Disturbing the Peace
On the inalienable right to "excessively noisy sex"
"Unlike Winston, [Julia] had grasped the inner meaning of the Party's sexual puritanism. It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship."
So wrote George Orwell in 1984, his dystopian vision of a future world where mankind's every thought, desire, and bodily tingle would be policed by the powers-that-be. Orwell imagined a Junior Anti-Sex League that spied on kissing and cavorting adults, and a ruling Party that sought to squash the "sex impulse." The heroes of his nightmarish tale—Winston and Julia—had to sneak off to a wood in order to explore each other bodies in a bit of peace and quiet.
It turns out that Orwell was suffering from premature speculation. It was not in 1984 that a major Western government made the "sex impulse"—the grunting, groaning sex instinct—into a police matter; it was in 2009. Here in the U.K., to add to our already-existing panoply of Orwellian measures—5 million CCTV cameras that watch our every move; "speaking cameras" that warn us to pick up litter or stop loitering; the government's attempt to recruit child spies to re-educate anti-social adults—we now have the bizarre and terrifying situation where a woman has been arrested for having sex too loudly.
Yes, in modern-day Britain even the decibels of our sexual moaning can become the subject of a police investigation.
At the end of April, Caroline Cartwright, a 48-year-old housewife from Wearside in the north east of England, was remanded in custody for having "excessively noisy sex." The cops took her in after neighbors complained of hearing her "shouting and groaning" and her "bed banging against the wall of her home." Cartwright has, quite reasonably, defended her inalienable right to be a howler: "I can't stop making noise during sex. It's unnatural to not make any noises and I don't think that I am particularly loud."
Pleasurable groaning and bed-banging are common noises in crowded towns and cities across the civilized world. Most of us deal with them by sticking a CD in the stereo. Those who complain are normally told to stop being prudish or to have a discreet chat with the creators of the offending sex sounds. So how did Cartwright's expressions of noisy joy become a police case, which later this month will be ruled on at Newcastle Crown Court, one of the biggest courts in the north of England?
Because, unbelievably, Cartwright had previously been served with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO)—a civil order that is used to control the minutiae of British people's behaviour—that forbade her from making "excessive noise during sex" anywhere in England.
That's right, going even further than Orwell's imagined authoritarian hellhole, where at least there was a wood or two where people could indulge their sexual impulses, the local authorities in Wearside made all of England a no-go zone for Cartwright's noisy shenanigans. If she wanted to howl with abandon, she would have to nip over the border to Scotland or maybe catch a ferry to France. It was because she breached the conditions of her Anti-Social Behaviour Order, the civil ruling about how much noise she can make while making love in England, that Cartwright was arrested.
This case sheds harsh light not only on the Victorian-style petty prudishness of our rulers, who seriously believe they can make sexually expressive women timid again by dragging them to court, but on the tyranny of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders themselves. Introduced by our authoritarian Labour government in 1998, anyone can apply for an ASBO to stop anyone else from doing something that they find irritating, "alarming," or "threatening."
Local magistrates' courts issue the orders, sometimes on the basis of hearsay evidence (which is permissible in "ASBO cases"). In short, the applicant for an ASBO does not have to go through the normal rigors of the criminal justice system in order to get a civil ruling preventing someone he doesn't like from doing something that he finds "alarming" or "dangerous." Once you have been branded with an ASBO, if you break its conditions—by having noisy sex in your own home, for example—you are potentially guilty of a crime and can be imprisoned.
The ASBO system has turned much of Britain into a curtain-twitching, neighbor-watching, noise-policing gang of spies. The relative ease with which one can apply to the authorities for an ASBO positively invites people to use the system to punish their foes or the irritants who live in their neighborhoods. ASBOs have been used to prevent young people in certain areas from wearing hoods or hats (they look "threatening"), to ban a middle-aged couple from playing gangsta rap (the expletives offended workers and children at a nearby kindergarten), and to prevent a 10-year-old boy from having contact with matches until he turns 16, after he was found to have started a fire.
And now, prudish people who previously would have been told to "put up or shut up" over their neighbors' noisy sex have been empowered to turn one woman's private affairs into a very public trial. This, too, is Orwellian: the creation of new layers of spies and inter-communal suspicion.
In Orwell's dystopia, "the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion." So it is in Wearside in 2009, where the excessively noisy exploits of Cartwright and her possibly very talented partner are a form of rebellion against the arbitrary and interventionist nature of the ASBO-wielding powers-that-be. They are screwing for liberty.
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London.