The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults?

A defense of consent as a lodestar of sexual morality
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In "What Do You Desire?" Emily Witt travels to San Francisco, attends a shoot for a pornographic video about "women bound, stripped, and punished in public," reflects on her own unsuccessful search for romantic love, and ponders the implications of a sexual culture where no desire is considered off-limits so long as all participants give their consent. She'd prefer love to sexual novelty. But "what if love fails us?" she asks. "Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans' focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better."

Her essay is a must-read, with the caveat that it should not be read by anyone who wishes to avoid graphic descriptions of extreme sexual acts. The lengthy descriptions will distress many readers. But the substance of the essay transcends those scenes, as evidenced by the fascinating exchanges it has prompted in the blogosphere. The primary participants (linked in order if you want to follow their thought-provoking conversation as it unfolded) are Rod Dreher, Noah Millman, Alan Jacobs, (Noah Millman and Rod Dreher again) and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

All of them grapple, at least in part, with what our response ought to be to the explicit acts described. Put bluntly, a group of San Franciscans crowded into a basement to watch and participate as a diminutive female porn actress (who consented very specifically to all that followed) is bound with rope, gagged, slapped, mildly electrocuted, and sexually penetrated in most every way. The tenor and intensity of the event can't be conveyed without reading the full rendering. The object of all that abuse describes it afterward as physically uncomfortable at times, but intensely pleasurable throughout. She departs extremely happy and eager to do it again.

Was the consent of all participants sufficient to make the porn shoot a morally defensible enterprise? Alan Jacobs says no. People like the director and actress "are pursuing, consciously or not, absolute degradation, and are publicly debasing sexuality in the process," he writes. "They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made." As he sees it, their behavior is uncivilized. If you claim otherwise, he argues, "you have reduced the content of civilization to a single element: consent."

Rod Dreher agrees. Acknowledging that the Marquis de Sade conceived of humiliating and being humiliated for sexual pleasure long before today's San Franciscans, he posits that such behavior is becoming more acceptable due to the absence of a strong moral framework to push back against it. "You can have whatever you desire," he writes. "If you choose hell, then we will call it good, because it is freely chosen, and brings you pleasure." He worries that "the result is chaos and nihilism" and the idea that "the only way to find transcendence is to yield to one's desires." For Dreher, "affirming human dignity, and walling off the most destructive impulses within individual and collective human beings, requires condemning this pornography and perversity."

Yet America's secular individualism offers "no firm ground on which to stand to condemn this barbarism," Dreher continues, and "no basis to call it barbarism." He marvels that history's most free, wealthy people "use their liberty to degrade each other and to choose to be degraded." Why does he care? "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," he explains. "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 up-building 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."

***

Before returning to the question, "Are some kinds of sex intrinsically degrading, even if they're consensual?" I'd like to press Jacobs and Dreher on their treatment of consent as a cultural lodestar. It seems to me that they understate its 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.

Jacobs and Dreher seem to imply (but may or may not believe, were it to come up directly) that consent as a cultural lodestar is a shameful moral abdication, indicative of an age where other, much more important norms have been abandoned. As I see it, the 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.

Western culture isn't so far removed from an era in which 14- and 15-year-old girls were married off to middle-aged bachelors with whom sexual congress was terrifying and obligatory, perhaps because the resulting union benefited the father of the bride financially or socially. American culture isn't so far removed from an era in which wives were expected to have intercourse with their husbands whether they wanted to or not, so much so that an intoxicated husband forcing himself on his wife as she fought and screamed "no! stop!" wasn't seen as rape. In America today, the people most damaged by prevailing sexual norms are not porn actresses who are paid to degrade themselves and depart their lucrative Internet video shoots smiling. Even if you think those porn actresses damage themselves, their voluntary participation cannot be compared to the trauma suffered by rape victims. It could be argued that rape victims aren't victims of American culture, but are victimized in spite of a culture that condemns rape.

That is sometimes true.

Yet I can show you any number of jokes told in mainstream venues where the punchline is a prisoner getting brutally raped by a fellow inmate or guard—and I can show you the scandalous number of actual rapes perpetrated at taxpayer-funded, state-administered institutions. I can show you a military, venerated for the honor of its fighters, where women are raped routinely. There are frequent rapes that occur in collegiate frat, athletic, and dorm subcultures, where acceptance of consent as an imperative is not, to put it mildly, universally agreed upon. We've all heard about Catholic subcultures where children were molested and bishops regarded that violation of consent as so trivial an offense that the perpetrators were merely reassigned. (What does it say about the sexual morality of the Catholic Church that they would've been punished more severely had they appeared in a consensual San Francisco BDSM shoot?) Those are just the most extreme examples. How many Americans suffer harm each year when, while dating or hanging out with someone they trust, that person coerces them to go farther than they'd like, or exploits ambiguity or drunkenness to transgress against consent?

Suffice it to say that inculcating the norm of consent is a work in progress.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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