Sex-Positive Feminism, Bondage, and The Principle of Charity

male-submissive-bdsm

“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” ― Simone de Beauvoir

I. Introduction
In her piece “BDSM FAQ (Frequently Asserted Quibbles): Part 1,” C.K. Egbert lays out and responds to what she believes are five common sex-positive responses given to anti-pornography feminist critiques of BDSM. In what follows, I will explain what I take Egbert’s position to be, briefly situate it within the logical space of antithetical positions, and then reply to each of her five responses. In doing so, I intend to show that Egbert has seriously misrepresented the position of the sex-positive feminist, and, consequently, her proposed criticisms are largely misplaced.

II. Egbert’s Position
One of the primary questions in sexual ethics is: what is an extensionally adequate criterion for morally permissible sex? In other words, which sexual actions, between which individuals, within what social contexts, are morally permissible? Given the content of her posts, I take Egbert’s position to be:

All sexual actions that involve power dynamics, between all individuals, are morally impermissible given the current social context.

Her reasoning behind this claim is the following: given the current power dynamics present within contemporary society, in which men are standardly socialized to be dominant while women are socialized to be submissive, and in which males are the primary possessors of social and political power, sexual actions that eroticize power inequalities will reinforce and perpetuate the marginalization, oppression, and objectification of women. Until the current background social conditions can be changed towards a more just and equitable distribution of political, social, and economic power, sexual actions that involve the infliction of pain, consensual or otherwise, on another cannot be morally condoned (regardless of the individuals’ sex, gender, or sexual orientation).

III. The Sex-Positivist Antithesis and the Consent Criterion
The strength of the above thesis should be clear. Given its categorical formulation, to show its falsity all one would need to show is that:

Some sexual actions that involve power dynamics, between some individuals are morally permissible given the current social context.

This is a position held by many sex-positivist feminists, and in explicating their position they often defend what might be called “the consent criterion for morally permissible sex acts.” This is the view that:

If sex action X is consented to between two adults, then sex action X is morally permissible.

The consent criterion is obviously stronger than what is necessary to establish the truth of SA, and so I won’t spend too much time unpacking it in detail. However, it should be noted that this notion of consent is not simply a vocalization (e.g. saying “yes”). Rather, just like in the medical realm, consent within sexual ethics requires that three distinct conditions are met: (1) disclosure (the individual must be fully-informed about the actions about to take place), (2) capacity (the individual must have the ability to understand and use their rational faculties to issue a judgement on the basis of this information), and (3) voluntariness (the subject must freely exercise his/her decision without external physical or psychological coercion or manipulation).

IV. Structure of the Post and Some General Objections
The most general objection I have to Egbert’s post is that I believe it fails to adhere to “the principle of charity,” a methodological presumption that is intended to guide all rational discourse. Put simply, the principle states that when engaging in conversations with others, one should assume that their interlocutor is rational and then attempt to maximize the plausibility of their assertions. In other words, when engaging with others and their arguments, you should do your best to construct the strongest possible interpretation of their views prior to critiquing them. If one fails to adhere to this principle, one runs the risk of misunderstanding the other person’s position, committing informal fallacies in responding to them, and, perhaps worst of all, proposing objections to positions that no one actually holds. The principle of charity is a necessary prerequisite for rational discussion, and if it is not adhered to, neither party will be able to grasp the claims of the other and rational discourse will be rendered impossible.

I believe that the first violation of the principle of charity in the piece takes place in its title. Egbert refers to the BDSM responses she will be engaging with as “quibbles” (the definition of which is “to argue or complain about small, unimportant things”). She then presents these “quibbles” through an imagined BDSM defender who proposes truncated, undeveloped versions of these concerns, which are then quickly deflected by Egbert’s responses. While I think that such a structure is not necessarily disingenuous, I believe that Egbert’s execution of it is problematic. Firstly, I think that many of the “quibbles” presented are superficial characterizations of legitimate objections to Egbert’s thesis, and secondly, I fear that Egbert misrepresents the sex-positivist position so severely that many of her proposed counter-examples are actually instances in which Egbert and the sex-positivist would both agree. Put bluntly, I believe that the principle of charity has been violated, Egbert has not understood her interlocutor and, consequently, her objections consistently miss their mark. No one actually holds the views she is criticizing. She is boxing at shadows.

V. Objection #1

“You shouldn’t judge others for their sexual preferences. You are kink-shaming. This is just like homophobia. You are a prude, pearl-clutching, moralizing, etc.”

