The essay is full of descriptions of public sadomasochistic rituals involving willing participants and crowds. It is difficult for me to imagine anything more degrading than what is recorded in this essay, though it is important to note that the women who submit to being spat on, humiliated, beaten, tortured, and sexually violated consented to the experience, and later speak about how great it was. The horror on display here is not only that people will do that to others for sexual pleasure, but that others will take pleasure in being so humiliated. This, as we know from the Marquis de Sade at least, is nothing new. What is new about it, I think — and this is why the essay got to me — is that it is becoming more acceptable in a world in which there is no strong moral framework to push back against this stuff. You can have whatever you desire. If you choose hell, then we will call it good, because it is freely chosen, and brings you pleasure.
But it wasn’t hell for the woman involved. When asked how she felt about a public sexual humiliation, she replied, “I had a great time, it was amazing. There was so much going on.” Then this question:
DONNA: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your happiness leaving the shoot?
I have to live in a world – and, more to the point, raise children in a world — in which perversity like this is available, via the Internet, to more and more people. I have to raise children in a world in which human sexuality and the general idea of human dignity is degraded by pornography. 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.
San Francisco freak parties are not “the world.” And consent is, as Rod would surely acknowledge, integral to moral sexual behavior. But what this is about, it seems to me, is fantasy. In our modern bourgeois world, one of the few areas left for real psychic risk and thrill is sexual fantasy. It’s a form of play. The only core argument against it seems to be the core non-procreative one that the Catholic Church’s magisterium upholds. But once you have severed sex from procreation, why is one person’s fantasy somehow illicit? Don’t we all have sexual fantasies? Isn’t most sex a form of fantasy? Whom does it harm if we can realize them, without actual risk of injury, in a sex-play completely under the control of the bondage “victim”?
Friedersdorf is unsure that contemporary society is any more sexually depraved than previous generations. He notes that greater tolerance of consensual kink has coincided with a decline in rape:
I happen to think [BDSM and kink] doesn’t in fact threaten civilization, that transgressive sex cannot, by definition, become the norm. Others may differ, and I’m just guessing there; but it is to say that, whatever you think of the porn shoot, the scattered, unconsensual sex that went down in the Bay Area that night was more worthy of condemnation, more uncivilized, more destructive and less moral. I hope it is clear that I’m not suggesting my interlocutors are insufficiently horrified by rape. What I am saying is that really grappling with and evaluating consent as a sexual ethos makes it harder to assume, as Dreher seems to, that he’s raising his sons in a more sexually depraved society than the one in which he grew up. What to make of the fact that the undeniable rise in pornography has coincided with a startling, steep decline in the rate of forcible rape? If fewer men are raping and fewer women are being raped, isn’t there, at minimum, a strong case to be made that young people today are less sexually depraved than before? I realize that doesn’t make it any easier for a father to explain extreme porn to his teenager, and deeply sympathize while acknowledging that I’d be confounded by and dread the task myself.
Meanwhile, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggests the real moral degradation in Witt’s essay lies elsewhere:
It’s not kinky sex. It is, and the piece screams this at me, an utter absence of love. What this piece is is a description of is what happens when not only people don’t love each other but don’t even have the idea that that is something they ought to do. If with orthodox Christian theology we describe Hell as the absence of God and God as love, then Rod is absolutely correct that this piece is a glimpse of a Hell on Earth, but perhaps not for the reasons Rod had in mind.
Recent Dish thread on sexuality and porn here.
(Photo: A participant called SgChill is bound in rope at a dungeon party during the domination convention, DomConLA, in the early morning hours of May 11, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. By David McNew/Getty Images)