Sex, power, and the myth about consent

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. 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? As a feminist issue it’s getting lots of attention. But becoming more sexually liberal 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. Never have, never will. I only know people 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. Practitioners say 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. And 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.

Now, 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 is a misogynist. 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 sex 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 those norms are in large part constructed to control women. And 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.

No, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. 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. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. That’s an empty existential argument. It’s irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.

Sure, one could describe an outsider determining when exploitation exists as being paternalistic. But women who are abused and prostituted often don’t recognize that they’re involved in an abusive situation because they’ve been rendered dependent on someone who is manipulating and controlling them. Stockholm Syndrome is a thing, and a community that glorifies torture, sadism and masochism attracts people who wish to prey on others as well as people who’ve already been groomed into submission. One might argue that BDSM itself, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But the culture out of which the practice arose is patriarchal. How has this practiced managed to avoid internalizing any of that? And how does a person who’s devoted to equality and justice justify the eroticization of domination?

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 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.

Some 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? Because we live in a world that’s ordered and structured by social inequality. How many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly individualized territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism?

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting is 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 slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. It’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 raging sexists 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. That’s parasitic. And oppressive. It’s not any woman’s responsibility to be a punching bag for someone else’s benefit. Those things should be worked out between the person who has those urges and a trained therapist whose labour is compensated. When a person with privilege tells themselves they’re powerless and refuses to take responsibility for solving that problem, 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 male 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 anyone appealing. Such a compulsion may signal an underlying issue that won’t go away with temporary relief from some emotional discomfort.

It’s important to note that although there are men who fetishize femininity and submission, this doesn’t represent an equalization or neutral endeavour. Men who engage in these practices usually use misogynistic language, calling themselves (or asking to be called) “bitch”, “slut”, “sissy”, etc. These terms debase women, not men.

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. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine this because even if some people believe it’s natural for them, that doesn’t make it natural or acceptable in general, and it matters most of all because this has the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.

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 perceived sexual rights.

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. 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.



Filed under Feminism & Gender, Politics & Society

2 responses to “Sex, power, and the myth about consent

  1. Wary

    I found my way here from the Tyee article, and fully agree with you – thank you Lavender for your insight, as it appears our take on things are too few and far between these days… The line in that article (and most conversations about BDSM, unfortunately) that really sticks in my craw is “…responsible practitioners say abuse runs contrary to the spirit of the scene”… Bullshit. Just bullshit. It seems in the midst of all the current trendiness and social cachet that comes with people saying they’re “into BDSM”, they all conveniently forget that the last 2 letters of the acronym mean “sadism” and “masochism”, which by definition are both violent and highly abusive. Frankly, what people choose to do consensually in the privacy of their own bedrooms is none of my business, but I have a really hard time finding sympathy for anyone who ‘consents’ to being a part of such a f’d up ‘community’ in the first place. If all people like is a little ass-slapping and hair-pulling (for example), they’re better off starting a new kink community called ASHP (for example), but don’t hide behind a bullshit acronym when things get more violent than expected. I am not victim-blaming, I am (albeit bluntly, and maybe even inconsiderately) simply calling a spade a spade. This is about sadism and masochism, period. And they need to stop calling it “play”, because it’s not. The entire lot needs to invest in a dictionary (and probably some intensive therapy).

    Last, you are absolutely correct about it being a wider social issue, and not just individualistic preferences that we so-called ‘prudes’ don’t understand so we should just shut up and mind our own business. I used to love sex and had plenty of it – passionate! non-vanilla! multiple positions! – but easily 9 out of 10 of my last sexual encounters in the past 10 years included my partners (non-consensually and wholly unexpectedly) pulling my hair, slapping/spanking me, and/or calling me derogatory names in the middle of sex, and now I don’t trust anyone (and could probably use some therapy of my own). I’d rather masturbate the rest of my life than risk one more shitty encounter with someone I implicitly trusted up to that point. Anyway, glad I found your site and thanks for giving me the space to rant.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your own experiences. I never realized how many abusive encounters I’d had with men until I started writing and thinking about these issues more. It’s scary to think that they actually started to be normalized in my own mind simply because they’ve happened so many times. One thing I’ve noted is that so much male-perpetrated abuse and violence occur in sexualized situations. Like you, I’m a pretty open person. I’ve never met a man who was more interested in sex than me. Everyone has their own tastes. No problem. But I wonder, why is good sex not good enough? Like that kind of visceral, mind-blowing sex you have when you completely lose track of space and time and all you feel is energy? I can’t help but wonder whether people have such a hard time relating with one another as human beings without gender, insecurity, and all that other bullshit getting in the way because we live in such a highly individualistic, ego-driven society. Why else would people want to violate each other to get off? I’m not going to defend someone’s “right” to do that. And thank you for pointing out the sadism and masochism elements. I think people are so committed to the idea of sexual liberalism that they forget what these things actually mean.

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