Yesterday, it was reported in the news that Jian Ghomeshi, a well-known Canadian broadcaster and radio host, is no longer employed by the CBC. The CBC has vaguely stated that the reason centres around information they received about Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi claims that he was fired because his employer was afraid that the details of his sexual life might become public and create unwanted controversy. Ghomeshi is now suing his former employer for about $50 million and wasted no time in posting his side of the story on his Facebook page, claiming that he’s a victim. Some people question why he would spill the beans on his BDSM lifestyle, but I think it makes sense if it’s all going to come out eventually anyway. Juicy details will inevitably emerge as a result of the suit, so maybe he figured he’d just get in front of it. It’s certainly one way of demonstrating that he thinks he has nothing to hide and has done nothing wrong.
Some time ago, I read an article by a woman about a bad date she allegedly had with Ghomeshi, whom she characterized as a womanizing, sexually aggressive creep. It’s true that it’s easier to make an accusation than it is to defend it and that men can be targets of false accusations by women. But it’s also true that women are objectified and abused by men on a daily basis, and much of the time they don’t report it for a variety of reasons that may not seem logical but are nevertheless compelling and reaffirmed by the reactions they’re met with when they do speak up. Just because a woman says she’s been abused by a man doesn’t mean she has, but just because she hasn’t reported it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. At this point, what we know is that a number of women allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them.
One of the things people are arguing about is the issue of consent; it doesn’t matter so much whether Ghomeshi enjoys having kinky sex as the fact that these women are saying that he acted violently toward them, and not in a way that they had discussed or consented to. In other words, the allegation is that he didn’t just have a raunchy, rough tumble in the hay with them – he outright assaulted them. And you can’t consent to assault.
So why are we talking about consent? For one thing, it’s a touchy subject in part because a lot of people (mostly men) still don’t seem to understand what consent means. We’re also becoming more sexually liberated as a society, so in addition to talking about consent in the context of rape, we’re also becoming more knowledgeable about alternative or fringe sexual lifestyles. Books, movies, other sources of information and forms of entertainment have added to the discourse and practices such as polyamory are getting more mainstream attention. It is possible for adults to engage in genres of consensual sex that most people don’t find arousing or pleasant. Leaving aside what “most people” actually means – because we don’t really know what people do behind closed doors – what I’d like to argue here is that consent isn’t a magical ingredient that makes everything okay all the time. While unequivocal consent is critical, it doesn’t automatically cleanse any given situation of ethical questions. This is where I think discussions about BDSM can get messy, so naturally it’s at this juncture that I think we have the most to gain in terms of how we approach the topics of sex, power, and gender.
I don’t practice a BDSM lifestyle, but I’m familiar with it to a limited extent through people I know who do. I think there’s a level of comprehension about what it is and how it works that a person on the outside can’t fully grasp. It can take on an endless number of variations and involves complicated protocols. It’s not a license for random debauchery; it’s a structured way of satisfying one’s urges that’s based on trust and communication. What many people take to be kinky (e.g. hair pulling, handcuffs, spanking, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as kinky in the BDSM world. Buying a racy toy at a sex shop is a far cry from joining a leather family. One thing I can safely say is that it includes many different types of people, tastes, and practices, and it’s ultimately what the participants make it.
I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to say that BDSM is either good or bad, full stop. I believe that people should be free to explore their own sexuality in an environment that’s supportive and inclusive. But not necessarily in every and any situation – and not simply because all parties consent. I think it’s something that would need to be considered on a case by case basis. Context matters.
I’m the sort of feminist who believes that patriarchy still governs our daily lives on multiple levels and that consent does not erase this reality. I believe that like any form of oppression, sexism can be internalized and reproduced even by victims, in different ways and for different reasons. So the contention that no exploitation can possibly exist where a woman provides her consent just doesn’t fly with me.
In a recent Twitter spat, someone told me flat out: you either accept all forms of sexuality or you don’t. This was their response to my opinion that in a patriarchal society, a man who craves the sexual domination of women has issues. I know that’s a strong statement and I’ll expand on it in a bit. My opponent’s argument was that this was like stating that homosexuality is wrong because it’s underpinned by the same moralistic attitude. The thing is, the only reason anyone would be critical of homosexuality would be as a result of religious or cultural conditioning. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong about the idea of people of the same gender acting on their attraction for one another. I agree that ignorance still factors into social norms regarding sexuality. We’re raised to think in predetermined ways about what’s acceptable and what’s not, so anything that falls outside of “respectable” or “vanilla” sexual encounters is frowned upon without much examination. But equating criticism of one person acting violently toward another to criticizing homosexuals who have consensual sex is terrible logic that not only uses homosexuals as pawns but also ignores some important considerations.
