Rainbow Europe ranks the United Kingdom as the fourth best country in Europe for LGBTQ rights, but things haven’t always been this good. Over 50 years have passed since sex between two men was decriminalized in England and Wales, but systemic homophobia in British legislation didn’t vanish overnight.
In his latest documentary short, Lasting Marks, director Charlie Lyne revisits an all-too-recent chapter in LGBTQ history, in which consensual BDSM lovers were humiliated and jailed in the final days of Thatcher’s Britain.
Newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Star sensationalized what happened at the time, suggesting that BDSM can “corrupt normal people and incite them to behave like beasts,” but here, Lyne bypasses the media and gets to the truth of the matter by giving a voice to one of the 16 men who was arrested for these “crimes” in November 1987.
Through Roland Jaggard’s voice over, we hear how Manchester Police confiscated videos of these “blokes mucking about” in what would become one of the largest vice investigations in British history. Mostly in their 50s, these men who had been lucky enough to find others that share their sexual desires ended up being convicted of assault and other violent offenses. Their consent was deemed “immaterial.”
Lyne explores the impact of what would become known as “Operation Spanner” via a unique aspect ratio that resembles court documents, framing the story through sheets of A4 paper collated on screen. What could have been somewhat dry to watch turns out to be engrossing and even claustrophobic thanks to some sharp editing and Jaggard’s voice piecing everything together.
In a span of just 14 minutes, we learn how Roland and the other convicted men were immediately ostracised by society, losing their jobs, friends and eventually their freedom, too, thanks in large part to their demonization in the media, who portrayed them as a network of “evil blokes.”
One particularly absurd aspect of the case that Jaggard brings to light here is how the prosecution described the submissives as victims, failing to take into account how everyone involved would regularly switch roles, therefore making everyone accused a “victim” at one point or another.
What Lasting Marks doesn’t mention is how other comparable cases of BDSM weren’t treated so harshly around the same time, including that of R. v Wilson (1996), where a man branded his initials onto his wife’s ass using a hot knife. Because she had consented to this, the courts ruled that no criminal act had taken place, yet the issue of consent was ignored entirely in the prosecution of the ‘Spanner’ men, presumably because of their sexuality.
According to Chapter 60 of the Sexual Offences Act (1967), it was still illegal in the ’80s for more than two men to “take part” in gay sex or even be present while it takes place. When you factor this in alongside the consensual fisting and other sadomasochistic practices that were depicted on the tapes, it’s easy to see why the British courts felt that they had a strong case that would help deter other queer men from practicing sadomasochism, no matter how unjust this really was.
A judge named Lord Templeman dismissed an appeal made by the Spanner Defendants in 1993, describing the tapes as “sadomasochistic encounters which breed and glorify cruelty,” but as Jaggard points out in the film, these rulings had the opposite effect than the one the courts hoped for; instead, it galvanized S&M enthusiasts into action.
In one of the short’s most touching moments, Jaggard reveals that supporters from the outside sent him letters every day during his incarceration, which helped him “feel less alone.” Fellow sadomasochists began to speak up beyond the prison walls, too, marching across London in the thousands to raise awareness about the true, consensual nature of their desires and the injustice that people like Jaggard had faced.
For them, the Spanner defendants were still both “heroes and martyrs” who they championed to try and challenge the inherent homophobia that still discriminated against queer men in courts of law. Today, sadomasochism might be on the fringes still, but evolving legislation and bizarrely, the Fifty Shades franchise, have undoubtedly shifted public perception of such acts for the better.
Still, Jaggard continues to feel the ramifications of the time he spent in prison, recently telling BME News that “I shall be quite relieved when my time to die finally comes. No more having to struggle on from day to day.”
No one should be made to feel that way because of the consensual sex that they enjoy in the privacy of their own home, and it’s because of this that Lasting Marks is so important, reminding the LGBTQ community that this dark chapter in our history happened not so long ago.
Lasting Marks will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival on Friday, October 12 and again on Sunday, October 14 as part of the Lust To Love And In Between program.