TAS alums debating morals and kinky sex? Where do I sign up!
By now the intellectual internet has read Emily Witt’s excellent n+1 essay, which is fascinating and is self-consciously only superficially about an extreme BDSM porn shoot in San Francisco. (In this post I will assume you’ve read the essay and will not censor my language.)
Here’s TAS Alum Noah Millman reacting to the essay and Rod’s post saying, essentially, why are you a bunch of squares (obviously his post is much smarter than this), and pushing back at the idea that there should be an ideal of morality that we should all conform to.
Here’s TAS Alum Alan Jacobs reacting to Noah and asserting the case against degrading sex with a poetic followup noting how lonely extreme sex can be.
EDIT: I had missed this additional post by Rod.
All of it is fascinating and very good, but I just sort of want to take a step back, because it seems to me that the discussion is headed in a direction that, while important, actually misses what was so striking about this essay. The question that Rod and Noah and Alan are sort of batting around is: are some kinds of sex intrinsically degrading? If yes, what and what does that mean; if not, why not and what does that mean. (There’s also a sub-debate about the difference, and whether there is one, between participating in sexual rituals and watching them over the internet.)
That’s an important discussion to have these days but I do think within the context of this essay it risks missing the forest for the trees.
There are several threads to Witt’s essay: there’s the Kink shoot, but there’s also the San Francisco Googleplex of smart beautiful healthy empty robotic people, there are also as Alan notes glimpses of the human devastation that San Francisco’s sheen hides but that all San Franciscans know (“A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill”; “a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin”), and there is finally Witt’s own ruderless personal life.
What is the thing that binds these things all together? It’s not kinky sex. It is, and the piece screams this at me, an utter absence of love.
What this piece is is a description of is what happens when not only people don’t love each other but don’t even have the idea that that is something they ought to do.
If with orthodox Christian theology we describe Hell as the absence of God and God as love, then Rod is absolutely correct that this piece is a glimpse of a Hell on Earth, but perhaps not for the reasons Rod had in mind.
And so while Alan is right to push back against Noah’s notion that getting anally fisted in public is just in Noah’s phrase “San Franciscans flying their freak flags” and to point out that this is self-degradation, I think the right way to understand the piece is to query what is it that makes us want to be degraded, or degrade, or watch people be degraded (while we degrade ourselves), rather than whether degrading is degrading.
Because, to talk about the kinky sex for one second, degradation is what it’s about. What’s arousing about a Kink video is not the anal fisting; what’s arousing is what happens before: the girl being paraded with a sign reading “I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT.” This is the subtext, and this is what generates the arousal. Unless you have an anal fisting fetish, which is not true of enough people to make Kink a viable business enterprise (and even then one might query the reason for the fetish), anal fisting is a turn-on not because of the act itself but because of what it means; that is to say, degradation.
What’s most striking about BDSM is how much of a prisoner it is of Christian sexual ethics. For all the talk of BDSM practitioners about how they are free from “vanilla” sexuality, they are in fact their slave: they simply take vanilla sexuality, and then do the opposite. If you define yourself in opposition to something you are not free from it; you are enslaved to it. And this isn’t just about “putting tab A into slot B”, but about the requirement of traditional sexual morality that sex must be radically other-centered and therefore radically equal—so BDSM must be radically authoritarian. If you could have a definition of Christian sex, a good one would be “a radical denunciation of power”—so of course BDSM must be all about power. If Christian sex is all about self-giving, then BDSM is all about possession. (And the well-known point that in BDSM, it is actually, if you think about it for two seconds, the “sub” who is the master, does nothing to change that.)
And by the way, this is why it’s so powerful, right? Power, domination, possession, these are all the things we crave, deeply, and powerfully, and BDSM promises to give them to us in a radical, deep way through one of the most powerful experiences of humanity, which is sexuality. Good BDSM sex is great.