I’m loudly and proudly supportive of LGBT rights. But no, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. I don’t live in binary world, and I don’t think rights work that way either. Just because something turns someone on, they shouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue it with abandon by virtue of that fact. There are people who are sexually aroused by morbidity, including things that very few people would consider acceptable. Even in cases where consent exists (I’m thinking of men who agree to allow other men to cannibalize their sexual organs), whatever the reason or cause for that type of fixation, it’s not healthy. Period. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. This may be clear when we cite extreme examples, but not so much when we talk about the many things that fall under the broad BDSM umbrella. People have different limits – that’s why we have safewords. But even where these are established, it would be irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.
Does gender matter in BDSM, and if so, why and how? One problem is that it can be very difficult (and paternalistic) for someone on the outside to determine when exploitation exists. BDSM, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But is it always that simple? What if a participant is vulnerable because their personal history has predisposed them to a normalized view of sexual abuse or aggression? The fact that this can be difficult to determine doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that it’s not wrong, or that it can’t be prevented. If we consider such a relationship in a male homosexual context, it still wouldn’t be acceptable.
How is it ever okay for a person – male or female – to be gagged, made to vomit, choked or punched? Why would anyone get turned on by having those things done to them or by doing it to someone else? Analyzing what it means to want to be humiliated or to want to humiliate someone else isn’t a matter of imposing normalcy on people with freaky habits. It’s not healthy. There’s a difference between raw, even rough passionate sex, and domination. We’re strange creatures. We don’t always understand our impulses. We might want to be ravished – but that’s nothing close to, say, being tied up and having sensitive areas of the body zapped with electrical currents. Or walking on all fours with a dog collar around your neck.
Is there a substantial difference between humiliation and pain? Many people feel that there’s a physical connection between pain and pleasure because they can push us beyond our boundaries both physically and emotionally. They can be transcendent. I think that in some cases, this is all a person might crave, and someone they trust helps them to fulfill that desire. For them, gender, income, etc. don’t matter – they’re just two human beings sharing a private experience of their choosing. Why should that be our business? I get it. Still, I wonder how many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly personal territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism. It happens. It’s not right and we shouldn’t ignore it.
Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting – that’s a different story. It’s simply not true that everything that happens between consenting adults is between them and them only. Consider the case of a battered wife. She doesn’t consent to the battery, but if she stays in the relationship and refuses to call the police, the abuser has license to continue. Should we do nothing?
There’s a reason for the distinction between civil and criminal law. In common law, a tort is a private wrong, whereas a crime can involve something the assailant does to just one other person – and even behind closed doors, on their own property – but they can be charged with a crime by the government on behalf of society. When a harmful act is serious enough, our legal institutions say it involves all of us. That’s an important tenet. The concepts of consent and privacy in sex and relationships have legitimate bases and should be respected, but they shouldn’t be exploited by extrapolating those concepts to every private situation imaginable in order to shield individuals from accountability. You can’t draw an imaginary boundary around your bedroom and pretend that anything goes.
Furthermore, when a person who holds a position of privilege acts in a violent way toward someone who lacks that privilege, don’t we understand that as an act committed against that entire group of oppressed people? When a person hurls a racist slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. That’s not a one-on-one situation. And why should it make any difference whether the act was of a sexual nature, or whether she begged for it?
Even if a woman is intelligent, emotionally stable with no history of abuse and fully understands the implications of a dominant sexual relationship (which I recognize is true of many women who participate in BDSM), the man isn’t home free as far as I’m concerned. What are we to make of men, all of whom possess male privilege whether they’re sexist or not, who argue that they’re not doing anything wrong as long as a woman consents to sexual aggression, torture, submission, discomfort, control, or violence? The key question is this: Why, in a patriarchal society, would a man crave the domination of women, sexual or otherwise? He already has plenty of power and privilege over women. Why the thirst for even more control? What is it about that exactly that excites him, and why? The only way this makes sense from a pathological standpoint is if a man harbours feelings of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, loss, or uncertainty. Somewhere, somehow, there’s an insecurity that gives rise to this fetish of domination. And when a person with more power than many of the people around them feels powerless, that’s dysfunctional. And potentially dangerous.
