Posts tagged kink

The tyranny of consent 

Emily Witt’s recent essay, within which she describes traveling to San Fransisco, where she watches a BDSM porn shoot for a Kink.com series called Public Disgrace, the purpose of which is to show women  “women bound, stripped, and punished in public,” inspired a number of responses.

Despite my, probably obvious, criticisms of both porn and the BDSM genre, the piece is a very good read (by which I mean, it is engaging and complex and thoughtful); although very, very graphic (by which I mean, don’t read it unless you wish to read very detailed descriptions of sadomachochism).

There’s no real way to defend the production of this kind of film, the scene for this particular production being one in which, as described by for The Atlantic, “… a group of San Franciscans crowded into a basement to watch and participate as a diminutive female porn actress (who consented very specifically to all that followed) is bound with rope, gagged, slapped, mildly electrocuted, and sexually penetrated in most every way.”

He adds, accurately, that “the tenor and intensity of the event can’t be conveyed without reading the full rendering.” Granted, the scene sounds rather terrifying and one might ask, on what basis was “consent” given by this young performer. But interviewed after the shoot, the woman expressed genuine pleasure and enthusiasm about the experience. Believably, I might add.

The question that came up for me, and for some others, was this: Regardless of there being “consent” and even pleasure, is the production and distribution of this kind of film ethically defensible? While I have no real interest in exploring the responses that argue this kind of porn is ethically wrong because it’s “uncivilized” or “barbaric” or un-Godly or whatever writers for The American Conservative think about sex that happens outside of marriage and what kind of sex counts as the kind of “civilized” sex God would have, I am interested in the issue of consent and how “consent” is so consistently twisted to mean “ethical.”

In feminism, as well as in other liberal-type circles, we talk about consent a lot. “Anything that happens between consenting adults…” is the mantra. Those who have formed critiques of the sex industry, of course, are well aware of the ways in which this “consent is magic” ethos oversimplifies the concept of consent and removes relevant contexts and larger impacts from the conversation.

Consent is, without a doubt, very important and this drilling of “non-consensual sex isn’t sex” into our brains has changed the way many people engage in sex and communicate with their sexual partners. Consent is also, obviously, still not a given, as demonstrated by the incredibly high rates with which rape occurs as well as by conversations about “grey areas,” so it’s clear we’ve got a long way to go on this one.

Though the consent conversation is imperative, I think we’re doing it wrong.

“You might think we are doing things to the model that are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” said Princess Donna Dolore (the director of the Kink shoot). “She’s signed an agreement.”

She signed an agreement. Meaning, she “consented.” She even enjoyed the scene. I believe she enjoyed the scene. I believe people connect pleasure and pain. I understand how playing with power and subordination and domination and fantasy turns people on. I’ve experienced this. So many of us have and do. I know.

When it comes to the ethics of shooting a video that explicitly depicts violence and degradation and the humiliation of women, though, the issue of consent that’s become so black and white in conversations that happen in the self-described “sex-positive” sphere of feminist discourse, is distorts the issue.

Ethically, of course, there has to be consent. But also, consider that ethics aren’t about individuals. Ethics are about the ways in which our actions and behaviours affect and impact those around us. Ethics are about society. To say “she signed an agreement” — meaning “there was consent,” says nothing about society or the ways in which the production of this kind of pornography impacts women and men everywhere and social relations. So, in this case, this one individual is ok. Maybe. Sure. The performers in this particular film enjoyed themselves this time. Great. But a conversation about ethics doesn’t end there.

To be completely honest, which is something I do try to be, Witt’s descriptions of the scene didn’t upset or disgust me. The scene, as described by Witt, was titillating in many ways. I have, after all, been socialized here in this porny, violent world, along with the rest of you. But I’m certain that, to watch the finished video or even perhaps to have watched the scene in real life, would have inspired a different reaction in me. I contemplated, for some time, actually watching the video, just so I could know for sure and, therefore be better able to describe exactly what it was that changes when we watch this kind of imagery. In the end, after talking about it with a friend, I decided against it. I’ve seen enough porn in my life to know how watching women being degraded or abused on screen makes me feel. I don’t particularly want my sexual fantasies to involve electrocution or fisting or being hit with a belt. I’m not convinced I need to watch a woman wearing a sign that reads “worthless cunt” be groped and prodded and hit by strangers in a bar in order to understand the imagery. Maybe I’m wrong.

