There has recently been a great deal of debate around the topic of consent in sexual politics. Stakeholders in this debate have vocalized a wide range of positions, from positing the centrality of consent in questions of sexual ethics to considering the negative implications of undivided attention allotted to it. Meanwhile, on the ground, a certain kind of pornography starring women being tied up, chained, gagged and penetrated, whipped, and made to bleed has become exceedingly popular and widely sought out. To understand the nature, let alone the implications, of this kind of pornography, we have to understand its origins—the origins of Sadomasochism.
Marqui de Sade, a prominent member of nobility and a convicted rapist, kidnapper, and abuser was the namesake of the term sadism. Although he is now celebrated throughout philosophical and literary discourse as somewhat of a pop icon, Sade was undoubtedly a deviant of the most sordid variety. In her book Pornography, Andrea Dworkin devotes a whole chapter to enumerating Sade’s abundant sexual escapades and convictions in a worthy attempt to expose him for the fiend he was. Among his atrocities, Sade was guilty of torture, poisoning, kidnapping children, and raping countless women. Sade’s ill formed justifications for these actions are articulated in his pornographic literature now commonly consumed as erotic philosophy. In his works, he claims to be an advocate of absolute freedom, a right he argues needs to be realized in sexual practice.
Needless to say, his conception of absolute freedom did not apply to his victims. To conceal this obvious inconsistency, Sade argued that the recipients of his violence would enjoy it, even ask for it, if they were to just surrender their prudish boundaries and openly realize their repressed sexuality. It is my opinion that anyone with a pulse who reads a factual account of Sade’s life would want to distance themselves as much as is worldly possible from this individual and his legacy. And yet, amazingly, in recent years sadism has become not only popular but widely accepted. This philosophy, stemming from a man who made no secret of the fact that he derived the greatest pleasure from inflicting bodily pain onto unwitting victims is flourishing even in activist circles, the communities that are supposed to be the most concerned with justice.
Sade’s legacy, the concept of absolute freedom applied to sexual practice, continues to legitimize the widespread dissemination of the most vicious sexual scenes imaginable. Instead of recognizing the practice of sexual violence as what it is—sexual violence—the ideology of freedom has precluded the possibility for critique, calling any challenge censorship. This practice has silenced the victims of pornography as well as those who question the ethics of enjoying the same treatment that has marked the most horrific of atrocities. This is called ideological orthodoxy, more commonly known as dogma.
The job of radicals—those who get to the root of things, those who consider material circumstances, not merely ideals—is to challenge ideologies when they begin to threaten the lives of real humans. As Andrea Dworkin has said,“when theory becomes an impediment to action, it is time to discard the theory and return naked, that is, without theory, to the world of reality.” As Sade has shown us, what the theory of absolute freedom in practice really means is freedom for some at the expense of others. In the case of BDSM culture, absolute freedom means freedom for rapists at the expense of the raped and freedom for abusers at the expense of the abused. This, of course, is the legacy of this culture from its birth—the history of oppression justified as freedom.
Today, the reason those in charge of producing violent pornography haven’t been jailed for sexual abuse and torture is that the stars, or victims, of these shows have consented to this treatment. Further, many have actually expressed pleasure from participation in these scenes. This fact is enough to placate most people who would vehemently object to such overtly violent sexual acts and to turn those on the fence into vocal supporters. And why wouldn’t people be convinced when the apparent victims themselves have claimed consent, and even enjoyment of such treatment? This is where the conversation usually ends—with the contentment of the recipients of violence and the acceptance that the violence must then be legitimate. However, during all of the discussion around consent, a rather conspicuous lack of attention has been paid to the real life implications of eroticizing violence in popular culture. Further, there has been an even greater failure to question or even remotely address the ethical rightness of finding pleasure in pain.
In one exception, Meghan Murphy’s excellent article “The Tyranny of Consent” articulately explains some of the problems with solely focusing on consent of the victim when it comes to the mass distribution of violent pornography. She reminds us that those affected by pornography are more than the participants. In fact, pornography is one of the most profitable businesses on the market meaning that the products of pornography are being consumed on a mass and even mass majority scale. So let’s ask ourselves what happens when the majority of men are watching women being hung on meat hooks, chained, slapped, and penetrated in every orifice while simultaneously smiling, a testimony to their enjoyment. Well, what happens is that these same men go into the real world expecting the same from their sexual encounters.
These men will try, if not forcefully succeed, in re-enacting these scenarios. Testimony to this fact lies in the countless incidents of pornography’s role in rape, sexual assault, and even rape after murder. There have been thousands of reported cases that attest to this horrible truth and many more that go unreported. Too often, men show women pornography before maiming and raping them, expecting them to enjoy the treatment because the women in the videos seemed to. A less commonly known fact is that the majority of women who participate in pornography or prostitution have been raped or sexually abused as children. Further, it is known by those who have listened to the stories of women that in most cases of hardcore pornography, women are forced into the work through either economic or brute coercion. In reality, their smiles do not indicate enjoyment. What their smiles indicate is the silencing of these women’s stories and the stories of others like them.
To those who have publicly attested to their enjoyment of these films, I ask them to consider the lives of those who have endured the same treatment but without the magic word of consent. Are those women expected to watch and understand as their torture is reenacted as a legitimized means of entertainment? What the popularization of violent pornography is telling these women is that they could and maybe should have enjoyed their rapes. After all, if some women have, why don’t they all? This is victim blaming no matter how you dress it up.
Despite the fact that the concepts of consent and absolute freedom have taken on almost religious sanctity in this culture, it is my opinion that these ideologies have done a great deal more damage than they are worth. In truth, they have functioned as very effective ways to obfuscate the fact that the same kind of violence that plagues women and victims every moment of every day is being eroticized and masqueraded as love. Further, I think christening sexual violence and the enjoyment of pain as neutral is an excellent way to divert attention from the reality that there is something categorically wrong with finding pleasure in violence, whether you’re the giver or receiver. I think it’s worth noting to those who advocate for sadism that they share the mentality of rapists, sex offenders, and pedophiles. And it’s also valid to point out that those who enjoy being dominated and abused are enjoying the treatment of the raped and the sexually assaulted. There are no shades of gray about this demarcation and there is nothing benign about blurring the lines between pleasure and abuse.
In the end it all boils down to the fact that this culture is sick and sickness has become the norm. Sick are the forests, sick are the rivers, sick is the soil, and sick are we. If we are to think radically and honestly about the eroticization of violence, then we’d realize that its acceptance works in favor of the oppressors—the same individuals doing the destruction of human and nonhuman lives. While liberals ask us to merely change our mindsets about the atrocities that are happening, as radicals, we ask for material change. When atrocities are happening, we must fight them tooth and nail, not decide that they can be legitimate, enjoyable, or erotic, under the right circumstances.
The question of whether violent pornography hurts women has well been proven in the affirmative if not absolutely by scientific studies then by the voices of the women victims themselves. If we choose to ignore their stories, we stand with the oppressors, the rapists and the abusers. If we choose to listen, we are engendered with a responsibility to act.
Sam Krop is a radical feminist and environmental activist living in Eugene, Oregon. She is currently developing the Warrior Sisters Society, an organization that will provide free self defense trainings and tools for women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.