The tyranny of consent
Emily Witt’s recent essay, in which she describes traveling to San Fransisco, where she watches a BDSM porn shoot for a Kink.com series called Public Disgrace, which depicts “women bound, stripped, and punished in public,” inspired a number of responses.
Despite my, probably obvious, criticisms of both porn and the BDSM genre, in particular, 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 is described by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic, as one in which “… 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 whatever writers for The American Conservative think about sex that happens outside of marriage and have decided is the kind of Godly God-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 social (as well as individual) 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, in many ways, 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. In other words, she “consented.” She even enjoyed the scene. And 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, distorts the issue.
Ethically, of course, there has to be consent. But also, consider that ethics aren’t only 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 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 see this kind of imagery on screen. 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? Sure, 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.