Monday, August 26, 2013

"I see a zoo"

Slave Kitten (a person active in the scene) has written a very thoughtful response to my post about morality and I'd like to share it with you here. They raise some very interesting points. I am particularly interested in the implications of setting aside questions of morality for eroticism. Does this make it, in the strictest sense, amoral?

Thanks, Slave Kitten, for your thoughts.

I think that people in the BDSM community do have morals. I think, perhaps in response to assumptions of amorality (or immorality, as you mentioned), part of the kink (more specifically, Leather) narrative is that it makes them hyper-moral. When I ask leatherfolk about themselves, they often wax poetically about honor, integrity, bravery, honesty, tradition, and if I'm very, very lucky they'll mention that they like to have deviant sex.
It's so common and I think the unspoken caveat is "I'm a way better person than the average bear and so am permitted to engage in deviant behavior because (in the final calculation) I am equal to the average citizen.
That sash, title, book deal, or position in leadership are the utmost symbolic capital. It buys immunity, deems them worthy, and gives them the scepter of judgement. But it doesn't always correlate to SSC (safe, sane, consensual).

What I'd like to see more of is an assertion that BDSM doesn't inform what kind of person I am. It doesn't need to. That's not the role it plays in my life. It neither elevates me to hyper-moral or demotes me or immoral. I think assigning it moral weight makes us lose something. It internalizes the assumption of immorality and makes what we do directly respond to it instead of rejecting it.
I recently read a passage that gripped me. I'd like to share from Tim Krieder's We Learn Nothing:
 "The truth is, people are ravenous for sex, sociopaths for love. I sometimes like to daydream that if we were all somehow simultaneously outed as lechers and perverts and sentimental slobs, it might be, after the initial shock of disillusionment, liberating. It might be a relief to quit maintaining this rigid pose of normalcy and own up to the outlaws and monsters we are."
I may be an outlier in the BDSM community, but I'm certainly not alone. Transposing traditional morality onto my sex feels counter-intuitive, like housing a tiger in a cage. That's not where it belongs. And sure, it may be fun to have it do little tricks to entertain tourists, but it's real beauty is the untamed. And (with a few exceptions) I don't see a wilderness when I look at my community. I see a zoo.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Questionable morality

Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it. 
mo·ral·i·ty (m-rl-t, mô-)
n. pl. mo·ral·i·ties
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality.
3. Virtuous conduct.
I am attending a class on Sexuality and Morality in Lisbon, Portugal next month. It's an anthropology class that lasts for 6 days. It will be my first time in Europe and I'm super-excited for a number of reasons, a major one being the chance for me to work through the questions of morality raised by my dissertation work. This was a major sticking point for one of my mentors that I felt I never fully addressed.

Over the course of the class, we'll be focusing on sexuality and religion; sex and commerce; and heteronormativity. When asked what further topics we would like to have formal discussions about, of course I asked for BDSM. I am particularly interested in the ways that sm practices mirror some religious penitent practices. Huzzah mortification of the flesh! In another post, I'll expound on how they might be two sides of the same coin, both using the same methodology to experience the body, one to deny, the other to indulge.

I was excited to be asked to do a short presentation on some of my work as it may fit into the class's framework. So in this post, I'm toying with how I may situate my presentation. Feedback is welcomed.

I am going to assume that in our first two days of general anthropological inquiry, we'll debate the definition of morality. I'll be interested in how this falls out in terms of cultural relativity vs. universal human rights. I *know* female genital cutting will come up, as it always does in this instance. One of the articles (Fassin 2008) we've read in preparation argues not for a moral anthropology (a la Nancy Scheper Hughes) but rather an anthropology of morals, a holistic approach to understanding how groups formulate morality. Fascinated as I am with taboos, I didn't realize this wasn't already occurring. It is the blood and bones of anthropology to understand people's worldviews and with this comes their morality. I don't know; perhaps the call is for comparative morality? Or maybe it only counts when it's one of the big religions passing judgements on morality and the small-scale groups beloved of classic anthropologists don't pass muster? This is something I'm looking forward to discussing.

