What can we consensually do with another adult?

In response to an essay on extreme hardcore pornography (bondage, public nudity and humiliation, etc., all done with the performer’s consent), Rod Dreher writes about why he is concerned.

I have to live in a world in which utopians are working very hard to tear down the structures of thought and practice that harnessed humankind’s sexual instincts and directed them in socially upbuilding ways. I have to raise my kids in a world that says when it comes to sex, there is no right and no wrong, except as defined by consent.

The problem is consent is a difficult topic, by itself. Dreher’s response does stem from his opposition to the goals of people called “utopians”, who are trying to direct sexual instincts toward “socially unbuilding [sic] ways”. A lot of his response is disgust mutating into rushed reasoning, that reads a little too much like Helen Lovejoy.

Dreher however is right that we should be questioning whether we want a society where people allow themselves to be willingly bound, gagged, and penetrated by other people they’ve consent to. Emily Witt’s original article describes, in graphic detail, a typical extreme pornography scene where “women [are] bound, stripped, and punished in public”.

Consider a scenario of a person being beaten by a more powerful person or persons. Most of us would* react, I think, in ways that are aimed at helping this individual (at very least getting help, if we feel we’re too weak or incapable of stopping a raging mob, say). Why does the fact that someone has consented make the entire scene morally different?

Many things that are immoral are such due to a lack of consent: killing someone without or against her consent is murder, but with her consent, can be justified euthanasia; forcing someone to inhale a cocktail of unhealthy substances can be torture, but if they grab a cigarette, it’s not. And so on. Each of course comes with its own constraints, but just from this, you can see the importance of consent.

Is it a magical property that turns immoral acts into non-moral or moral acts? That’s too simplistic. It’s certainly powerful but whether it’s sufficient is another question.

Conor Friedersdorf makes an important point:

It seems to me that [Dreher and co-thinkers] understate [consent’s] importance and dismiss its adherents without giving them their due. Consent isn’t enough to guarantee that sexual behavior is moral. Adultery, the deliberate conception of unwanted children, the careless spread of H.I.V.—all could happen in consensual encounters. As those uncontroversial examples suggest, the people who truly think consent is the only thing that matters in sexual conduct are a tiny minority, even in San Francisco.

But the clincher is where Friedersdorf says:

[T]he emphasis on consent in today’s sexual morality isn’t decadence. However incomplete, it is a historic triumph. And growing reverence for consent would gradually make our culture radically more moral.

This is an excellent point, but it should be clarified.

First, just because something is a triumph doesn’t make it immune to criticism. And – this leads to the second point – we shouldn’t have “reverence” for anything. We can recognise the importance of consent, we can see why it’s mattered historically, why it matters so much now; and it is this recognition that will make us more moral: We can recognise that murderers are not the same as pot smokers, for example. Consent matters greatly.

All of this should be concerning. I do err on the side that says people should be able to do what they want with their bodies, provided it is consensual and no one is unnecessarily harmed – but that in itself is complicated.

But treating people with due respect as autonomous adults is an important step that needs to be applied consistently: these people wish to be doing such acts, that want such acts done to them. Perhaps there is a good reason to oppose acts like this, even when it is wanted – but so far, I’m not convinced by the idea that harming the children is (ever?) a sufficient justification.


* Though we have reason to be sceptical.


  1. says

    “but if they grab a cigarette, it’s not”
    That example opens the problem of addiction, even if the first cigarette is a choice.

    We all know (or at least I know 🙂 ) individuals who desperately want to give up smoking and the like… but apparently can’t.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Agreed. I was thinking of addiction when I mentioned that even such examples don’t come without their own constraints and caveats.

  2. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Consent isn’t enough to guarantee that sexual behavior is moral. Adultery, the deliberate conception of unwanted children, the careless spread of H.I.V.—all could happen in consensual encounters.

    I’m not convinced that the reasons while all these things are wrong are unrelated to lack of consent, especially if we (reasonably, IMO) assume that “consent” stands for “informed consent”. All three examples involve lying to one’s sex partner about something which if they knew, they wouldn’t sleep with you, “misinformed consent”, if you will. So yeah, maybe we need a view of consent that is broader than “Is this rape? (Y/N)”, but I just don’t think Friedersdorf has made his case that consent isn’t enough.

  3. Ann Godridge says

    Hmmm. It also depends on how “in public” is interpreted. While consenting adults may wish to do something that I find distasteful in private is one thing – but I should not expect to be forced to witness it in public spaces. If the “in public” is merely a fictional setting – that’s different.

    And public and private mean very little online, in any case.

  4. Nepenthe says

    The thing is that consent has little to do with so much critique of cultural products. The women who made these advertisements consented. They got paid. They may really enjoy modeling. Hell, they might get off on it. Does that make it benign to publish images of pretend dead women or women-as-furniture? No. Would these ads become benign if someone were jacking off to them?

