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Fighting violence

5 November 2002

Academic lawyers, it is often assumed, spend all their time in law libraries poring over the complex detail of Law Reports and Statutes. There is, however, much more to the work of many legal scholars, argues Lois Bibbings, a lecturer at the University's School of Law.

In venturing beyond the confines of the law library, Lois Bibbings seeks to find new directions in her thinking, and to relate the law in books to both the law in practice and wider socio-cultural concerns. Her research focuses on a number of interrelated areas, namely the body, gender and violence, which reflect a concern with the material realities of people’s lives, as well as a purely academic interest in these issues. It adopts a multidisciplinary approach, collating information from a range of subjects such as medicine, social policy, history, literature, art, film and cultural studies, in addition to law.

Even if death results, boxing is not a criminal activity as long as the rules are followed

Much of the work she has undertaken concerns the legal treatment of bodily violence. One such case, the controversial Spanner Case, provided a means to explore the use of consenting violence such as sadomasochism and to compare its legal status with activities such as boxing. The Spanner Case concerned a group of homosexual men who engaged in consenting sadomasochistic activities of a reasonably extreme nature. The ‘aggressors’ were convicted of varying degrees of ‘assault’ on the basis that the consent and, for the most part, enthusiastic participation of their ‘victims’ were contrary to the public interest. Their appeals to the Court of Appeal, House of Lords and European Court of Human Rights all failed. In legal terms, it seems, sadomasochism is criminal if anything more than very minor injuries result, regardless of the unambiguous consent of the ‘victim’. In direct contrast, even if death results, boxing is not a criminal activity as long as the rules are followed.

This work led Bibbings to a closer consideration of other activities which might be deemed to involve bodily violence and their social-legal-cultural meanings and treatment. One of her papers considered the legal treatment of different forms of male violence. It examined the toleration of some forms of inter-male violence in certain contexts, thereby questioning the notions of acceptable and unacceptable violence. In particular, the paper considered the recent so-called ‘horseplay’ cases. These involved groups of men or boys interacting in particularly macho and heterosexual ways. In such cases, Bibbings argued, a degree of manly rough horseplay is to be expected and tolerated both by the males involved and the courts.

For example, one case involved three male RAF officers who were charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm on a fellow male officer. On the day in question, all four men had attended a party in the officers’ mess and drunk a considerable quantity of alcohol. During and after the party they participated in various ‘games’ which became increasingly dangerous. By way of a ‘joke’, inflammable liquid was poured onto the trouser legs of two sleeping officers and was ignited. In both instances the flames were extinguished with no injuries caused. They then repeated the joke on a drunken officer who resisted. This time they could not extinguish the fire and he was severely burned. Initially they were convicted, but their appeal was successful. The court apparently accepted that such boisterous ‘horseplay’ was a normal activity for this type of man; that in this macho context it was possible the struggling victim consented and, further, that consent could be a justification of such activities. Thus, in contrast to the consenting sadomasochistic men in the Spanner Case whose actions were not in the public interest, these tough military men were implicitly expected (if not explicitly allowed) to enact and receive bodily violence, even when the consent of the victim was not clearly given. As a consequence, men involved in non-consenting inter-male ‘horseplay’ are less likely to be convicted than men engaging in consenting sadomasochism. Perhaps, as Bibbings has argued, eroticism, and to some extent homosexuality, make a difference to judges’ attitudes in the context of inter-male violence.

Throwing a law at something we find difficult, threatening or barbaric is not necessarily a solution

Working on violence and the body has also involved examining a range of bodily alterations, including male and female circumcision or genital mutilation, cosmetic surgery, body piercing and tattooing. A particular focus has been upon genital alterations and their differing socio-cultural and legal statuses. In a number of publications, Bibbings looked at these procedures in relation to law, human rights, gender, medicine and culture. This work has sparked some controversy amongst feminists since it recognises, in part, that throwing a law at something we find difficult, threatening or barbaric is not necessarily a solution. If, for instance, the aim of drafting a law like the UK Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 is the abolition of a certain activity, we must realise that making it a crime may have other consequences. For example, such legislation may be perceived as an attack upon culture and/or as racist. In this context, criminalisation can encourage rather than discourage the continuance of female procedures by turning them into a means of defending culture, tradition and identity. This realisation reinforces the notion that merely researching the law relating to a particular issue is not enough. One has to look at the wider context.

Another area of concern which Bibbings’ research has considered is domestic violence. She is a member of the University’s new Inter-Faculty Working Group on Gender and Violence which focuses, amongst other things, on this issue. The need to look beyond the law is again highlighted by the importance of such collaborative work with academics from different disciplines. Projects like this not only seek to link theory and research with practice, but can also feed into and attempt to influence policy in a variety of spheres.

In addition, Bibbings works for Women’s Aid, the national body in England promoting the protection of women experiencing domestic violence, providing legal training for their volunteers. Her aim is to give the volunteers a broad overview of the law and how it does, or does not, work in practice, so that they can advise women who seek support and advice. Bibbings finds that this work in particular illustrates the importance of emerging from her ‘ivory tower’ in order to engage with the issues she researches and teaches.

School of Law

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