In terms of my work, however, I think there are a few important points.

Do people who practice BDSM have morals?
As anyone who has read my blog or my work for more than a paragraph would know, I would argue emphatically that yes, people in the BDSM community I worked with have morals. One of the stigmatizing aspects of sm, however, is that practitioners are accused of being amoral at best, immoral at worst. Even among a group of people invested in pushing limits, breaking taboos, or generally thumbing their noses at society, there are strictures that they follow. Ask anyone of them if they are a moral person, and very few who have been in the scene for more than a couple of years have doubts. People tend to think of themselves as good people. In my experience, people in that community were generally kind and generous and very concerned with not damaging people. I think that accusations of amorality or immorality may stem in part from the attitude encapsulated in the standard credo, "your kink is okay by me." From the outside, this seems to indicate that anything goes. When a vanilla person considers spanking depraved, it is not difficult for them to imagine a descent into pedophilia, bestiality, or necrophilia. One of my favorite responses to this is the 3 C rule - no children, no critters, and no corpses.

Is a particular act immoral or does context matter?
I have thought about this in depth, as there were many situations that made me uncomfortable during my time in the field. The most obvious example sexual violence against women (I have chosen women because women are often the victims of this type of violence and it touches a collective nerve in the United States in a way that sexual violence against men does not). Outside of a BDSM context, this would be defined as rape. And everyone knows rape is bad, right? I am not arguing that rape is acceptable. I am, however, trying to complicate the accepted ideology. I think it is an artifact of living in a state-level society that certain acts are considered immoral, like sexual violence against women and murder. In order to live under the rule of law, we must make acts and not intentions criminal or immoral.

Setting aside the question of rape-like behavior for a minute, I would like to consider murder. In the Judeo-Christian purview, as one of the ten commandments, murder is always wrong. However, the Bible is riddled with instances of people being murdered. Despite the best attempts by conservatives in the United States, we live in a secular society, although many of our laws stem from Judeo-Christian ideology. In many cases, the law stands in for morality. We find a similar stricture against murder codified in our legal system. Nonetheless, we find instances when murder (as the willful taking of another human's life) is not only acceptable but even endorsed by the state in cases of the death penalty and war. So even though some moralists may argue that there are some acts so atrocious as to always be immoral, in practice people justify actions usually considered heinous in order to picture themselves as moral actors.

The problem with equating the death penalty or the actions of war to BDSM, however, is that these acts are inherently non-consensual, yet we have an example of murder which is consensual. Euthanasia, although hotly debated, is, in some circles, considered a moral act. I cannot speak for others, but having witnessed my mother's final week on her deathbed, wracked with pain and confusion, I know that I hope that someone will help me to exit peacefully if it looks like I am going the same way. According to the Catholic church, this would be a mortal sin. As our technology allows us to extend life further and further without necessarily maintaining the quality of that life, when does withholding care become tantamount to euthanasia?

True pacifists, perhaps the Quakers, could take the moral high ground and say murder is always, in all situations, wrong. However, most of us are not Quakers and still consider ourselves moral beings.

Returning to sexual violence against women, I ask again, can this ever be moral? To be clear, I am speaking about violent acts, such as beating, whipping, branding, cutting, binding, burning, with the goal of sexual satisfaction on the part of the perpetrator, either from the act itself or from sex, however you define that. For people in the BDSM community in Texas, the answer hinges on the consent of the participants.

What morals do people in the Texas BDSM hold?
There are many rules in the kinky community, but only two restrictions rise to the level of moral invective, in my experience in Texas: no children and consent is paramount.

No one in the United States is more reviled than a child molester, although the media would have us believe they lurk everywhere, could be anyone. The kinky community has embraced this condemnation of adults becoming sexually involved with children. The definition of "child" is a bit slippery, but much like obscenity, in the kinky community people say they know it when they see it. In general, a child is anyone under the age of eighteen, despite the fact that the age of consent in Texas is 17. In another post, I will get around to exploring how the definition of "child" shifts and the implications for young people's sexuality.

