Max Mosley's morals and ours

Respectable and unrespectable sexual activity are not categories we seek to perpetuate, writes Jim Moody

Paying five women £500 each for a sadomasochistic role-playing session, Max Mosley never expected that one of them would film the whole proceedings. Consequently he also never expected that his penchant for such activity would be splashed across a Murdoch Sunday tabloid.

An article in the March 30 News of the World claimed that the session had had a Nazi theme, headlining it, “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with five hookers”; and then adding, “Son of Hitler-loving fascist in sex shame”, to make sure its readers got the point. This Nazi coloration of the whole thing is particularly damaging for Mosley. After all he is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the 1930s British Union of Fascists, and Hitler admirer Diana Mitford.

Mosley has much to lose if News of the World allegations about Nazi role playing are sustained. He is now in his fourth term as president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of world motoring and motor sports organisations, including Formula One (F1) racing. Big F1 backers BMW and Mercedes Benz are certainly sensitive about any taint of Nazism. Luca di Montezenolo, president of Ferrari, also issued a call for Mosley to resign from the presidency. However, last month Mosley won a vote of confidence at the FIA and retained his position for the moment.

Bernie Ecclestone, CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, has denied categorically that he had anything to do with creating the Mosley scandal. There had been mass media speculation that Ecclestone could have been involved in a bid to force out Mosley ahead of vexed negotiations between his and Mosley’s respective organisations over F1’s enormous revenues. Without doubt Ecclestone has clout: witness his ability to get exemption for F1 from the tobacco advertising ban after donating one million pounds to the Labour Party.

Mosley could still be sacrificed. As Ecclestone was recently quoted as saying, “I’m sure that some of the people on the boards of large companies who invest in Formula One are Jewish, and that they might be unhappy with the allegations about Max. They might decide they don’t want to be involved with Formula One any more because of it. I completely appreciate why people felt offended by the allegations about Max.” While correcting the mistaken impression that he is Jewish, Ecclestone said, “But 85% of the people I knock about with are Jewish, so that’s probably why people might think I am. I don’t mind people thinking I’m Jewish” (‘Jews may pull cash from F1, says Ecclestone’ The Jewish Chronicle June 20).

However, as Mosley told the court, the kind of sadomasochism he is into is “a perfectly harmless activity, provided it is between consenting adults who want to do it, are of sound mind, and it is in private” (Independent on Sunday July 13). He is vigorously denying any Nazi element in his sadomasochistic shenanigans.

Scurrilous details of individuals’ private lives, in the absence of harm to others, are irrelevant to what they do in public and to the political positions that they may hold. If individuals wish to keep personal matters confidential, then, unless there is demonstrable harm to others or political hypocrisy in what they are doing privately, it must remain that way. However, should someone’s political positions jar hypocritically with their private life, then privacy cannot be sacrosanct (eg, publicly anti-gay, but privately cruising gay bars; publicly vaunting religiously sanctioned ‘family values’, but privately having affairs or using prostitutes).

Much of the media think they are a law unto themselves. The Sunday Times, another Murdoch publication, has bewailed the loss of “freedom of expression” that a success in court for Mosley would spell for others in the Augean stables that the mass media inhabits (July 13). Of course, these press hypocrites never consider for a moment the lack of freedom of expression experienced by the vast majority of the population. As far as we know, none of the press barons has plans to allow anyone but themselves to dictate the news agenda, what goes into their papers, and what slant will be given. In fact, harking back to the News of the World headline, it is they and their papers that are “sick” and should be ashamed of what they do.

As a minority, quasi-underground psychosexual activity, sadomasochism is much misunderstood. By all accounts, most of those actively taking part see it as harmless fun. Whether one of the results is a degree of pain, weals, or even broken skin, participants find pleasure and gratification. Established safety words or actions (for example, saying ‘red’ or dropping a clenched object) prevent role-play episodes going further than is tolerable. This is all routine in the world of sadomasochism, as experienced by most of its acolytes. Some, however, go further.

Spanner case

In December 1990, 16 gay men were sentenced to up to four and a half years prison or fined for engaging in consensual sadomasochism. Three years before, the police investigation known as Operation Spanner had chanced upon a videotape of their sadomasochistic activities showing beating, genital abrasions, and lacerations.

The men, who were easily identified, readily admitted taking part, seeing no wrong in what they had done. Sadly, the law as it stood, and still stands, saw it otherwise. For example, a scrotum being pierced by a nail was an injury that was not transitory and thus “assault occasioning actual bodily harm”. Even though there was no evidence that any of the participants needed medical attention, the men’s defence that there was consent was rejected. Their convictions were subsequently upheld by the court of appeal, the law lords and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Clearly the Spanner case men were ill-advised, as without their admissions there would have been a greatly reduced evidentiary case against them. Nonetheless, as they honestly believed that their consensual behaviour was harmless, they felt that they had no need to worry about convictions. They were soon disabused of the law’s reasonableness. Nearly 18 years later, with these men’s lives wrecked, the struggle against this particular injustice goes on (more at www.spannertrust.org). Once again the state pokes its nose moralistically and unnecessarily into the personal sphere, with catastrophic consequences to the individuals involved.

Should we draw the line at some point? Well, those with certain psychological conditions need society’s protection. As an extreme example, the rare ailment, body integrity identity disorder (BIID; aka amputee identity disorder) produces an overwhelming desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs or other parts of the body. This would obviously be beyond the pale in any sane role-playing; it is not fantasy, but a damaging reality to its sufferers. This kind of vulnerability is not what we are concerned with here.


Tommy Sheridan, the charismatic former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, was pilloried within and without his own party over unproven allegations of sexual activity. The same vile newspaper that splashed the Mosley allegations featured a scandal-mongering story about Sheridan. Now one of the co-convenors of the Solidarity half of the cleaved SSP, Sheridan won his libel action case against the News of the World over its allegations in 2006. But by late December 2007, police had charged Sheridan and several of his comrades with perjury: the case is pending.

Sheridan and the SSP were hoist by their own petard. After years of developing a cult of personality, which incredibly even featured Sheridan’s wedding in Scottish Socialist Voice, enemies and opponents were not slow to seize upon the News of the World’s ‘revelations’. Boasting about ‘respectable’ family values and parading personal lives in the political arena like bourgeois politicians did increase Sheridan’s popularity. But it  also invited attack.

More to the point, this form of self-promotion has nothing to do with working class politics. We have no wish to conform to hypocritical bourgeois norms (which have the inevitable side effect of rendering unrespectable people such as homosexuals, bi-sexuals, sex workers, etc).

The SSP leadership actively connived at building the Sheridan personality cult. When, subsequently, the idol’s feet were declared to be of clay, the SSP imploded as a result. There are now two sorry fragments (‘I love Tommy’ party versus ‘I hate Tommy’ party), which are competing hopelessly with identical, national socialist politics in the imminent Glasgow East by-election.

Those in the working class movement who may be accused of behaving ‘immorally’ in private consensual acts, whether true or not, can react in one of two ways. They can go to the bourgeois courts in an attempt to uphold their image (and in the process uphold hypocritical bourgeois morality). Or, they can simply state that private lives are private and are the business of no-one but the participants. Respectable and unrespectable sexual activity are not categories we seek to perpetuate.


 Print this page