Saturday, 8 October 2011

Breaking the law alone in a room

Once upon a time, in a land north of the border, a man was convicted for having sex with a bicycle.

According to BBC news reports (here and here), he was found by "extremely shocked" hostel cleaners "holding the bike and moving his hips back and forth as if to simulate sex".

The man admitted a "sexually aggravated breach of the peace" having conducted himself "in a disorderly manner and simulating sex". He was given three years' probation and placed on the Sex Offenders Register, also for three years.

I am not a Scots lawyer, and one can never rely entirely on news reports for "Bad Law" or "The Law is an Ass" type stories (see, for example, here), but I have often thought about this news story.

You know: like, how? Or what?

But also: just what was the law doing being involved in such a personal and private matter?

What if it had been a person using a vibrator?

What if..?

And so on.

Presumably what made this an offence was that it was seen by the hostel cleaners, who had - it is reported - entered the room with a master key.

If so, to incur criminal liability just because a hostel cleaner enters a room at a certain moment seems a tad unfair.

But, regardless of the merits of this unusual case, there is a wider question: to what extent (if any) can - and should - the law regulate what a person does in a room by themselves?

Can - and should - someone have a personal space where they have absolute autonomy and privacy, so as to do just what the hell they want?

Last week I asked on Twitter what crimes a person could commit alone in an empty room and where there was no electronic media of any kind.

Some suggested suicide, though that has not been an offence in itself since the Suicide Act 1961. Assisting a suicide remains an offence - and I think it is the only "assisting" offence where there is no principal offence - but that, of course, is not a matter for the person in an empty room.

A person could commit criminal damage, but only if there was property in the room which did not solely belong to him or her - such as something jointly owned or subject to a mortgage or suchlike.

A certain sort of person could create extreme pornography - which can include drawings and other "realistic" representations - though that would be difficult without a pencil and paper. Perhaps it could be scratched into the wall with his or her thumbnails?

There would also be a range of possession offences which a certain sort of person could theoretically commit whilst just sitting in an empty room: child pornography, drugs, firearms, and so on.

A recent offence which a person can commit in this empty room is preparation for a terrorist act. And, indeed, there could be a range of offences which one can prepare for whilst in the is empty room and in respect of which one could incur criminal liability depending on the facts of the case and the evidence either admitted by the person or proved by the prosecution.

There may be other potential offences which we can take into account.

A great philosopher once said that all man's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

However, it would appear that there are certain miseries to do with incurring criminal liability which can be inflicted on a person sitting in a quiet room alone - though it would seem that some object or other also needs to be present.

Some of the offences which one can commit are without doubt ones which should still apply even to a person by themselves - especially the possession offences.

And so the law does not allow a person absolute autonomy and privacy in his or her own private space.

But surely one should be allowed to do what one wants with a bicycle?


Hattip to @Piombo - it appears the "bicycle sex" story may well be a "Bad Law" story - see here.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


girlonthenet said...

OK, this bicycle sex thing really bothered me at the time and still does. If he was put on an offenders' register and admitted some hideous wrongdoing (just *how* depraved, exactly, can you be with a bike? Perhaps my imagination just fails me) then I cannot believe he was just, you know, rubbing his nob on it.

I think the only way that such strict punishments would be in any way justified is if there was some element of exhibitionism as part of his depraved acts. i.e. it wasn't the fact that he shagged a bike, but the fact that he deliberately intended to get caught screwing a bike, so the maids would be all shocked and thus complete his sexy-bike fantasy.

This is all total conjecture, and only raised because the question 'what are you allowed to do with a bike?' makes me intuitively scream 'whatever you want to, as long as it doesn't harm other people.' In order to maintain some semblance of faith in our laws, I'd like to think that it wasn't the bicycle banging that got him in trouble, but the fact that in doing it he harmed other people. i.e. the maids.

But as with almost everything else in life, I may well be completely wrong.

philip wyatt said...

this is the first blogpost i have had the pleassure of reading of yours so under the law of assisted suicide if a man went in to a shop and made a comment that he intended to take is own life and procied to buy a rope went to his house and hung him self so under the law the shopkeeper could be classed as assising the man in is coal to end is life

Antti said...

Aha, so it was a case of 'bad law'? Quelle surprise...

Another criminal offence would be NOT doing something, i.e. not calling the police if you have knowledge of, say, a planned terrorist act.

All that said, you do raise an important point about criminalising private activity. There is a debate to be had about the appropriateness of current laws; my opinion is that they are too intrusive.

Of greater concern to me is the future. Laws have become more intrusive over time and I fear that this trend will continue. Regarding sexual freedoms, might I refer you to The Consenting Adult Action Network at ?

