Sunday, 7 December 2014

Whipping Up Controversy

Recently, the 2003 Communications Act was amended to ban the depiction of a number of more *ahem* exotic practices in pornography produced in the UK. Online pornography in the UK must now follow the same guidelines as DVD porn, which rules out a variety of sex acts, from female ejaculation to caning.

The inclusion of many sado-masochist practices (not to be confused with “maso-sadist”, which I am informed is a school of left-wing economics) is one of the most striking parts of the amendment (forgive the pun). From briefly scanning social media, the responses to this seem to fall it two main categories: Firstly, “boo, the Puritans are after my civil liberties”. Secondly, “hurrah, sexualised [male] violence [against women] shouldn’t be consumed as a product”. However, this dichotomy is a gross oversimplification. I would like to highlight some further considerations based upon considerations of power and virtue, and explore how they shape this debate.

The last response is one that I have a lot of sympathy for. However, it is predicated on a major assumption that needs unpicking: that violence in an S&M context holds some sort of either identity or causal relation to sexual violence in wider society. I am not a sociologist, and I will leave that last question to others. However, I do have a passing interest in ethics, and the first question is very interesting.

Prima facie, S&M seems bad insofar as it involves one person hurting another. This is redeemed somewhat when you introduce the element of consent:  these things are precisely worked out in terms of who can do what to whom, and where the boundaries lie, with structures in place to ensure the safety of participants. This is not the case, the S&M apologist might argue, in cases of ‘authentic’ sexual violence. Thus they are not identical.

I think that the consent issue here is central, because I think the comparison is most meaningful when reduced to exercise of power. The purpose of violence outside of an S&M context is to exert power on another, coercing them into a subordinate position. Conversely, in S&M, there is a two-way exchange of power: the sub willingly sigs away power to the dom. However, the dom is constrained entirely by what the sub wishes to legitimise. Thus even though the sub gives power to the dom, the dom is always-already returning it in sticking to the rules established by the sub, who is always-already returning it in being the sub... What you have is a kind of mutual kenosis, where each participant gives their power entirely to the other. It is not so much a radical sexual practice under this reading as a distillation of the essence of the most traditionally conservative context for sexuality: mutual self-giving in marriage. The S&M apologist would point out here the complete difference between this and coercive violence, which is all about one party stealing power from another.

I think that this is a fair argument: in its perfect form, S&M violence is not the same as normal violence. To add to the distinction, we might note that S&M violence takes place in a variety of gendered contexts (women as dom over a male sub, same-sex relationships etc.), whereas sexual violence tends to be perpetrated by males upon female.

However, there is an added dimension to this debate brought up by the fact that it is people, with all our flaws and concupiscence, who take part in S&M relationships. It does not seem unlikely that some doms actively delight not in the kenotic aspect of their relationships, but in the infliction of harm or the having of power over someone - that is, they are truly sadists. Equally, some subs may actively enjoy humiliation for its own sake. Masochism seems in some respects to be like a kind of self-directed sadism, where the masochist takes a kind of second-order pleasure in their own suffering. This might seem wrong insofar as were we to have such a moral attitude towards another subject, it would clearly be wrong. There is obviously more room for debate here, bringing in to play concepts such as self-ownership, autonomy, and first versus second order preferences. However, it seems like a defensible take on the situation that subs can enjoy their position unvirtuously. We might ask whether it is right to produce media that endorses the indulging of such vices. This provides us with a broader variation on the second criticism.

An S&M apologist might respond that a particular piece of pornography is not intended to be consumed in such a way. This brings to light another dimension in terms of the alienation of the artist from the consumer. When a person watched pornography, just as when any other media is consumed, the artist’s intentions can never be communicated with 100% fidelity. It is thus perfectly reasonable to suppose that a decent proportion of consumers of S&M porn are doing so in a way that takes sadistic delight in the activities being shown, regardless of how virtuously kenotic the activity is supposed to be. The question now is whether, knowing this, it is responsible to try and cater for virtuous S&M enthusiasts whilst foreseeing vicious enjoyment of the product. Of course, it is practically impossible to cover all possibilities here. As the internet has shown us, for any object or state of affairs in the world, there exists a person who will get off on it. The question is thus how far does any one person's responsibility extend on this front, and what conditions affect it?

We then come to a development of the first response: given our conclusion on the above considerations, does the state have a right to prevent the production of such media? This will obviously vary depending on your views on civil liberties and market autonomy. The sort of person making our second response would probably be the sort of person in favour of government intervention in the name of the public good. However, one might ask whether the public good includes the moral status of its members – particularly given that it is hard to enforce a universal morality without in some ways damaging the good that is individual autonomy. This is compounded by the issue that, historically speaking, most people have been wrong in many of their moral intuitions, and perhaps this situation invites an element of humility incompatible with imposing one's views on others in such a way. If not, one might then ask whether there is an explicit enough causal link between violent pornography and sexual violence in order to fulfil the ‘public good’ condition. For this, we must turn back to our friends, the sociologists. Furthermore, there is a variation on our pragmatic question above: should we censor something based on the fact that it can be viciously taken in ways other than the intended? In a world in which even doorknobs can become the focal objects of ambiguously sexual pictures of women dressed up as schoolgirls, I imagine that such a policy would cover most of human cultural production.