    So why does it become okay for someone to publish a video of a woman being beaten by a mob calling her misogynistic slurs when people are getting off on it? I don’t consent to live in a society where that’s okay. I don’t consent to being forced to view porn-inspired images every day.

  5. says

    The example of the extreme pornography scene seems to conflate a few different elements that should perhaps be considered in isolation.

    In private, plenty of people enjoy being tied up, penetrated, and so on with their partners and on their own time. As you noted with cigarettes, consent marks the difference between having something intensely violating forced upon you against your will, and being a part of something that can feel really good. (I hope people won’t take such an analogy as extending beyond describing subjective pleasure/displeasure; consensual rough sex doesn’t necessarily have such an established negative impact on long-term health or present a public health hazard.)

    That may not be something that can be immediately and intuitively understood by those who aren’t into it – just as I don’t understand on a visceral level what’s supposed to be so enjoyable about smoking – but some people really do derive a lot of pleasure from consensual acts that others would consider unpleasant and not want to have anything to do with. Basically, maybe it’s not something that should always be viewed through the lens of “is it acceptable to inflict this amount of pain/humiliation/apparent unpleasantness”; sometimes what appears to be pretty harsh and painful is actually really pleasurable to the participants. And consent seems to be the most relevant place to draw that line. It seems like that’s where the people involved would draw that line, and who would be better equipped to do so than the ones experiencing it all firsthand?

    Again, that’s just what I think about private, kinky acts between consenting partners. I think publicly-distributed media, such as the extreme pornography scene in question, are a different matter and have ethical concerns attached to them on a much wider scale. One concern I consider relevant is what sort of attitudes in society such material is cultivating when it’s distributed widely for public consumption. There seems to be a real issue nowadays about how porn in general can shape some men’s expectations when they get into sexual relationships with women: from material like this, they might think it’s normal and acceptable to expect women to be enthusiastic about a much wider variety of sexual acts than they’re actually comfortable with. This could lead to women being coerced by social pressures into acts that they’re uncomfortable with – they could feel that failing to participate in such acts would mark them as inadequate partners. And in a world where such things are expected of them, they may very well be right.

    While I wouldn’t agree with Dreher on the specifics, I can recognize the general principle at work – that imagery in media can shape common attitudes toward women. This is something we generally have little objection to recognizing when it comes to subtle and overt sexism, violence, and other problematic depictions of marginalized groups in the media. I don’t see why the same wouldn’t hold true for mainstream pornography.

    Particularly, as a trans woman, people often receive their *only* “knowledge” of us from pornography featuring us, which depicts us in an incredibly unrealistic and (obviously) ultra-sexualized fashion. They then go on to develop so many misconceptions and plainly absurd expectations about who and what we are, and I end up having to fight such misconceptions on a regular basis. Were I looking for a partner, I’d run up against those expectations in an even more up-close and personal way. Dating while trans is an utter *minefield*.

    Likewise, while people certainly shouldn’t take a very artificial, scripted porn scene with actors as representative of real life or how most people have sex, many of them will anyway, and I do worry about what kinds of attitudes toward women this cultivates. Others may draw this ethical line much more loosely than I do, and contend that even such acts done in private between consenting partners still pose a risk of normalizing these attitudes of what can be expected of women. I, personally, do not think this can carry such a powerful impact as widely distributed, professionally produced pornography depicting extreme acts.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Great points. The public/private distinction is indeed one that needs to be considered, in keeping with thinking about consent, etc. Of course, we with this, even the audience consented and the participants consented to an audience. Again: this only moves the question of how potent consent is as a concept into another area: While not penetrative participants, they still do participate in other ways – which means there can be unintended harm, such as psychological abuse (and physical, if the audience is not, say, vetted properly).

      Second: I think your point about individuals judging what constitutes harm is essential. I largely agree, as I argued in a much older post (I also argued that people should be able to amputate themselves and, if for no other reason than prioritising health, we should legalise amputations of healthy limbs: http://bigthink.com/against-the-new-taboo/wanting-to-be-an-amputee)

      Increasingly, I’ve become less extreme about adult autonomy, thanks to concepts, arguments and papers like this: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/mar/07/its-your-own-good/?pagination=false However, though I have reduced my pole of where to draw the line on autonomy, I still think most of Western society is too far leaning toward paternalism as opposed to autonomy (hence, why we should legalise most drugs, euthanasia, sex work, etc.)

    • jasonbosch says

      It seems your issue here is that pornography is potentially entrenching the stereotype of women as submissive to men. However in the case of female dominant pornography or any homosexual pornography such an argument no longer holds as the pornography is either contrary to the stereotype or both roles are taken by the same gender. Are you then saying that those kinds of pornography would be more acceptable for public distribution than female submissive heterosexual pornography?

      • says

        I think you’re right about where my reasoning would have to lead. Extending it from the one example I used, there *is* porn featuring trans people that’s produced by other trans people, and in a way that avoids treating us in the stereotypical ways that mainstream porn does. It’s respectful, doesn’t require its actors to meet an exaggerated physical standard or perform in totally unrealistic roles, and can even accurately reflect the sorts of sexual activity that we ourselves actually tend towards – not merely what a straight, male audience expects and wishes to see.

