The Law Commission report contradicts a law lords' ruling last March which rejected an appeal by five homosexual men who were jailed for consenting ritual activities, including genital torture.
The lords decided that consent to such practices was no defence to charges of wounding or assault causing actual bodily harm. The Law Commission believes current legislation is too strict. Except in special circumstances, such as during sport, consent is no defence to cases of deliberate injury.
The lords' landmark ruling followed the conviction at the Old Bailey in 1990 of 16 men involved in a nationwide ring of sado-masochists. The jury, in what became known as the 'spanner' trial, heard that members of the group had cut each other's genitals with surgical scalpels, sandpapered scrotums and pushed fishing hooks into penises.
The Court of Appeal later reduced their sentences, which ranged up to four and half years, but upheld their convictions. Five of the men have taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The Law Commission's proposals are published today in a consultation document, Consent and Offences Against the Person. Two possible reforms are suggested. First, altering the rules to allow people to consent to activities that caused injury but not 'serious injury'. Juries would decide what constituted 'serious'.
Second, to change the range of consensual activities involving actual bodily harm that are exempt from the law. These currently include horseplay, circus exhibitions, tattooing and ear piercing, and sports. Possible additions are ritual circumcision, flagellation and religious mortification; the exclusion of the vague phrase 'horseplay' is suggested.
The commission also proposes clarifying the laws involving criminal assault during sports. It suggests that intentional infliction of injury during a match should be a criminal act, as should the reckless infliction of injury.
The Law Commission said: 'We believe that there is no need for the current rules on consent to be so strict - we favour a change.'