When I ask myself whether I would lose respect for a man if he was okay with indulging in rape fantasies, even if it was my idea, the answer without any doubt is yes. It’s my firm belief that a decent man would be alarmed by such a request and understand that it’s not the request or the consent that determine its ethics; it’s the question of whether it plays into the patriarchy that’s still a reality today. Any ethical person who possesses privilege should recoil from an opportunity to further entrench that privilege even if it’s sanctioned, and even if it piques their sexual interest (and arguably, especially when it piques their interest).
In the course of my discussions about the subject of BDSM and sexism, some people have asked me: What about women who want to dominate men? When we consider that women live in a world dominated by men, it’s understandable that a woman might feel empowered or aroused by the opportunity to dominate a man who agrees to submit to her. As long as gender privilege is a reality, we can never substitute a man for a woman and pretend that the situation is comparable. Personally, I don’t find the idea of dominating men appealing. Such a compulsion, however, may signal an underlying pathology that should be addressed with cognitive behavioural therapy or other forms of self-awareness that address the source of that compulsion, if it’s strong enough that a person wants to work it out (or take it out) on someone. That doesn’t solve the problem. It only provides temporary relief from some emotional discomfort. Is that wrong? Well, it’s not exactly healthy, and enabling someone to engage in unhealthy behaviour isn’t a good thing. This is something we should be able talk about without being silenced by people who would rather not recognize this reality.
Ultimately, no matter who you are, the idea of dominating another human being in whatever way is rooted in ego and the fetishism of power. I don’t know that that is something we should wholesale encourage or condone. It can be playful and reciprocal; it may not necessarily be expressed in harmful ways. So I think we can distinguish between recreational and pathological expressions. I’m just not a fan of the idea of handing anyone a blank cheque in terms of how they treat others, especially considering that certain groups are already disadvantaged as it is and that people who have been subjected to abuse are more likely to be victimized again. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine them because even if they are natural (and I’m not convinced they are), they have the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.
I’m all for sexual expression, but not where we use the principles of individuality and personal freedom as tools to take advantage of the willingness of others to be vessels for violence. Exploitation with consent is still exploitation.
As uncomfortable and slippery as discussing sexual appropriateness might be, I think we’ll always be debating what’s acceptable and what’s not. It seems as though some people assume that sexual liberation is a linear process, that one day there will be no laws or cultural norms. But I think that’s unrealistic. In our efforts to call out moralizing where it’s harmful and unnecessary, it’s unreasonable to gloss over everything humans do sexually just because we choose to do it or because of the nature of the activity. I hope we never get to a point where it’s acceptable to look the other way when a person agrees to be abused. It will never be okay to sit idly by while someone tries to slit their own wrists, drink themselves to death, or undertake other forms of self-harm. Why should willfulness or consent free us from responsibility?
Although we all live in a highly subjective reality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that some things just are wrong. Defining that is a messy business that will continue to evolve, but it’s precisely because it’s a controversial subject that we should seize the opportunity to establish why weird isn’t wrong, unusual isn’t wrong, and we should always be open to talking about what “wrong” actually means. The idea of wrong already rules our lives in legal and social terms, so why not bring it out into the open so we can figure out what it means for us today, rather than blindly condemning or condoning an entire subset of practices that might be quite different, one from another? We like to pretend that morality is relevant only when it concerns issues such as poverty and greed but irrelevant where it might infringe on individual and especially sexual rights. I wonder if it’s possible to find a balance because I don’t see a reasonable alternative if we’re being honest with ourselves.
It seems that the biggest challenge we face when discussing thorny issues like this is the tendency to resort to false logic and dogma on both ends of the spectrum. If I can articulate a well-researched and well-reasoned argument that reflects the principles of empathy, compassion, and justice, that will form the basis of my position on any subject. I accept that someone else can do the same and reach a different conclusion. But if you can’t explain why your actions are ethical other than to say, “It’s none of your business” or “They wanted me to do it”, that’s not good enough. We have to do better than that.