        Honestly, I don’t find such “indie” porn to pose anywhere near as much of a potential threat to how we’re perceived as mainstream porn does, because it isn’t perpetuating stereotypes about us, it isn’t using terms that are actually demeaning slurs, and it probably doesn’t help to form quite as many outlandish expectations about who we are in the minds of viewers. Yeah, it’s still porn, and nobody should ever be using it to learn about what any group of people is actually like, but I can see this as valuable at least from a harm reduction perspective.

        I’d view the examples you cited similarly. Gay male pornography isn’t without its problems – depictions of “bareback” sex could drive demand for such acts and expectations of them as normal, when unprotected sex is an especially serious health hazard among gay men (although, to some extend, the demand probably also drives the depictions of it in pornography – I suspect it goes both ways). Many gay people have objected to barebacking porn, not just due to the risk it can pose to the actors themselves, but due to the attitudes it helps spread into wider gay culture and communities.

        But yes, overall, I don’t see gay male pornography or femdom pornography as perpetuating the same kind of problems as the extreme pornography listed here. I’d say the issues of such pornography are applicable to a wider area: sexual relationships between men and women in general. For the foreseeable future, most people in the world are straight, so that’s a rather larger realm than gay male relationships (although concern over how porn affects them is certainly valid as well) or BDSM-related interests. What goes on in the world is largely driven by straight people, and how men and women relate to one another and view one another and treat one another – socially, romantically, sexually, and so on – has a huge impact on societies. I think the attitudes toward women that mainstream pornography often promotes are relevant to that, and worthy of concern. Other types of pornography may not pose an issue in that particular area, but they can be problematic in their own areas.

  6. VeganAtheistWeirdo says

    Great discussion. Before reading through, if you’d asked me out of the blue if consent were the ultimate guideline, I would have said yes without hesitation. But it’s true that not everyone is inclined to understand what they are seeing or think about everything that consenting participation entails. Like Forbidden Snowflake, I don’t consider uninformed or misinformed consent to be actual consent, and when I use the word consent I know that I mean an informed consent… but does everyone I communicate with know that?

    So, as far as mainstreaming images of BDSM goes, it’s just like any other extreme free speech issue: you may have a right to disseminate it, but you must acknowledge the responsibility to do so in a way that won’t cause real harm.

    I’d comment further but it’s time to go to work.

  7. Melhopkins says

    The crucial importance of consent, especially in regard to sexual behaviour, is now generally acknowledged and it is surely relevant that it is at this point that the concept of “grooming” is being recognised.

    I would characterise “grooming” as manipulating a person into giving consent or the appearance of consent. Typically the person groomed is vulnerable in some way, whether by reason of age, life history, poverty etc. and the groomer is in a more powerful position. Consent to sexual behaviour may be obtained not because a person enjoys the sexual practice as such, but because they are rewarded with attention, affection or financial benefits that they could not otherwise obtain.

    I feel that “valid consent” should therefore not only be fully informed consent but also an equal consent, free of power imbalances. I have to admit I wonder how often that is possible.

  8. Doe Johnson says

    There seem to be two issues countering this – both strong arguments.

    The first is one of scope. I want to climb mountains, or play professional rugby/boxing. I have a very significant risk of injury, which may well be incapacitating. My family may end up having not a parent and carer, but a quadraplegic and drain and source of emotional exhaustion, and their lives affected, and not by unfortunate chance but by my own choice to do an activity I know has a risk of foisting that on them.

    Can and should they consent? Can and should I? Should the law or morality intervene? Is it entirely my choice what I do to myself, or risk doing? What would humanity be if we saw consent in this light?

    The second is one of normalisation. In Victorian times, famously, a woman’s ankle was erotic. Men might swoon or suffer beastial lusts if they saw a womans body. In some religions women may not sing, or mingle, or show their bodies, because of traditional beliefs of the socio-sexual effect of this. And yet I do not see research that says women in such societies were protected by any of this, that they are less abused, less raped, or men are less likly to have such concepts. But where women’s ankles and faces are the norm, they have not caused a tsunami of lust and ankle/face fanstaies. Rather, it becomes normalised in a healthy way – we grow up with it, we are not (mostly) stupid, we aren’t taught implicitly there is mystery and wild fantasy material involved.

    I suspect many things are like this. Transitioning to a society where body parts and sexual instincts are stripped of their adverse mystery, where people know what a man, or woman, or sex, looks like, would be a difficult trasition, but I wonder, perhaps the end result a healthier one. There were many tribal societies where nudity and sex were treated as part of life, and anthropologists tell us these were not mass slavering pools of testosterone. Nor were they necessarily lacking love or emotional closeness as a result.

    It makes me wonder if the issue is that people like the author want to preserve a status quo they are comfortable with or idealise, but which inherently creates problems that might be avoided if there was more onesty and awareness, not less.