If we were to take seriously the presupposition behind these objections, namely, that we can never judge or apply moral standards to sexual behaviors, we could never criticize sexual behaviors at all.

A good rule of thumb for telling if you are violating the principle of charity is if you come up with an interpretation of someone’s claims that no seemingly rational person could ever hold. In the case of sexual ethics, if you interpret your interlocutor as claiming that all conceivable sexual behaviours, between all individuals, within all social contexts (including rape, child molestation, etc.) are legitimate, then you should probably take a step back and attempt to re-evaluate their position again before levelling a critique.

In fact, using “consent” as a justification for any and all sexual practices and behaviours is a form of “moralizing” because consent is used to determine what is rightful versus wrongful behavior.

Now that we have the previous misrepresentation out of the way (i.e. all sex acts are morally permissible and any criticism of them is impermissible), we are now presented with a position that some individuals actually hold; namely, that consent is what distinguishes morally permissible and morally impermissible sexual behaviours (i.e. the consent criterion discussed above).

Thus, objections to critiques of BDSM cannot be said to be against “moralizing” per se — this presupposes that whatever norms or “morals” the sex-positivists endorse are the “right” ones whereas all other norms or “morals” are paternalistic or oppressive.

I think the start of this is correct. The notion of consent is a straightforwardly moral notion. However, I think Egbert’s unqualified use of the term “moralizing” here indicates that she has not actually understood the original concern. The claim seems to be that there is an important distinction between appropriate moralizing (e.g. labelling the child molester as doing something morally wrong) and inappropriate moralizing (e.g. labelling an interracial, heterosexual couple who just engaged in consensual intercourse as doing something morally wrong). Furthermore, the end of the above quoted sentence seems to contain a false dilemma. Does the sex-positivist really need to maintain that all norms contrary to their own (both those that are more conservative and those that are more liberal) are “paternalistic or oppressive?” Can’t the sex-positivist simply say that they think that such norms are mistaken?

The analogy to homophobia is a false equivalence… With homophobia, the perceived harm is that one is not having sexual relations with the “right” type of person (and that the patriarchal, heterosexist family/social order will be disrupted). With BDSM, the harm is the presence of violence, coercion, and reinforcing sexual subordination.

I agree with Egbert that there seem to be some disanalogies between the types of criticisms one sees levelled at homosexuality and those levelled at BDSM practices (e.g. who you have sex with versus how you have sex). I’m not actually sure this distinction holds up under scrutiny, but even so, I have a much larger concern with the wording of the final sentence above, and it is one that I believe is present throughout her post: the total lack of qualifications.

From what I can tell, the sex-positivist is not in favor of “violence” or “reinforcing sexual subordination” (I will address the “coercion” claim below), but rather thinks that the infliction of consensual pain under certain circumstances (e.g. the satisfaction of the three necessary conditions for consent mentioned previously), can be morally permissible. The total lack of reference to “consent” here (and throughout her post) may be unintentional, but even so, I think it indicates a substantial misrepresentation of the sex-positivist position. Moreover, she regularly employs thick evaluative concepts (i.e. notions that contain both descriptive and normative components, such as “violence,” “torture,” “abuse,” etc.). Using such concepts may be rhetorically powerful, but doing so both misrepresents the sex-positivist position and smuggles in the normative conclusions that she is supposed to have been arguing for. Put another way, her thesis is that all BDSM practices are morally impermissible. If this is shown to be correct, then omitting the consent qualification may be warranted (i.e. consensual pain would be morally equivalent to non-consensual pain, and so one could simply refer to “pain” without having to distinguish the two). However, this omission presupposes the truth of her conclusion, which is precisely the assertion that is being disputed. As a result, Egbert cannot leave out the notion of consent in her writing without misrepresenting and/or begging the question against the sex-positivist.

VI. Objection #2

“BDSM is subversive”

What “norm” is really being challenged by BDSM?… The norm is men hurting women during sex, coercing women into sex, dominating women during sex, and having non-mutual sex. BDSM says the same thing about sexuality as patriarchy: hurting women is sexy. It merely dresses it up in fancy leather outfits and increases the level of acceptable sexualized violence from the “norm” (e.g., painful or unwanted intercourse, compulsory intercourse) to more extreme (sexualized torture, mutilation). The only norm that is being “subverted” by BDSM is the “norm” against abuse and torture — but that should be a “norm” feminists want to promote.

