Photos of a member of the RCMP, Cpl. Jim Brown, engaged in BDSM scenes were discovered online recently. The scenes were violent, degrading, according to many news reports, “reminiscent of [serial killer Robert Pickton's] crimes.”

The fact that Brown played a role in the Pickton murder investigation was particularly upsetting to the public.

How could a man who so clearly enjoys degrading women fairly assess a case that is explicitly about violence against women, about dehumanizing women, and that played out as it did (in that the disappearances of women from the Downtown Eastside were ignored by the police for years) because the women who were going missing were viewed as worthless?

The photos discovered of Brown on fetlife.com included, for example, images of him holding a knife to a woman’s throat, another where he is binding a woman’s hands and feet, another where his boot is placed on the back of a woman who was wrapped in saran wrap. The photos posted by news sources online are much more tame, the reports say, than others they saw that were deemed too violent to be made available to the public.

BC Almanac, a show that airs on CBC Radio, featured a number of experts and call-ins on their show on Thursday (you can listen to the segment here) to discuss the discovery of the photos and the significance of an RCMP officer, in particular, engaging in this kind of behaviour.

While the majority of responses seem to be of shock, anger, and disgust — most people viewing the images as very clearly violent and degrading to women, one guest noting that there is a fake murder scene wherein a woman is placed in a body bag, the focus of many of the conversations was around ‘private’ behaviour vs. ‘public’ behaviour.

The RCMP, for example, tried to excuse Brown’s behaviour and their decision not to investigate when they first were made aware of the photos back in 2010 because he wasn’t wearing his uniform in the images, one report stating:

Supt. Ray Bernoties replied on June 27 that Brown’s involvement with the website, “was deemed to be adult consensual activity during which the implicated officer was not representing himself as a member of the RCMP, thus it did not meet the threshold for a code of conduct investigation.”

Essentially the RCMP viewed this as a private issue rather than a public one, since Brown wasn’t working or representing public interests at the time.

People chastised Brown for posting the photos online as well. As though he would somehow be less guilty had he hidden his behaviour better. And yes, of course it is beyond stupid in this day and age to post photos that you would prefer to remain private on the internet. But is our anger or disgust justified only because Brown was caught?

The recent push of a ‘sex-positive’ ideology which has permeated our discussions of sex and sexuality in North America says that anything goes so long as it happens in the privacy of our bedrooms and is ‘consensual’. It’s how we defend pornography, prostitution, and of course, things like BDSM. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that our individual sex lives should somehow be regulated, the whole hands-off, libertarian, ‘whatever happens between consenting adults’ party line we must all toe as progressive, politically correct people makes it next to impossible to address behaviour like Brown’s when it comes to light.

Cries of ‘don’t judge us!’ are always what inevitably follow when we imply that perhaps a fantasy is not so tidily separated from real life actions and beliefs or that perhaps our fantasies are shaped by our reality and vice versa.

We’re only permitted to say ‘he should have kept it hidden from public view’ because to say anything else defies the modern ethos, post-sexual revolution, that says: Sex is always good. Erections are always good. If it turns you on, so be it.

But the line between fantasy and reality is not so firm and the divide between public and private is not as unmovable as we pretend it is, as we are witnessing now.

When the VPD were found to have been watching porn on the job instead of investigating the missing and murdered women, what we pretend is ‘private’ became public. When Catherine Galliford came out about the years of sexual harassment and sexual assault she faced while she was a member of the RCMP, what was once ‘private’ suddenly became ‘public’.  We’ve long treated abuse as a ‘private’, ‘family matter’. We know better now. Brown’s ‘private’ life, wherein he fetishized the abuse and degradation of women, is not *just* a private issue. This is a case where what one does ‘in private’ clearly has a public impact. The ‘private’ behaviour of misogynist men is not simply a private fantasy, but it is a public reality — whether or not the men are outed about their behaviour.

Now why are we pretending that fantasy has no association to reality? Do we really believe that any man who gets off on degrading women in his ‘private life’ somehow doesn’t bring those views into any other arena? Is his fantasy of abuse and domination erased the minute he shuts off his laptop or leaves the brothel? Based on the upset and the level of disgust coming from the public with regard to Brown’s behaviour, the answer is ‘no.’ If we truly believed that what happens behind closed doors has no real social impact, I doubt that people would be so upset.

The fact that this man is in a position of power, is meant to represent someone who exists to ‘protect’ the public, and that this was a man who took part in an investigation into the missing and murdered women, a case that is representative of how deeply racism, classism, and sexism is entrenched in our society is appalling, no doubt. But as much as we seem afraid to say it, lest we be perceived as ‘anti-sex’, as ‘prudish’, or as advocating for the state to exercise control over our bedrooms, I’m not sure we accept this kind of behaviour as truly ‘harmless’, regardless of who holds the erection and whether or not he is in uniform.

An article was published on Thursday about Terri-Jean Bedford, one of the women who brought forward the challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws (Bedford v. Canada) in an effort to legalize brothels. It noted her desire to open another house of bondage (the last bawdy house she ran was raided and shut down, leading her to file the case). The article touches on Bedford’s history of abuse, which she endured for much of her early life, beginning from the time she was a young child, but making no outright connection between her history of trauma and her life-path. Her private life, the abuse that was inflicted upon her, is a public reality. Many, many women have similar histories, hundreds of thousands of girls experience sexual assault and abuse throughout their lives. This is not a ‘private’ issue. This is a public reality. When abusing women is legitimized as a legal ‘business’ (which it would be were brothels to be legalized in Canada), those women’s histories of abuse is capitalized on. Prostitution sexualizes abuse. Fantasy becomes reality. Men’s ‘private’ fantasies are a reality for the women they abuse.

Our culture is sick. When men are getting off and getting away with abuse, with rape, and with assault, it’s time we stop pretending as though what we claim to be merely ‘fantasy’ is separate from reality.

Bedford’s story isn’t an anomaly. Many women who are prostituted have histories of abuse and many were pimped out as children. Male ‘fantasies’ — the things that happen supposedly in the ‘privacy of their own bedrooms’ — are our reality as a culture. The disrespect for women that exists within a man’s mind doesn’t just stay there. It isn’t just about him and his individual desires. A man who buys a woman on the Downtown Eastside is likely buying a woman who has been abused for much of her life. He is building on a history of violence.

We all have pornographic images built into our psyches. It’s all but impossible to avoid in this day and age. We learn what turns us on based on these images and based on our realities, living in a culture that is both built on, and fetishizes, inequity.

What is our fear around Cpl. Jim Brown’s ‘private’ behaviour? That it will bleed into reality? That perhaps a man who enjoys abuse fantasies ‘in private’ doesn’t care about the abuse of women in ‘real life’? Well I think those fears are justified. The cycle of abuse has roots.