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.

My generation doesn't treat consent as a lodestar merely because consent permits pleasurable sexual activity that more traditional sexual codes would prohibit. The ethos of consent is regarded as a lodestar because its embrace is widely seen as an incredible improvement over much of human history; and because instances when the culture of consent is rejected are superlatively horrific. The average 30-something San Franciscan has had multiple friends confide to them about being raped, and multiple friends confide about participating in consensual BDSM. Only the former routinely plays out as extreme trauma that devastates the teller for decades. Little wonder that consent is treated as the preeminent ethos even by many who suspect that transgressive sex like what Witt describes is ultimately unwise or even immoral.

Let us imagine that, 50 years hence, we have a society where the ethos of consent and attendant norms of sexual conduct have triumphed so completely that rape is as rare as cannibalism. Everyone would regard that as a civilizational triumph. Would it be a bigger or smaller triumph of sexual mores than a culture where consent was valued exactly as much or little as it was in 1950, but BDSM and kink, extreme or tame, was so widely rejected as to render it as rare as cannibalism? That I'd strongly prefer the former triumph explains why I cannot agree with Alan Jacobs when he writes of the San Francisco pornographers, "I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways."

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?

I think rapists are far more uncivilized, and that every champion of consent, however myopic they are about other moral norms they ought to follow, are trying to build "structures of thought and practice that harness humankind's sexual instincts and direct them in socially up-building ways." Consent isn't, after all, entirely separable from other widely accepted norms of civilized behavior. Taking it seriously means refusing to watch certain types of porn (the hidden up-skirt camera, for example); it means being forced to conceive of every potential sexual partner as an autonomous individual with inherent worth and desires so important that they frequently trump yours; it means, in at least that one respect, treating other people as you'd want to be treated.

None of that means one must approve of the acts described in the San Francisco basement. I happen to think it 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.

***

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says it's a mistake to read the n+1 essay and focus on the question of whether consensual sex is ever immoral. "That's an important discussion to have these days," he writes, but he finds a unifying thread in the essay's sex scenes, the brief descriptions of San Francisco's poor drug addicts, the revelations about Witt's personal life, and the portraits of Google yuppies. "What is the thing that binds these things all together?" he asks. "It's not kinky sex. It is, and the piece screams this at me, an utter absence of love. This piece is a description of what happens when people not only don't love each other but don't even have the idea that that is something they ought to do... The thing that all these things have in common is that everybody is treating each other like means and not end in themselves, and not only that, but they don't seem to even have the concept that there is another way to treat people."

In a followup, Jacobs makes a related point. "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," he observes. "But whether they're in public or not, it is indeed performance that such people are pursuing: they seek an arena in which they are both actor and audience, observed and observer, while others serve as mere instruments to enable the self-testing. All these endeavors strike me as incredibly lonely."

Gobry's proposed remedy to loneliness and Kantian failures in contemporary sexual culture? Christianity. "Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love," he writes, supplying a link to his interesting, Christianity-influenced notion of what pursuing love really entails. As much as I enjoyed Gobry's reflections, and as fond as I am of the underappreciated notion of love, Christian or otherwise, as a potent, transcendent salve, I couldn't help feeling that, even as he came very close to grappling with the core of Witt's essay, he ultimately talks right past one of her contentions.

"I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated," Witt wrote. "Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival." It won't due to simply tell her that love is the answer. The question her essay interrogates is what we ought to do when, having tried to find romantic love, it escapes us.

Celibacy, pending a change in life circumstance, is the answer that some folks would suggest. For them, the woman who fails find anyone to marry who wants to marry her, like the gay man who can't find anyone of the opposite sex he wants to marry, is called to struggle and abstain. If one believes that all extramarital sex is contrary to the will of an infallible Supreme Being, that makes sense. I take it that Witt believes otherwise, as do I. "Back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter," she writes. Without saying anything in favor or against her approach, the details of which are sparse, I'd add that my least favorite thing about Christian sexual ethics, which offer some valuable insights even to secular and deist observers who grapple with the relevant tenets, is the way that it consigns people unable to get themselves in a traditional marriage to a life without sex. They are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire, and all opportunities to connect intimately and profoundly with other humans, not because no one will consent to joyfully be with them, but because society purportedly functions best if its norms needn't accommodate certain kinds of individuals as sexual beings, except as examples of what is sinful and aberrant. That fate strikes me as more lonely than the pornography or hookup culture Witt describes, and consigning people to it has never seemed very Christ-like to me.

***

The question remains. Are some kinds of sex degrading or immoral even if they're consensual? Unlike many conservatives, I don't particularly trust my disgust instinct. It misled me about Brussels sprouts in childhood, and again in the days before I became a dog-owner about how awful it would be to pick up freshly defecated feces with nothing but a thin plastic bag covering my hand. It really isn't that bad. Who knew? My strong instinct is nevertheless to say yes, some consensual sex acts are immoral. A brother and sister breaking the incest taboo diminishes the norm of presumed nonsexual contact between siblings, a norm that is of tremendous benefit to most of humanity. Or imagine a couple agreeing that it would bring unsurpassed excitement if, mid-coitus, Sally chopped off Harry's arm with a bedside guillotine, with his consent. That certainly transgresses against my sensibilities, though I can't articulate just why in a way that wouldn't encompass other behavior that my instinct would be to refrain from condemning. But if a brother raped a sister? Or if Sally chopped off Harry's arm without his consent?

That would be much worse.

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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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