The claim that “the norm is men hurting women during sex, coercing women into sex, dominating women during sex, and having non-mutual sex” is a strong claim (one stated in generic terms with no qualifications), and one that Egbert provides no evidential support for. To be clear, I can’t state strongly enough that I think that the actual statistics concerning sexual violence perpetrated against women are horrendous. However, I think that speaking about such issues as if they are the “norm” and with generics (i.e. “men coerce women into violent, non-mutual sex” stated similarly to “birds fly”) is both unnuanced and counter-productive.

Egbert then goes on to claim that BDSM actually “increases the level of acceptable sexualized violence from the norm (e.g., painful or unwanted intercourse, compulsory intercourse) to more extreme (sexualized torture, mutilation).” As mentioned previously, the lack of qualifications here, along with the consistent use of normatively-loaded concepts (i.e. “torture, mutilation”) results in a radical misrepresentation of the sex-positivist position. To avoid this confusion in the future, Egbert needs to make sure to include the notion of “consent” in her presentation of the sex-positivist view, while also avoiding the use of thick evaluative concepts that implicitly presuppose that her position is correct from the start.

VII. Objection #3

“What about lesbians/female dominants?”

Lesbians, gays, and female dominants can also internalize heterosexist and misogynist norms, just like anyone else. An incident of a woman abusing a man doesn’t change the gender dynamics of violence or sexual assault any more than an incident wherein a minor abuses their parent indicates child abuse does not exist.

Putting the continual lack of qualification to the side for the moment (i.e. implying that sex-positivists would think it is morally acceptable for a “woman to abuse a man”), I think the deeper confusion here is between the particular and the general. While it is true that “an incident wherein a minor abuses their parent” would not indicate that child abuse generally does not exist, if that is the only harm present within the situation, then it would be wrong to label that particular instance as an instance of actual child abuse. In the same way, it seems that it would be a mistake to label a particular instance of consensual spanking of a male by a female, or two lesbians consensually spanking each other, as an instance of “sexual assault,” even if, generally speaking, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men against women.

There is also an additional concern with the analogy Egbert raises with child abuse (which she does again below); namely, given how she has set up the analogy, men are compared to the parent while women are compared to the child. Now, I may be reading too much into this, but I think that conceptualizing women as analogous to children is not only an intellectual mistake, but can be actively harmful. I believe that thinking of women in these terms (i.e. as child-like, helpless, incapable of giving consent, and in need or rescue) is overly-simplistic given the complexity of the phenomena at issue and also greatly diminishes (or perhaps even eliminates) women’s moral autonomy in the world.

VIII. Objection #4

“You need to educate yourself about it first. You aren’t in the ‘scene’ therefore you cannot judge what we do.”

I’m calling this the “mystical experience” class of objections: they presume the ignorance of the objector and also assert that there is something about BDSM that cannot be understood without actually engaging in the practice. In some cases, “you can’t know” is a legitimate objection. For example, a woman or a non-white person can claim special knowledge of what it is like to be oppressed. But this is not the case in with regard to BDSM; the argument is comparable to saying that childfree people cannot make claims about what constitutes child abuse.

I think there is an equivocation taking place with the term “knowledge” here. Two importantly different types are knowledge are knowledge by description (i.e. propositional knowledge) and knowledge by acquaintance (i.e. experiential knowledge). While it is true that oppressed persons may have a unique claim to knowledge by acquaintance with their oppression (i.e. actually experiencing the oppression), those not in the oppressed group can still have knowledge by description of the oppression (i.e. by doing research concerning it, listening to first-personal testimony, etc.).

Now, concerning the issue at hand, no sex-positivist that I have ever encountered has maintained that the ability for moral condemnation for particular sex acts requires knowledge by acquaintance of those particular actions. Such a position would obviously be absurd (e.g. in order to condemn sexual assault one needs to be a victim of sexual assault) and, in light of the principle of charity mentioned previously, if one were to think someone did hold such a view, it would be a strong indicator that one needed to re-evaluate one’s interpretation.

However, with all that said, I think there is a genuine concern here, and it hinges on the other variety of knowledge: knowledge by description. Egbert’s consistent misrepresentation of sex-positive feminism and frequent use of highly emotive and normatively loaded terms (i.e. “torture,” “violence,” etc.) seems to indicate that she might not know by description the actual practices that are commonly engaged in by the BDSM community. Moreover, given the strength of her position (i.e. that all instances of pain, consensual or otherwise, are morally impermissible) why is there the need (aside from the obvious heightened rhetorical effect) to use such intense language and select the most extreme actions her imagination can conceive of? For purposes of clarity, and effective dialectic, why not simply use the term “pain” instead?