Christianity cares about sex ultimately because it recognizes that sex is a microcosm of human nature, with its potential for the highest or the lowest. Within sex, we can radically give ourselves to another, but within sex, we can indulge our deep, deep needs for power, or powerlessness—that is to say, in either case, selfishness.
Once we’ve said all of this, we can safely realize that what matters when we think about sex is less specific acts than what they entail and what we are actually doing.
But let’s forget about the sex and God for a second.
If you were to describe how everyone in the piece behaves—the people at the Kink shoot, the Googlers, and Witt herself—, a good place to start would be to say that they’re behaving as anti-Kantians. No one is treating anyone as an end in themselves. Everyone is treating everyone as a means.
In our contemporary sexual hellscape, the thread that binds everything together is that we treat ourselves as means. The Google Princes treat everything as means. The Kink people, obviously—the female porn star is here for an experience, she doesn’t care about Princess Donna or anyone else; the male porn star and Princess Donna are here for a pay check; the bystanders are here for, take your pick, satisfying base urges or simply cheap thrills. (This is where Alan was right to push back against Noah’s notion that they were behaving in a “civilized” way—they were, within the bounds of that particular culture, polite but they were very much uncivilized in the sense that everything they were doing was about them. That’s the difference between politeness (in French, the word for “polite” and the word for “polished” are the same) and courtesy: politeness is merely formal adherence to external standards of conduct, while courtesy is the expression of care for other people which may or may not come through adherence to external standards of conduct properly understood. True civilization is courteous before it is polite. And the discussion about consent, while interesting, leads us astray from this, I think, deeper point.) And Witt, finally, in her own personal life, is treating others as means. She was once looking for a permanent relationship, but she didn’t really know why, except for a vague sense that it would be good for her, and so then she looked for hook-ups, but that hurt other people, and she doesn’t really know how to feel about that, and now she doesn’t know what she wants. (I want to say that I admire Witt’s courage for laying it all out, and I’m certainly not casting stones. It’s not her fault that she lacks the moral vocabulary to understand her actions.)
The thing that all these things have in common is not anal fisting. 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.
And obviously I think the best way to be a Kantian is to be a Christian. 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. (And that love, in turn, can only be credible if it is a person.)
I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. 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. So, back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter.
As if love was something…no human could escape.
What sadness. Of course, we are powerless to “instigate” love or “ensure its duration” if we live in a society that is completely fixated on everything else and on extinguishing it. If everyone is fixated on themselves. If we’re all dangled toys in front of each other, whether labelled “nice car”, “anal fisting videos” or, perhaps the worst, “keeping my options open”. Oh yes, by all means, seek out love, but don’t commit to anything, particularly not early, particularly when there might be so many other interesting things out there to see or do.
And thus, how is it possible to not understand this:
After a decade or so of living this way, with occasional suspensions for relationships that would first revive my belief in romantic love and its attendant structures of domesticity, and then once again fail and extinguish them, I started finding it difficult to revere the couple as the fundamental unit of society. I became a little ornery about it, to be honest: that couples paid lower taxes together, that they could afford better apartments, that there were so few structures of support to ease the raising of a child as a single person, that the divorced experience a sense of failure, that failed marriages are accompanied by so much logistical stress on top of the emotional difficulties. All this because we privilege a certain idea of love. The thought of the natural progression of couples, growing more and more insular, buying nicer and nicer furniture, shutting down the world, accruing things, relaxing into habit, scared me. … Why was love between couples more exceptional? Because it attached itself to material objects, and to children? Because it ordered civilization? I probably would not have a baby without love, and buying a home seemed impossible for all kinds of reasons, but I could have sex. I had a body.
Yes, if “love” is about getting a house and getting a car, and paying less taxes, and if it’s an endlessly receding horizon, then it starts to feel a bit of a ripoff, doesn’t it?
“But, you can have sex. You have a body.” (No, by the way, you are a body.)
That’s when the anal fisting comes, but that’s not where the despair is. The despair is before.
Yes, we’re all getting screwed, in more ways than we realize.