Rape fantasies exist for a reason and I’m certainly not shaming women who have them or who even play out these kinds of scenarios in the bedroom (but men who play out rape fantasies on women in the bedroom? Yeah, you go right ahead and feel ashamed). Power is sexualized in our culture. It’s why we think Don Draper is hot. Sexual violence is all twisted up in our lives and psyches. We see images of sexualized violence on TV and in movies all the time. Not in porn. Just on regular old crime dramas and in horror films. It’s part of our history. It’s hard to escape history, culture, and socialization.

So while the issue of why many of us are turned on by sadomasochistic fantasies or experiences should certainly be explored (and has been by many), when we talk about profiting off of the production and distribution of imagery depicting sexualized violence, there is much more to the conversation, in terms of ethics, than simply “consent.”

Witt makes this distinction after talking with Rain, a self-described “24–7 lifestyle kinkster” who works for Kink. Speaking about Princess Donna with reverence, Rain describes the burning, blinding pain brought on by getting cum in your eyes, saying:

“Do you realize the dedication that takes?” asked Rain. “That’s how committed she is.”

Witt asks herself: “Committed to what? To getting guys sitting in their studio apartments to jerk off to you for $30 a month? Not an insignificant accomplishment, but enacting a fantasy of violence for personal reasons was one thing; doing so for money was another.”

Consent is messier than we often pretend it is. It isn’t black and white, though I think we’d like to think it is. “Consensual” or “nonconsensual” are the two choices we’re offered when it comes to ethics around sex and sexuality. And those two choices, as well as our efforts to create straightforward guidelines with regard to sexual ethics, are being used against us. If signing a contract is all we need to determine whether or not Kink is producing pornography under ethical circumstances (which, for the record, they are not), then we need to re-think the ways in which we’re having conversations about “consent.”

“Anything that happens between consenting adults…” can only be the mantra of feminists and liberals so long as we don’t mind our work against rape culture and exploitation being usurped by the sex industry, for profit.

Ethics are neither limited to capital or individuals because how we conduct ourselves would never come into question if not for the “society” factor. It stands to reason that, if we aren’t considering the impact on society, as a whole, with regard to our ethical quandaries, we aren’t really talking about ethics at all. We’re either talking about profit or pleasure from a place of self-interest, in which case “consent” becomes something you get, not because it’s necessarily “ethical” or “right” or “good”, but in order to fulfill the interests of a certain faction of individuals, regardless of social context.

“Consent” is a necessary starting point, but is far from the end of the conversation.

No, being ‘kinky’ does not grant you minority status 

You’ve likely heard about the ‘cannibal cop‘ by now. He was a New York police officer whose wife discovered a website open on his computer displaying a photograph of a dead girl. The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.“  There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”

The wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, said that when she later delved into her husband’s electronic chat history, she found he had been communicating with others about plans to torture and kill women, including herself.

“I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit, and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me,” she said, sobbing repeatedly through her afternoon on the witness stand.

He has now been charged with “plotting on the Internet to kidnap, rape, kill and cannibalize female victims.”

The Times article asks an interesting question, similar to one I asked back when photos were discovered of an RCMP officer who had been involved in the Pickton investigation that simulated violence against women: “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?”

Valle didn’t actually go through with his plans. While the prosecutor argued that the officer was plotting real crimes, Valle’s lawyer claimed it was all just a fantasy. The ‘fantasy’ argument didn’t provide much comfort to Mangan-Valle, who also found conversations about elaborate plots to have friends “raped in front of each other” or burned alive or about “putting women on a spit, and cooking them for 30-minute shifts, so they could be tortured longer.”

These were pretty specific plans for something that was just an innocent fantasy. There is documented negotiation of specific details and a payment upon delivery to a co-conspirator: “Valle insisted upon a price no less than $5,000 and assured CC-2 that Victim-2 would be bound, gagged, and alive when he delivered her.”

