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February 21, 2000 09:00am
"‘S/M and the Law’ discussed"
Source: Philadelphia Gay News
by: Timothy Cwiek

The legalities of sadomasochistic activity were the focus of a spirited discussion in Center City this week. About 90 people attended a seminar on "S/M and the Law," sponsored by MATRIX, a local S/M educational group.

Many people in attendance expressed fear that their S/M activities will lead to criminal prosecution, zoning-code crackdowns, job discrimination or child-custody problems.

Panelists at the seminar said they could offer no easy answers to those concerns.

Panelists included: Mimi Rose, chief of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office; Christopher Mallios, assistant district attorney in the same unit; Glenda Rider, co-owner of PlayHouse Studios and Gallery, a former S/M venue in Baltimore; and Judy Guerin, executive director of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

"There are no clear answers [to audience concerns]," Rose said. "The law is a very evolving thing that reflects values of the community, particularly in the area of sexual behavior."

Rose could not offer blanket assurances that S/M activity would be immune from prosecution in Philadelphia. She said each case must be considered on a fact-specific basis.

But Rose said the general policy of the DA’s office is: "Sex between consenting adults done in private which is not for value is legal."

The seminar was held Feb. 6 at the William Way Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.

The moderator was Andrew Park, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.

Park stressed the importance of communicating with S/M partners to ensure that all activities are performed on a consensual basis. Such communication could be vital in preventing civil and/or criminal litigation, he said.

Guerin had mixed feelings about that message.

"It makes me feel better that what I do in private with my husband won’t be prosecuted in Philadelphia," she told PGN. "But from a community standpoint, the DA’s message doesn’t give me much comfort. Many of our ommunity’s S/M activities are done in groups, because the mentoring and education that occurs in a group are important to ensure that activities are safe, sane and consensual."

She also questioned whether buying somebody dinner before sex could be considered sex "for value".

Guerin said criminal laws throughout the country are vague, and can be interpreted to prohibit S/M activities in many jurisdictions.

"Our problems is: We have to change the social stigma, as well as change the laws," Guerin said.

She said laws prohibiting activities such as assault, battery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, sodomy, harassment, intimidation, unlawful restraint, weapons violations, and impersonation of a police officer can be used against S/M participants.

In some cases, she said, authorities disregard the fact that the alleged criminal activity clearly occurred between consenting adults.

"Just because there’s consent in a scene does not guarantee that you will not get arrested and prosecuted," she said. "Many states have mandatory arrest in domestic-violence situations."

Even if an S/M scene is consensual, she said, neighbors could alert the police, and an arrest could result.

She said S/M participants should use caution before coming out, noting that a wide variety of people with agendas could use the information against the person.

"The S/M social and political movement is getting a lot stronger," she said. "But there’s still a very negative social stigma attached to S/M activity, and it’s typically portrayed in a negative and sensationalized manner in the media."

Rider said she co-owns a former S/M venue in Baltimore, the PlayHouse Studios and Gallery. It was closed by authorities recently due to alleged zoning-code violations. She said two other S/M venues recently were also losed in Baltimore.

Rider noted the difficulty in complying with zoning codes, since, to here knowledge, no zoning code or provision for a variance allows for a "public dungeon".

Still, Guerin said, S/M play groups should try to adhere to legal and zoning laws as much as possible.

"Some authorities will leave play groups alone, as long as there’s no money, alcohol or children involved," Guerin said. "If they [authorities] are going to get you, make it about the fight for S/M and sexual-freedom rights—not about technical things like parking or noise violations."

Audience members disagreed on the level of openness that is desirable for the S/M movement.

Michelene Nelson, an S/M practitioner, spoke against too much discretion. "Yes, we can protect our butts all over the place, but then we don’t have time to be ourselves," Nelson said. "Discretion never got black people their rights. Discretion never got gay people their rights."

Guerin said all viewpoints are welcome in her organization.

"If you want to try the honest approach, and test the waters with local officials, we can help you do that," she said. "We respect all the viewpoints, and we’re very inclusive of all the viewpoints."

But she cautioned that the public acceptance approach has its drawbacks.

"It’s only been since 1994 that sadomasochistic activities are not defined automatically as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association," Guerin said. "The acceptance that the BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadomasochism] community gets from other members of the community is not reflective of how other sexual minorities, or society in general, view these activities."

Mallios, a city prosecutor on the panel, emphasized that the DA’s office will not make value judgments
about a victim’s S/M history, when the office prosecutes the alleged perpetrator.

"There are people in the DA’s office who will not judge people if they are victims of crime, and they also happen to be involved in these types of [S/M] activities," Mallios said.

Linda Slodki, director of MATRIX, said she was pleased with the event. "It’s a great turnout," she said. "There was a huge co-sponsorship of the event, and it continued the ongoing dialogue in the S/M community."

Slodki said MATRIX was founded by women, and is operated by women, but it is open to people of all genders and gender expressions. For more information about MATRIX, write to P.O. Box 9940, Philadelphia, Pa. 19118.

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