When I was around ten years old, I received “the talk” from my mother after my curiosity from witnessing “mature” themes on TV got the better of me. She was straightforward and didn’t use simplified vocabulary or innocent analogies to explain the concept of sex and pregnancy. I was satisfied with the explanation and that was that. When I was eleven, curiosity put me in a stump once more and my mother once again sat me down, but instead explained condoms and their function, among other contraceptives. It was enlightening, really, and helped me make sense of the world as I grew up, in comparison to those kids who had to figure it out on their own (and frequently misinformed) because their parents always dodged “the talk”.
With the ideals of sexual conservatism desperately pulling at the unwinding strings of sexual liberalism, the mixed responses over Emily Witt’s What Do You Desire? are nothing short of expected. In her essay, Witt describes her experience in a sexually extreme pornographic shoot, while contemplating her own intimate relations and the cultural state of the city of San Francisco. Due to Witt’s seemingly indifferent and indefinite stance over the graphic, yet (arguably) consensual, sexual scenes described, people have come up to discuss the ethics and morality of the meaning of consent and of the sexual behavior itself. The main question debated about becoming: Are some forms of sex degrading even if consented to?
This question, though thought-provoking, remains broad in context and generates a pool of opinionated responses based on cultural and individual morals, as well as religious ideology. It is important to note that concepts such as morality and degradation are ill-defined terms that will never one hundred percent apply to our societal structure, and there come instances, such as this one, where there is little choice but to accept the givens and move on with our lives.
And sure, many well thought-out responses may come out of attempting to define the undefinable (I do not intend to say that holding onto strong, distinct beliefs is wrong), but a more productive approach would be to put aside those sentiments and analyze why the question of sexual behavior and degradation pops up in the first place, and how troublesome these things are, or could be (in a more “logical” approach).
Unsurprisingly, the graphic scenes in Witt’s essay have caused alarm and sentiments of disgust among many. And why wouldn’t it? Rod Dreher describes it as “sadomasochistic rituals involving willing participants and crowds”. Alan Jacobs believes the participants of the event “are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made”. These types of responses are to be expected, coming from conservative views on sexuality. Already, the cultural context draws the line of opposing views. Witt describes: “In San Francisco, people thought differently. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual norm. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements.” The desire for sexual freedom is a natural response to the conservative norms that prohibit it. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry points out when “you define yourself in opposition to something you are not free from it; you are enslaved to it”. Meaning, these ideas coexist with one another and there isn’t much that can be done about it. The, debate, however, at its core, deals with how damaging such views can impact our society.
When exploring this idea, the meaning of consent comes into play. Its argued that any sexual behavior is acceptable if the participants are willing. Simple enough, right? Dreher thinks otherwise, declaring that “[extreme sexual behavior] is becoming more acceptable in a world in which there is no strong moral framework to push back against this stuff”, concluding that “if you choose hell, then we will call it good, because it is freely chosen, and brings you pleasure”. Now, that last part is a bit of a stretch, and he is twisting the implications of consent into something it’s not. Consent is meant to promote safety in sexual situations. Free will is established, but limited conditions still apply. It does not translate to “I can do whatever I want”, or establish unlimited conditions. Much less, it doesn’t excuse certain actions. A husband isn’t excused from cheating on his partner because it was consensual sex. He still violated the foundation of trust in his relationship, and caused some form of harm. Witt deals with similar experiences, describing how her intimate relations caused harm in some way to the people around her. “I received an email from an acquaintance that accused me of destroying her friend’s relationship”, she says, and most importantly, feels bad about. The use of consent is not to blame when consequences arise from irresponsible actions. An adult should know better than to have sex with a minor, no matter how much the minor gave consent. A person should know better than to cheat on their partner. The sex itself is not “immoral”, but the choices leading up to it can be.
What consent does ensure, however, is empowerment for those who are forced into sexual situations, the victims of rape and harassment. Defining consent means defining rape, and thus validating the suffering of the victims who are silenced because of loosely defined terms (and then becomes an instance where we need to define a term). To misconstrue the implications of consent, like Dreher has, is what’s truly damaging to a society that has started to speak up about the unspeakable. Conor Friedersdorf expands on the moral implications of consent, saying that “a growing reverence for consent would gradually make our culture radically more moral”. And if morality is what’s at stake here, it would be reasonable to assume that a consensual BDSM session is less damaging than, say, defending a rapist.
Yet, it is arguable to deem BDSM as damaging or not. The participants of BDSM, as Witt witnessed, find pleasure in dominating and being dominated, in degrading and being degraded. It may sound damaging, but it’s all, in the end, a performance where personal boundaries are respected, no one needs to go the hospital, and everyone leaves happy. Not to mention, porn is a good that is always in demand, no matter how much one denies it. Business is business, right?
So how “damaging” to society are the behaviors produced by the movements of sexual freedom? Only as damaging as one lets it — beyond reason, of course. And there isn’t much that can be done to stop it, unless, that is, one approaches it with an open mind.
Dreher, Rod. “Googletopia’s Therapeutic Rite.” The American Conservative. N.p., 14 May 2013. Web. 29
Friedersdorf, Conor. “The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting
Adults?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 16 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel. “Consider the Fist and Other Essays.” The American Scene. N.p., 15
May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
Jacobs, Alan. “In Which Noah Millman and I See Things Very Differently (For a Change).” The
American Conservative. N.p., 13 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
Witt, Emily. “What Do You Desire?” N 1. N 1, 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.