There is no doubt that violence against women is sexualized in our culture. But when Ginia Bellefonte published a piece called “Remember Misogyny” in the Times wondering why there was so little concern from feminists about this fetishization of violence against women, Jessica Wakeman responded, in The Frisky, with derision:

“Focusing on the craziness of a couple of mentally ill folks instead of larger systemic injustices seems like a poor use of time,” she argues. “Maybe….cannibals eating women isn’t really feminism’s most pressing problem?” Why so defensive? Visiting fetish sites that feature women being tortured, sometimes to the point of death, seems fairly misogynist to me.

Bellefonte quotes Jane Manning, a former sex-crimes prosecutor and currently the legislative vice president for the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, who notes:

“There’s an odd confusion in the feminist movement,” she added. “We’ve all accepted the idea that speech is protected when it’s speech. But that seems to have extended to the notion that there shouldn’t even be social condemnation attached to incredibly horrifying misogynist speech.”

Violence against women continues to be one of the most urgent and pressing issues for the feminist movement today. And I would say that sites that fetishize mudering, raping, and eating women are, in fact, a little more serious than simply “a couple of mentally ill folks” who like to surf the internet and whatever everybody just relaaaax OK? So, a man who fantasizes about hanging his wife from her feet while him and his friends “take turns sexually assaulting her before slitting her throat and cooking her” isn’t misogyny? OK. Got it.

We’re at a place in feminism where we are so desperate to either not be perceived as ‘prudish’ or to defend any and every activity as simply an individual ‘choice’ or behaviour that calling what is clearly misogyny (is there any more literal manifestation of the sexualization of violence against women than fetish sites dedicated to torturing and murdering women?) has become off-limits because it counts as ‘kink’. The desperation to individualize, legitimize, and depoliticize absolutely everything is frightening. Particularly because it seems we are most intent on doing this with relation to anything that could possibly be connected to sexuality.

I get the feeling that we’re not calling this kind of thing out because we don’t want to admit that, sometimes, misogynist ‘fetishes’ aren’t simply ‘fantasy’. They’re actually misogyny.

Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.

That said, there are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life.

William Saletan pointed out, in an article for Slate, that :

Every article about BDSM now includes the obligatory professional woman who’s secure enough in her feminism to admit she likes to be flogged. It’s great that we’ve come that far, but the message is awkward. While reformers in India battle a culture of rape, Indian BDSM advocates extol the bliss of female masochism. While human rights activists denounce caning and waterboarding, BDSM lecturers teach the joys of caning and waterboarding. Abduction, slavery, humiliation, torture—everything we condemn outside the world of kink is celebrated within it.

Awkward, indeed. The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.

The tricky part follows: “Political advocates for BDSM see themselves as successors to the gay rights movement. They cite Lawrence v. Texas. They call themselves “sexual minorities” and depict kink as a “sexual orientation,” Saletan writes. Get it? If being ‘kinky’ makes you part of some kind of minority group, anything that counts as fetish is off-limits in terms of critical discussion. It can’t be misogynist, I was born this way! It’s sex, not misogyny!

I mostly agree with Saletan’s assessment: “BDSM isn’t an orientation. It’s a lifestyle.” And, for the most part, whether or not you like to play out fantasies or wear leather or do fancy things with ropes or dress up as a sexy nun in order to rebel against your Catholic parents as part of your sex life isn’t something anyone else has a say over. But that really isn’t the point. There is misogyny and violence and abuse that happens as part of BDSM and we should be able to call it for what it is without being accused of attacking a person’s ‘sexual identity’.

The ludicrous notion that this lifestyle should qualify a person for protection under the law,on account of being a part of some kind of oppressed minority group defined by ‘kinkiness’ is an insult to actual minority groups.

This kind of hyperbolized, perverted use of identity politics as a means to stifle feminist discourse and critical thought is a serious detriment to the movement.

We are always asking ourselves “What happened to the momentum?” and “Where are all the young feminists?” Well, I think we’re finding the answer. In the final segment of the recently aired documentary, MAKERS: How Women Made America, a three-hour look at the history and evolution of the women’s movement in the United States, Letty Pogrebin said, of the “Why don’t young women care about feminism?” question: “If they lose their rights, then they will wake up.” And I don’t think she was talking about the right to be spanked.

I supposed once we’ve completely quelled our ability to discuss anything outside individual choice and identity and are forced to discuss all actions and behaviours as neutral and void of context, we’ll truly be free.