Consent structures much of the interactions in the kinky community. People think deeply about what it means to consent. It is the topic of endless conversations. Established members have extensive lists of what they will and will not consent to, especially when interacting with new partners. Safe words ensure that consent is an ongoing process. Playing in public is one way some people ensure that safe words are enforced. Of course, all of these precautions do not mean consent is never violated. But when it is ignored, it is a violation, a violence against a person in the most negative way. We can talk about consent - who can give it, when it may be coerced, what conditions must be met - but again, people feel that it would be immoral to disregard it once it is in place.

This brings me back to sexual violence against women, particularly in the form of play called "consensual non-consent." This type of play does not necessarily demand a male top and a female bottom, but this configuration is most likely to set off alarm bells about rape and the knee-jerk reaction many people in the United States have to this scenario. "Consensual non-consent" means different things in different areas of the country (my thanks to Staci Newmahr for pointing this out) or even to different people, but in my experience it involved the bottom resisting the sexual advances of the top and eventually being forced to capitulate. All of this is agreed to prior to the action. Outwardly, this can manifest in the bottom screaming, begging, saying no, physically trying to escape, and threats or actual violence on the part of the top. I'm not going to lie; the first time I saw this I freaked out and had to leave. If this wasn't rape, it was too close for me. In the kinky community, this is not considered rape or immoral as the agency of all parties is respected. Ideally, the bottom can use her (or his) safe word and stop the action at any time. (This post seems to generate a lot of, "In another post..." caveats, but in another post, I will explore the choice to play without safe words.)

Where do morals stem from?
The answer to this question has generated endless pontification among theologians and philosophers for thousands of years, and I know I can't answer it in a blog post. I bring it up only to point out how the kinky community's understanding of morality compares to that of the mainstream United States. In a mainstream understanding, morality stems from religious and secular authority. The kinky community in Texas cannot be separated from this context. However, through consensus, they have been able to re-imagine morality to encompass acts that are considered immoral in the larger society, including public sex, multiple sexual partners, and myriad acts of consensual violence. It was my impression that people in the community believed that these morals evolved from rational debate among themselves rather than unquestioned edicts handed down by those with special knowledge not available to common folk. In the tradition of Martin Luther, this fits in well with the Protestant ethic that still influences life in the United States, although practitioners of BDSM have arrived at drastically different conclusions.

What are the repercussions for acting immorally?
This is where things kind of fall apart. The kinky community acts as a small-scale society in many ways, including the ways in which it treats offenders. Typically, if it can be proved (or even given highly suggestive evidence) someone has acted immorally, the only repercussion is expulsion from the group. In a true small-scale society, this consequence has more significance than it does for someone living in the urban United States. If the group shuns you, there is always Craigslist or OKCupid to troll. It may be painful to lose relationships, but the threat may not be great enough to keep people in line. In this way, the kinky community relies on appeals to people's better natures not to act immorally. The state has the threat of imprisonment or even death for violations of the law, while religions can promise ever-lasting torment. The kinky community just says, "We don't accept you." New clubs often ask for references from old associations, particularly if a person relocates. This, however, only protects the kinky community and leaves the larger circle of people engaged in kinky activities outside of the community at risk.

I find it interesting that I did not hear of a single instance where the police were called to report a violation of morality, especially in light of the fact that a violation also meant that a crime was committed, either rape or child molestation. For many reasons, the kinky community is hesitant to engage with law enforcement. This reluctance results in crimes or immoral acts going largely unpunished, as perpetrators slip into the anonymity of the city.

These are my thoughts on morality thus far. I look forward to learning about other people's understandings of what it means to be a moral actor and whether that is mutually exclusive with practicing BDSM. I'm excited about the anthropological promise of recognizing the different ways people make sense of morality. I know this post is more about philosophy and less about sex, but I hope everyone, from anthropologists to sapiosexualists, can appreciate it.