Not Guilty

This article is going to develop towards a serious point that ought to concern all responsible people with our particular tastes. But it will start with a well-known incident that took place between this couple one Saturday night around half a century ago.

He is the British actor Derren Nesbitt. She is his wife, Anne Aubrey, who had a moderately successful film career in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that was cut short after their marriage in 1961.

Ten years later, Nesbitt was a bankable television star, and Anne had begun acting again, appearing with him in touring stage productions; they were due to spend the last months of 1972 doing a play together in South Africa.

But behind the scenes, the marriage was in serious trouble. Nesbitt was going through a dark period with outbursts of violence in which objects were thrown, furniture smashed and, on one alarming occasion, his daughter’s toys used for target practice with an air gun. Meanwhile Anne embarked on an extra-marital affair with a neighbor (whom she later married). And that brings us to the night of October 7, 1972.

Anne had popped out that afternoon, she said to buy a postage stamp, but stayed out five hours. When she returned, she told her husband about the adultery and that she had decided not to go to South Africa with him. What happened next seriously impaired her short-term ability to sit down and, in the long term, effectively ended the marriage.

The police were summoned, and Anne’s sore bottom was medically examined and photographed for evidence. Nesbitt was charged with assault, but was allowed to fulfill his South African engagement. On his return, he was tried, pleaded guilty and was fined £250 (around £3,000 in modern money, and about a quarter of what he could expect to be paid for making a feature film). The court also awarded costs against him, bound him over to keep the peace and ordered the destruction of what the shocked chief magistrate described as ‘a murderous weapon’ and the press called a ‘leather thong’ – not the inadequate modern substitute for panties but an 18-inch strap with a divided end, like a tawse, which is what had come into rough and repeated (but non-murderous) contact with Anne’s bare bottom on the night in question.

Court cases are often a competition between different and incompatible versions of the same events. The two things on which the prosecution and defense agreed are the two things mentioned at the end of the last paragraph: that Nesbitt used the strap on his wife’s bare bottom. The rest of the circumstantial details differed.

According to the prosecution, he flung her face down on the sofa, the result of which was that ‘her dress was disturbed in such a way that her buttocks were exposed’ – meaning she must have been wearing a miniskirt, which flew up. However, if that were the case, Nesbitt wouldn’t have needed to do the first of the two things the prosecution said he did next: ‘He lifted her dress and took off her pants.’ (Of course, that’s British pants, meaning panties.) And as a result of the ensuing whacking, ‘She received very severe bruises and was quite unable to sit.’

This version – the one that prevailed in court – aimed to make the incident seem as bad as it could be, what the magistrate described as ‘a particularly brutal attack’. Obviously the defense had the opposite objective, and it started with Nesbitt’s original statement to the police in October:

‘I gave her a good spanking. I pulled her pants down and used the thong on her bare flesh.’

The defense built on that in court:

‘She confessed to him that she was having an affair and had been out all afternoon. He was very upset. He put her across his knee and spanked her with the thong, which happened to be at hand. If a woman comes home and admits adultery, it is almost inevitable that it will provoke a violent reaction. It would take a very placid man not to do anything in the circumstances. This is not a case of thuggery or a man continually beating his wife. It was a crime of passion.’

So although it was accepted that he was guilty as charged, they were trying to tone it down into something ordinary and domestic, making telling use of the word spanking (which was also generally used in press coverage of the case), whereas the prosecution opted for graver terminology and said that ‘he beat her’. But you can also see the defense lawyer floundering a little over the strap, which surely had (unlike, say, a belt or dog leash) no ordinary domestic purpose unconnected with corporal punishment and whose presence in the household therefore raised awkward questions about premeditation and possible ongoing abuse.

Now for a different awkward question: if you could be a fly on the wall and witness this particular spanking, would you want to?

I have never found it an appealing incident. It’s not just that the key aspects of it – the strap and bare bottom – happen to be not to my particular taste. My taste, or anyone else’s, is irrelevant when we are talking about actual events involving violence and injury (however minor) inflicted on a real person.

Now consider the same question as applied to two slightly different hypothetical versions of the same case. Suppose the whole thing had happened twenty or thirty years earlier, with broadly the same circumstances but no aftermath in either the criminal or divorce courts. Or, if you can, imagine the exceedingly unlikely scenario of someone today making a biographical drama about Derren Nesbitt, in any medium, presenting the episode more or less according to his take on it: no background of violent outbursts and no firing squad for dollies, just a misbehaving wife getting a good spanking across her outraged husband’s knee.

For me, in those alternative circumstances, the question becomes immeasurably less tricky. In the case of the dramatized version of events, we are dealing with a created artifact, in which the participants are really actors who have chosen to play their parts and are being remunerated for doing so. So I can happily watch and enjoy a nonconsensual spanking like this,

or this,

or this,

even if (as was often the case) the spanking was authentic and the actress had trouble sitting down afterwards.

I can do so because it all operates through the filter of fiction, even when it is fiction based on something that really happened, or is claimed to have done: in the immediate context of the play or film, nobody in my world has been assaulted, just people in a story.

Obviously the same argument doesn’t apply in my other scenario of true, unmediated events from further back in history: in that case, the people involved were not imaginary, and the fact that they are (or are likely to be) no longer around doesn’t change our duty of empathy. But what has changed is the context.

The reason I chose the Nesbitt case for my core example is that it took place at the very moment when the old social consensus about spanking had started to disintegrate: the contrast of stories between defense and prosecution illustrates the cusp we were on at the time, with (harmless) ‘spanking’ and (criminal) ‘beating’ both viable, thinkable interpretations of the same act. But as we know, norms were different earlier on, which makes it easier for most people (other than idiots who want to judge the whole of history by the mores of the present) to contemplate, without qualms, even nonconsensual real-life spankings from the middle of the twentieth century and before, so long as they were acceptable by the standards of their own time.

I’m talking, of course, about how to deal with guilt. Anyone who claims never in their life to have felt even a little guilty about being a spanko is either a hypocrite or a sociopath. I don’t mean that we should feel guilty about our pleasures, only that it is normal and human to do so; and that sticking to history and fiction means that we don’t need to, because, even if somebody is still getting hurt, nobody is being abused.

We’ll develop this theme next time.

2 thoughts on “Not Guilty

    • Harry says:

      That is indeed the strangest feature of the case, given that she clearly wasn’t into it – which rules out the ‘one of us’ explanation that usually occurs to optimistic spankos.

      If you think about it, bearing all circumstances in mind, there is a shuddersome possible reason for the strap’s presence in the household, but it’s not somewhere my imagination wants to go (and doing so would be contrary to this site’s editorial policies and principles), so it’s a question I shall now be leaving well alone.

      Like

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