It was founded in London in July of 1981. SM Gays provided the infrastructure that started Countdown on Spanner, which began in 1992 and helped organize and finance the legal defense of men targeted by Operation Spanner. In 1996, Countdown on Spanner received the Large Nonprofit Organization of the Year award as part of the Pantheon of Leather Awards.
The Spanner Trust is an organization in the United Kingdom set up in 1995 to provide assistance to the Operation Spanner defendants, lobby for a change in British law to legalize sadomasochism (meaning sadism and masochism), and provide assistance to any person subjected to discrimination because of their consensual sexual behavior.
On 28 November 1992, the first SM Pride parade was held, inspired by the Operation Spanner case, with more than 700 people marching through Central London. An SM pride parade has been held in London every year since.