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An Oddly Narrow Debate About ‘Sexual Ethics’

Imagine you have a friend who, like many high-achieving people, has a goal. In the service of that goal, your friend eats very little and ends up looking like skin on bone. It is through fasting and reflection that we know God; or, if you prefer, it is through this hunger strike that we can express our revulsion at the terrible policies of the government. Or perhaps your friend works 130 hours a week and lives on microwaved burritos (because that’s how we get this startup going). Or perhaps he gladly drinks coffee made with salt water and then kisses the belly of a fat sailor who throws mustard in his face (because those are the time-honored traditions of the rite for US Navy sailors crossing the equator for the first time). We all know such people, and in our achievement-oriented culture we treat them, and their sacrifices, with great respect. Middle-class mores require you to say that, well, I don’t have it in me to practice violin six hours a day or work as a sous-chef from dawn to dusk or answer endless detailed questions from my professor while exhausted—but I admire your dedication. We Americans laud those who are tough on themselves in the service of most any goal. Except one.

If your goal is orgasm, for yourself or others, than people who admire chefs and quarterbacks and guitarists will jump on the web to fulminate about how awful you are. That is what’s just happened in the wake of N+1’s publication of this essay by Emily Witt. (CAUTION: Photo kind of NSFW, essay very much NSFW.) Witt’s essay is a meditation on sex and love. She asks if there is, or should be, an alternative to the notion of coupled romantic love as the vessel for sexuality. The central drama of her quest is her experience as an onlooker in the shooting of a porn video in San Francisco that is, even by San Francisco standards, pretty extreme.

The shoot involves pain, “bondage” and extravagant “humiliation,” in “public.” I use the quotes because the crowd is, in fact, carefully selected and the situation tightly controlled by the woman directing the shoot. Penny, its female star, knows she can stop the supposed mayhem at any time. This is not a scene of assault, fear and mayhem. It’s a kind of play—the sort of experience that people learn to distinguish from reality early in childhood.

Nonetheless, it’s very realistic play, and Penny’s sensations, surprise and pleasure are real. She doesn’t stop the shoot, though, and later she tells Witt she had a wonderful time. Fellow performers (the company is a busy factory of fetish videos) tell Witt the same thing. She doesn’t mention it in her piece, but the company produces videos in which men are the “victims” as well as perpetrators—in fact, the place turns out to be a hub of sexual utopians, convinced they’re building a better, freer world. Women are always being told they have to be careful, one says to Witt. “It is a very empowering experience to realize you’re not as fragile as you’ve been told your whole life.”

Over the past few days, this essay has provoked a lively back and forth among bloggers, turning on the question: Does the participants’ consent make these sexual practices, and/or the filming of them, OK? Which, of course, turns on the importance of consent: Is it sufficient to justify my actions, that I have freely and knowingly chosen them? Conor Friedersdorf, who took part, has a postmortem here, with links a lot of the discussion. It’s an interesting post in which he notes that the moral worlds of the debaters are so different that perhaps all everyone can agree on is that we learn something by having the debate.

I will not rehash the argument here (you can get to it all via Friedersdorf, and a lot of it is worth reading), because I want to point out something odd about the terms of the discussion. Its issues are framed entirely in terms of sex. Those who condemn Penny and her crew and audience are repulsed by her eagerness to experience degradation and pain for her supposedly crazy idea of liberation. They don’t take note of the fact that the self-torture they decry is not confined to the sexual realm; indeed, most people do it elsewhere. (This site for instance tells swimmers that “pain is good!” because it leads to better performance in the pool. Is getting to the other end of a pool a half-second faster than the next person more ethically worthy than getting off?)

Only in one brief post did anyone in the discussion allude to the obvious fact that subjecting one’s self to tough experiences—to experiences that others would find repellent and even morally suspect—is a common part of the human experience. And people who do it for the sake of sports or work or “character building” don’t suffer the moral outrage of the world. Alan Jacobs wrote: “When you listen to people explain why they get involved in extreme sexual experiences — whether on the stage or in private — they often sound exactly like ultra-marathoners or long-distance swimmers, people obsessed with discovering the outer limits of their bodies’ ability to perform.”

Exactly. To many other people, the sexual adventurers sound strange and morally suspect because of an intuition that sex is, or should be, a caring and meaningful exchange between people, not a sports experiment. But this squicky sense of deformation—the unease “normal” people feel as someone turns away from the human give and take of life with others—is an aspect of any seriously focussed activity. If you play a bit of piano for people, they will enjoy it, and you. If you hide for weeks playing for hours every day, you won’t see them for dinner, and they will recede from your awareness, turning into distant ghosts. Why would you do this? To play piano better, perhaps to become a great artist, to sell a lot of tickets to your concert. Cut yourself out of normal human society for reasons like that, though, and you will not be condemned by half the blogosphere.

Contrast the shoot in Witt’s essay with another media product which has some of the same atmosphere as her writing—a mix of doubt and hopefulness, sensuality and sadness. It’s the reality TV show Kitchen Nightmares. There, failing restaurants turn themselves over to the superstar chef Gordon Ramsay, who swoops down to fix them up. The ritual seldom varies: the famously violent-tempered Ramsay has a meal at the place, pronouncing everything “dreadful” and “disgusting.” Then he hits the owner or owners with some tough love about how badly they run their business and do their work. Often, they defend themselves (I think that dish is very good). More often, they avoid reality by talking about their feelings (everyone wants to say it’s all my fault, I don’t deserve it, it’s so much stress, I feel awful etc). Before too many minutes are passed, they quit, get fired or come round (Chef Ramsay was right, I just didn’t want to see it).

Toward the end of the hour, the owners and staff sit down to taste the dishes Ramsay has proposed for their revamped menu. Their eyes widen. They moan. They sigh. They grab plates and say “mine!” And the viewer smiles. The pain, stress and humiliation (no quote marks here, this is the genuine article) have paid off, and the people on screen can go back with confidence to working hard to create pleasure for people who have paid them for it.

Well, very good food is one kind of sensuous experience; sexual pleasure is another. And that, as far as I can tell, is the reason why so many of our fellow citizens would applaud the restaurant people but go along with Rod Dreher’s somewhat different take on the porn actors (“Run for your life, these are crazy, evil people, and they invite their own doom.”)

Now, it may be that I’ve been unfair to Jacobs and Dreher and others who condemn the fetish acts and video in Witt’s essay. Perhaps their dismay about our country’s goal-pursuing, self-sculpting ethos is more general. Maybe they condemn all pursuits in which people use one another as means to an end; maybe they have an ethical problem with all quests in which love of others is set aside in the name of some elusive perfection over the horizon. I’d give that argument a respectful hearing. At least it would be consistent.

We Americans celebrate self-testing and self-modification, and the sacrifice of relationship and love, in the name of self-chosen goals. If we’re wrong, then we are wrong across the board—wrong the celebrate Olympic athletes and pop stars and politicians and hard-charging CEOs and five-star chefs, as well as wrong to accept the fetishists. But if we are not wrong about all those other walks of life, then we are not wrong to extend our tolerance to the people in Witt’s essay. I can see why it is worth having a debate about the sacrificing of connection and community on the altar of self-transformation. Confining that debate to sexuality, though, makes no sense.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby


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