Their aims:
"We believe in the right of consenting adults to make their own sexual choices, in respect of what they do, see and enjoy alone or with other consenting adults, unhindered and unfettered by government."

"We believe that it is not the business of government to intrude into the sex lives of consenting adults."

Thanks again for your articulate musings David.

barton71 said...

I remember this case when it was first published, and i asked the same questions you skipped over, but i think are still relevant.

How can it be right, that a man, in a hotel room, with the door locked, can be prosecuted for having sex with a bicycle? Would the same law have been applied if the it had been a woman using a vibrator? Could the cleaners not have been prosecuted for entering the room without permission? Could the man not sue the hotel for invading his privacy?

Of course, cleaners knocked on the door, and he told them to let themselves in, then that puts a different complexion on the case.

@AlJahom said...

"Some of the offences which one can commit are without doubt ones which should still apply even to a person by themselves - especially the possession offences"

Really? I think possession of drugs should not be an offence, and that firearms laws in this country are absurd and counterproductive.

Anonymous said...


The dude has issues it would appear...

Doing bird for getting it on with a bike is just absurd.

Apparently he was adjudged to have been harassing two waitresses from outside the premises with mouthed expletives one would assume, and making lewd gestures to them, presumably.
And from what I can tell it was an incident following the bi-pedallist antics.

That appears to be the reason for getting him incarcerated.
Seemingly it was about what he might do not what he has actually done

This dude needs counselling if not psychiatric analysis, not jail.

That he is not 'normal' or behaving in a manner that is inoffensive is one thing, to end up on the sex register for abusing a bike, who actually might have enjoyed it is just ridiculous.

Bad law...probably...bad judicial reaction certainly...bad sentence absolutely.

Mental health care is not just for the mentally healthy!

Howard Fredrics said...

Didn't Freddy Mercury once write a song about this?: "I want to ride my bicycle..."


Christine Burns said...

This looks to me like a slippery slope issue...

The day we legislate for what someone can or cannot DO on their own, in a closed, private space we are but a few words from legislating for what a person can THINK in the private space between their ears.

Does bike crime lead inexorably to thought crime?

Mona said...

I do of course also hope that he was practising safe sex by wearing a helmet at the time and unfortunately 'auto-erotica' now brings up mental images of car exhausts...

Mona said...

Pink Floyd's - 'I gotta bike, you can ride it if you like' is also in my heard now. Grrr...

Tony Lloyd said...

Anonymous: abusing a bike, who actually might have enjoyed it

There's the thing. The story doesn't tell us what type of bike it was. Mountain bikes are, famously, "up for it" and, be honest, ya would wouldn't ya:

piombo said...

"How can it be right, that a man, in a hotel room, with the door locked, can be prosecuted for having sex with a bicycle?"

It can't, but that reportedly wasn't what happened:

Mr Stewart, an unemployed bachelor, has described the incident as a misunderstanding caused by too much drink, and said claims that he was having sex with the bike were "a load of rubbish".
His solicitor Gerry Tierney described his client as a "sad little man" who was trying to tackle his drink problem.
He added: "When the cleaners came in, he thought he was having fun with them. He does not think it is funny any more, and he has had to move home three times because he has been targeted because of the offence."

Brian Haunton said...

Sorry to go off-topic on a serious point about the law and a conviction for an unpleasant crime, but this is a story about a man having sex with a bicycle in the week of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Brian O'Nolan/Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, although his speculation about men and bicycles are less explicit.

Is he bisexual?

RantinRab said...

Maybe he was just trying to pump the tyres.

Law studnt said...

High treason is possible while locked alone in an empty room, as it can be committed simply by planning/thinking about the positives of the monarch or heir to the throne's death ("compassing the Queen's death").

keith said...

I did a blog post on this story when it first came into the news for Community Care magazine. Can't find the post, lost in the system or deleted.

There was/is a serious point about what sort of life can people be expected to have in staffed environments ie care homes, hostels, or those who rely on carers in their own home.
The people requiring help do so because of a disability, frailty or not having parents. In the case of older people they have often paid a lot of money. But because the environment is watched over or staffed or whatever phrase you want to use, limits are put upon behaviour. Even people in their own homes who need assistance have to be careful about what their carer can see or find.
If this man was in his own home and not requiring help, and people forced a door and saw him I doubt he would be on the sex offenders register, which is a very serious mark against someone's character.
It was a point of debate at the time (there were more clear cut cases in addition to this admittedly strange one) with some disabled and older people activists arguing about their right to privacy and to have a sex life.