Can kink ever be ethical? Are those who engage in it unwittingly reinforcing patterns and excuses for abuse? How do we untangle this mess?
If you’ve been keeping up with my latest posts, you’ll notice that I’ve been writing (and thus thinking) a lot about philosophy, feminist theory, and BDSM.
I used to find theory tedious. “How does it relate to our lived reality?” I used to ask. I dropped out of my PhD because I ended up in a theory-heavy department where I felt I didn’t belong.
And yet here I am, 7 years or so after my departure from that department, enjoying–indeed, devouring–theory in ways I never would have predicted. Why the change? Why the sudden interest?
Over the last two years, I heard something whispered in the halls of social science: “research is me-search“. Research we undertake is deeply influenced by the questions we have about ourselves, the world, and others. Research begins with “why am I like this?” or “why are my friends like this?” or “why are people I see every day like this?”.
I never used to question my BDSM orientation. I am like this, whether I like or not, and why try to hide it, or repress it?
And then last winter semester I took a biomedical ethics class. Although it didn’t relate directly to sex, it made me ask: what do moral philosophers and ethicists think about sex? Are there right and wrong ways to have sex?
I’m now firmly through my third book on the topic, and I have questions.
Can we engage in kink without taking responsibility for the harm it causes in other contexts?
Can kink ever be fully ethical?
Is consent enough to justify kink?
I happened to read this piece recently, and it articulates a lot of my ethical worries about kink. In it, Chelsea Summers argues that many men who appear outwardly progressive engage in “rough sex” (i.e. kinky sex) to express their misogyny. She supports it with examples from her own life and from many, many legal cases of men being let off the hook or given light sentences because they claimed that the “rough sex” was consensual, including Canada-famous Jian Ghomeshi.
I find myself stuck in a dilemma.
On the one hand, kink is used to unjustly criminalize certain types of activity, including homosexual and gender non-normative sex, as illustrated by the Brown and Bedford cases. These cases, especially the Brown one, show that justice systems are all too keen to use the justification of violence to send (gay) people to prison for consensual activities. In the Bedford case, even though the decision was eventually overturned, authorities used the gender role reversal (dominant women, submissive men) to further humiliate and criminalize the sex workers.
On the other hand, as Summers shows, kink is used to defend (mostly) men against accusations of abuse and sexual assault against (mostly) women.
I am not quite sure how to untangle this knot. I am angry that my sexual desires and activities are considered evil and violent. My experience of them are the absolute opposite. However, I am also angry that abusive men use kink as a front for abuse. I am aware that this happens. I personally know of men in my own community who use kink to justify their abusive behaviour.
Is kink ever ethical? Despite the pleasure that it brings us, despite the fact that it is ideally engaged in by consenting adults who consent to every part of it, can I, in light of the gender dynamics that it enables and reproduces, keep doing it?
Is kink wrong? Can it ever be made right?
I am hoping that theory and moral philosophy can help me untangle this mess towards an answer that satisfies me.