How noisy can sex get before it is illegally loud? A jury in a forthcoming case in Newcastle Crown Court will soon have to decide this challenging question.
In 2007, neighbours made many complaints against Caroline Cartwright about her ecstatic screaming during sex with her husband. Council environmental officers were dispatched to set up recording equipment in a neighbouring property to measure the level of shrieking, moaning and slapping that could be heard through the walls and outside on the street. The recorded noise levels were unacceptably high, so the council imposed a noise abatement order against her.
But the loud sex continued, so Cartwright was prosecuted. Last month, at Houghton le Spring magistrates? court in Sunderland, she was convicted of breaching the abatement order. Giving testimony in court, a neighbour stated that not only was the sound of the sex excessively loud, penetrating a wall that she had had soundproofed, but it was maintained with some stamina. The witness said: ?When I first moved in it would start around midnight and last until 3am-4am?.
The lawyer for Cartwright said: ?She believes the way she performs is natural and normal?. The court disagreed. The chair of the bench told the defendant: ?You could have minimised your vocalisation while having sex?. It convicted Cartwright and sentenced her to a ?200 fine and a four-year Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) banning her from ?making excessive noise? anywhere in England.
But she still failed to quieten down. She said, ?Effectively, they are trying to ban me from having sex.? Cartwright asserted that she could not control the noises she made during sex and noted, ?We are just expressing how we feel. If they want to lock me up for it they can.?
The very next day she was arrested again for making too much noise, and further arrests followed twice in the following week. Each arrest arose from highly audible and resonant early morning moaning and groaning and the sound of a bed banging against a wall. After the third arrest she was charged with breaching her ASBO and will now stand trial before a judge and jury in Newcastle. She was refused bail and was remanded in custody.
The courts have rarely been asked to rule in a case where the sound of female sexual rapture is a legal issue, but it has happened. In October 2007, at the magistrates? court in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, the humdrum proceedings were interrupted at one point by the sound of a gasping female voice in an advanced state of excitement.
The voice was the hi-fi ringtone on the phone of a man in the public gallery. As the sounds of ecstasy became progressively louder the court proceedings froze. The man with the extraordinary ringtone fumbled desperately to turn off his phone. He was identified and told he could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned, although the magistrate ultimately exercised mercy. One missed call, one missed cell.
Professor Gary Slapper is Director of the Centre for Law at The Open University