There are other considerations that I have not taken into account here: ones such as variations within violent pornography (for example, whipping may be easier to reconcile within a consensual framework than simulated rape, which mimics something that in its very nature defies consent). However, simple reflection shows that there is more to this debate than a simple conflict of liberty to consume versus public interest.


  1. I have many points, but I suppose I will try to be both coherent and succinct (ha)

    It's worth noting that the law in question has its own interesting gender biases. So, female ejaculation is prohibited because it is seen as urination (which is an interesting lack of knowledge of women's bodies for a 'feminist' position), and the more prohibited practices are frequently those that involve women feeling pleasure or being in power. So for instance, 'facef***ing' is allowed in pornography, but 'facesitting' is not. It feels like there is a sexist angle behind the law itself, beyond its discussion of S&M practices.

    But the majority of yr points seem focused on the ethics of S&M practices, which I think could use a great deal of nuance. Which isn't to do with you as much as it has to do with the conversations historically. So I would argue that lumping a host of practices together as 'S&M' is going to lead to some difficulties in the first place, because that covers such a wide range of activities that it would be hard to say anything concrete about them all. There are also some statements that just left me scratching my head because they seemed to just be assumptions writ large. For instance: "It is thus perfectly reasonable to suppose that a decent proportion of consumers of S&M porn are doing so in a way that takes sadistic delight in the activities being shown" clearly needs some sort of citation, altho I would argue that any law that tries to curb inner experiences is flawed.

    Like many things regarding sex, and esp. sex work, I think the main issue is that these things are themselves held up to a higher standard than 'more acceptable' practices. I don't see how S&M practices are inherently more violent than sport in a physical sense, and in a way are psychologically more cooperative, but you don't seen nations trying to ban sportscasting. Or violent portrayals in film/media in general. And in the sense of 'well maybe it has unintended consequences, but those should be regulated', I don't see why that shouldn't equally apply to books like Catcher In the Rye or, to be more frank, The Communist Manifesto.

    This kind of leads to the main problem as I see it with much of the feminist argumentation about S&M, which is that somehow by having inequalities more consciously or visibly than other relationships, it is more unequal. From anecdotal evidence, it was not my kink relationships that were the ones with abuse in them. Holding up S&M practices as inherently violent/abusive seems to make a mockery of the fact that they are frequently the relationships with the most explicit model of consent. And there's the issue that whenever abusive power happens in kink relationships (which it does), it is blamed on the SM nature, rather than just being incidental to the fact that abuse is rampant in our society.

    I have other thoughts, but I suppose I have gone through a lot of what I was going to say.

    1. Thanks for the reply :)

      I wanted to stay away from the gender biases aspect in part because it's obviously problematic, and loads of much more informed people than myself have picked up on that aspect already.

      With regards to the reasonability of supposing that people consume porn in certain ways, I think your right in terms of the "decent proportion" bit - that was lazy/bad writing on my part and I didn't mean to give the impression that it was necessarily a lot of people who would do so in that way. You're also right that it needs to be backed up with actual figures. I guess what I meant was that it's likely that there are some people who approach S&M in that way. The point of this wasn't a general attack on S&M though – in fact, it was a reaction to an essentially favourable assessment of the practice. It was more to bring out considerations that might feed in to regulation and highlight further uncertainties. In the context of a pro-regulation argument, my failings here only weaken the point if you think that the quantity of people doing so affects whether you should or should not produce that kind of pornography, or ultimately, regulate its production as a governmental body. I think this is intuitively true, but equally I think that someone more committed to the position could find grounds for a more conservative approach. I personally haven’t given the issue enough thought to come down decisively on either side, although I’m uneasy about this sort of regulation in general precisely because the issue is so complex, and, as both of us have noted, the scope of such regulation would have to be terrifying in order to be consistent.

      I think the issue of holding certain practices to different standards is an issue, but one that doesn't immediately warrant holding any practices to lower standards. It could be that the problem lies in the acceptability of e.g. violent sports, and I'm not sure that we should lower standards for some activities just because we make failings with regards to others. I'm concerned that there's a kind of appeal to 'fairness' here as distinct from notions of 'justice' as a right state of affairs, which I'm more inclined towards - or at least a privileging of fairness over a wider minimization of wrongness which I don't think is necessarily correct. Of course I could be totally misrepresenting you here, so I'm sorry if that's the case.

      Like I said at the beginning, I don’t really know anything about causal links between S&M and violence, so I want to stay away from commenting on it. But I agree that we should be sceptical of ‘easy’ causal accounts, particularly when they chime in tune with popular squeamishness.

      I hope I've properly understood you and that this reply makes sense.