Another flaw is that there’s no way to differentiate the “mystical experience” from Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding. Human beings adapt to make their experiences tolerable, and enthusiastically supporting the conditions of their abuse (or not seeing it as abuse) is a common survival strategy. In fact, many of the self-described psychological elements of BDSM mirror that of survivors of severe abuse: forming a positive self-concept around enduring torture and “craving” abuse; the perpetrator gaining the victim’s trust and normalizing the abuse; victims going into a trance-like state (or disassociating) during the abuse; feeling bonded to the abuser (trauma-bonding); and the abuser “rewarding” the victim by demonstrations of kindness or comforting the victim after engaging in cruelty in order to further bond the victim to the abuser. The latter is actually formally integrated into BDSM practice as “aftercare.”

This seems like a pretty clear case of a hasty generalization. Does Egbert really think that all individuals who are interested in BDSM, or perhaps just a substantial majority, have Stockholm Syndrome? This is a strong psychological claim. Does she have any empirical evidence that supports it? In this passage (and also previously) she seems to be claiming that there is regular physical and psychological “coercion” present within BDSM practices. In addressing this, I think we first need to be clear about the difference between consent and the capacity to consent.

Some entities are not capable of giving consent (e.g. children, animals, the severely psychologically disabled and distraught, etc.), whereas others are (e.g. normal, physically healthy, psychologically functioning adults). Occasionally accidents happen, or individuals are deliberately harmed by others, causing severe physical or psychological trauma which thereby deprives them of that ability (e.g. a car accident which results in brain-damage and greatly diminishes one’s ability to understand and respond to reasons).

Now, does Egbert really think that practitioners of BDSM (perhaps specifically those who consent to playing the subservient role) are so severely psychologically and physically downtrodden that they have lost the capacity to consent? And, perhaps more importantly to the conversation at hand, does she really think that sex-positive feminists believe that it would be morally permissible for someone to physically and psychologically coerce someone else into such a state that they are willing to vocalize approval to actions that they would be unwilling to consent to under normal circumstances? If her answer is “yes” to either of these questions, then I believe that her view of the sex-positivist position is inaccurate, overly-simplistic, and highly uncharitable.

IX. Objection #5

“That’s not real BDSM”

This is known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy — in order to differentiate oneself from an undesirable behavior of group members, one claims that they are not “really” members of the group (in the same way that men proclaim that “real” men don’t rape in an attempt to preclude recognition that sexual violence is a gendered crime).

It seems clear that the acronym “BDSM” can be used in two different ways: normatively and descriptively. In the normative sense, “BDSM” refers to the normative standards present within the BDSM community that delineate morally permissible actions from actions that are not morally permissible (e.g. the consent criterion mentioned above). In the descriptive sense, “BDSM” refers to the factual descriptions of the actual practices themselves.

Now, from Egbert’s position, it appears that there is no such thing as “BDSM” in the normative sense, since she thinks that those normative standards are not legitimate. Concerning the descriptive reading, it seems like it is just a factual question of whether or not the actions referred to are actually practiced within the community. With that said, whichever use of “BDSM” one goes with, it seems fairly clear which things will be categorized as “BDSM” and which are not (i.e. in the normative case, consensual sex acts, and in the descriptive, the actual practices of the community). The important point to note here is that if one keeps the principle of charity in mind, one need not ascribe obvious fallacious reasoning (i.e. the “no true Scotsman” fallacy) to one’s interlocutor. It’s much more constructive and rewarding to attempt a charitable interpretation of their view, and engage with the substance of their position.

But what did they do wrong? Let’s take the case of the University of Illinois student who assaulted a young woman, afterwards claiming he was merely enacting Fifty Shades of Gray… The only thing that went “wrong” in this encounter, according to the BDSM community, was that they didn’t follow the proper protocols — she should have “agreed” to her abuse and had a “safe word.”

This is perhaps the most egregious and offensive of the misrepresentations present within the piece. As previously addressed, the consent criterion is a hypothetical statement (i.e. “If sex action X is consented to between two adults, then sex action X is morally permissible”). It is not the normative statement that “Moral agent A ought to consent to action X.” No one claims that sexual assault victims should consent to the harm inflicted upon them. Egbert has, once again, radically misrepresented the position she wishes to critique, ascribed patently immoral views to her interlocutor, and thereby alienated not only those she is attempting to converse with but, potentially, also those that were originally sympathetic to her position.

X. Conclusion
It should be noted that throughout this response, I have not attempted to defend the view that sex-positive feminism or the consent criterion is true. For all I know, Egbert’s position could be correct. The important point for my purposes is this: everyone agrees that sexual assault is morally wrong, what they disagree about is whether or not consensual sex acts between adults involving power dynamics constitute sexual assault. The conversation about which sex acts are morally permissible under which conditions is quite complex, and when having it we should be sure to keep the principle of charity in mind so as to avoid misrepresentations. If we don’t, then (1) rational discourse will collapse, (2) we will never be able to make strides towards understanding which view is actually correct, and, perhaps most importantly, (3) both sides will be unable to discover the large amount of moral and intellectual commitments that they actually have in common.

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Sex-Positive Feminism, Bondage, and The Principle of Charity

One thought on “Sex-Positive Feminism, Bondage, and The Principle of Charity

  1. C.K. Egbert says:

    It seems to me that you are merely accepting the “thick normative concepts” (consent/agency is everything, limiting what men can do to women is a limitation on women’s “agency,” etc.) and general ideology of sex-positivism and thus using your position as to claim that whatever I say must be either false or uncharitable. You also seem to consistently miss the point of my objections, so allow me to clarify:

    My aim is the liberation of women from male violence, which is counter to the aims of “sex-positivists” who don’t want to change the way in which men hurt and use women sexually but merely to make these acceptable by claiming “choice” and “consent” and “empowerment” (in spite of the evidence that pornography, for example, is now leading to increased violence against girls because they are expected now, rather than to just endure intercourse, to endure the dangerous and violent acts that their boyfriends see in pornography). Choice and consent are compatible with oppression; ALL forms of oppression have relied upon the consent of the oppressed, and every form of abuse involves some level of “consent” (particularly when someone has been socialized to believe they deserve abuse, which all women are).

    So to clarify a few points:
    1. My position is that consent is necessary but NOT sufficient to make any act permissible. If we were to look at medical consent this is pretty self-evident; consent is simply used (magically!) as some sort of trump card to justify inequalities and violence when it comes to the situation of women. Harm (including sexual violence) is not exhausted by “non-consent.” Whether someone “consents” does not change whether the dynamics of the relationship are abusive or manipulative.

    2. Part of my argument is that BDSM (“normatively speaking”) fails to even meet the basic standards of affirmative consent (for example, allowing sexual activity when someone is in too much pain or in such a psychological state of trauma that they cannot withdraw consent, condoning emotional manipulation and gas-lighting as part of acceptable practices).

    Importantly, and contra feminist critics, they fail to acknowledge how systematic social coercion (via our social norms) is a serious form of coercion. (I don’t feel the need to justify that our sexual norms normalize pain, violence, and violation of women–if you want evidence of that, I suggest you read feminist critique of sexuality.)

    3. I am going to use the words “violence,” “abuse,” and “torture” to accurately describe the phenomenon. Torture and abuse are characterized by control, dominance, and the desire to cause someone physical or mental suffering. BDSM practitioners explicitly sexualize inflicting suffering, controlling, and dominating someone, so to whatever extent they are consistent they accept this definition as well. Note that Clarisse Thorn admits that a lot of what is considered domestic violence is acceptable practice with BDSM.

    4. Objection 4 and 5, you miss the point (by the way, the argument has been made that women are in a situation of Stockholm Syndrome–see “Loving to Survive”). The point is that the dynamics and effects of BDSM are exactly the same as those in situations of ritual torture (that I would consider to be harmful–I won’t presume that you would consider it so). There is no way to distinguish a “healthy” BDSM relationship from extreme domestic violence (other than rituals of “consent”). Indeed, I think the rituals of consent are a means of psychological manipulation; to make the woman who is being abused see herself as the author of her own trauma and to avoid putting responsibility on the man who is doing the harm (“well she didn’t say no…”). 5 is a similar point. What is “wrong” about this encounter is not that a man enjoyed hurting and dominating a woman, not that a woman was harmed and traumatized–but that there was not “consent.” (And I don’t buy the “she wanted it” type of excuse, as first women are socialized to “want” abuse because they are told that is all they deserve, and second, because even BDSM practitioners don’t believe it is a necessary condition for a BDSM encounter to be non-traumatic or pleasurable in order for it to be perfectly acceptable).

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