24 Jul 2012

50 Shades of Kink-Shaming

In a blog post where she sets out why she feels the Canadian police force were right to investigate Cpl Jim Brown, an officer 'outed' as participating in BDSM, Meghan Murphy starts by saying "I really don’t care about ‘kink’ or about ‘kinky people’. It just doesn’t interest me. I don’t give a shit about your leather fetish." Kinksters might feel those words provide them with carte blanche to then say, "Well, I guess I don't give a shit about what Meghan Murphy thinks of my lifestyle then", but as both a feminist and a kinkster, I'm not prepared to walk away quite so easily.

Murphy does make some points in her article that I agree with, such as:
- "Just because you really, really like something doesn’t mean that it is or should be free from deconstruction or critique."
- "Just because you are a feminist or because you consider yourself to be a progressive guy, doesn’t make everything you do a feminist or progressive practice."

 I am definitely sick and tired of the rhetoric of 'choice' being invoked to justify all behaviour, no matter how retrogressive. I will definitely slap the next person who tells me that there's nothing anti-feminist about a woman getting breast implants 'because it's her choice'. That said, I think the depiction of all women as victims and all men as abusers (real or by proxy) is equally unhelpful to any feminist conversation. Unfortunately, when we think about kink, those seem to be the only two sides of the argument that get presented.

"So Brown was looking into the disappearance and sadistic murder of dozens of women. He also happens to be turned on by dominating women and playing out sadistic fantasies in his private life. Does that necessarily make him a murderer? No." OK, I'm with Murphy so far on this point. However, she pretty much loses my support with her next point

"Is it worth exploring the fact that a man in a position of power who was a part of a force that made it pretty clear that they didn’t give two shits about the women who were going missing from the DTES until they were forced to pay attention AND that he liked to play out misogynist, violent fantasies in his private time? Yes."

It's the 'AND' that does it. The conflating of Cpl Jim Brown's taste for BDSM (evidenced by a few photos which sound to me pretty mild considering the stuff you can see on Fetlife) with police failure to take women's disappearances seriously is an unjustified leap to make. To make the link between to the two is a deliberately emotive tactic to imply that men liking sadomasochistic erotica is basically responsible for institutional failures in taking violence against women seriously. Sorry, but I'm going to need to see a little more evidence for that. One man's private sexual preferences do not result in an entire police force of women-hating sadists.

This brings me on to two further points that Murphy seems unwilling to countenance:
- that it is possible to separate the personal from the professional
- and that kink is not violence. I know she spends a great deal of the piece saying she's 'not interested' in hearing about BDSM, and even admits she is not particularly well-educated on the matter. But let's face it, her whole piece IS about kink, albeit in a roundabout way, even if she doesn't want to admit it. We wouldn't even be talking about the Jim Brown case if kink didn't make so many people uneasy and apt to judge.

So, first point - "Women are subjected to violence at the hands of men on a daily basis. The missing and murdered women were killed by men. That’s why the sexualization of inequity matters and that’s why images of an RCMP officer posing in sadistic scenes with submissive women matters."
Sorry, but no. Just like we wouldn't take a lesbian officer off a case because it involves a gay couple, or a white officer off a case that involved racism, we cannot start policing the bedroom and stating that officers are not sufficiently objective in cases that involve sexual/gendered violence, just because they might enjoy - and please read this carefully - CONSENSUAL MIMICKING OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE, NOT SEXUAL VIOLENCE ITSELF. If Brown had actually ever committed violence against a woman, I would agree he should be bannned from law enforcement for the rest of his life. But unless we're going to start telling meat-eaters that they can't work for animal protection charities, dentists that they can't ever eat candy, and doctors that they shouldn't smoke (Ha! every the medical establishment in the country would be deserted in minutes), we cannot demand that invidual's private lives be dragged into their workplaces and used to condemn them on entirely spurious grounds.

This brings me to my second point. Murphy regularly fails to differentiate between actual non-consensual activities and fantasy 'consensual non-consent'. She seems convinced that our culture is so unequal, so hell-bent on abusing, silencing and even killing women, that women who enjoy sexual submission "are unable to clearly differentiate between free will and internalized self-hatred" (Mollena Williams), and that there's just no possibility of enjoying things like rape fantasies without automatically being a sad victim of the patriarchy. But Murphy offers no actual evidence for this beyond her own distaste for Jim Brown's activities, and her own hatred of a culture of sexual violence. Well, funnily enough I hate the way our culture hides, apologises for and blames women for sexual violence too. But I also hate being condescended to by feminists who assume they have the key to the One True Enlightened Way of having sex, and write me off as a brainwashed dupe of rape culture who is incapable of self-examination, just because I participate in BDSM.

And no, I don't believe the 'free will defence' is adequate when it comes to explaining tastes for BDSM - but what I do find interesting is that I'm required to defend it at all, whereas the feminists who are judging me are never asked to turn the mirror back on themselves and analyse their own conditioning at the hands of society. What makes the likes of Murphy think she is any more objective than a feminist kinkster who has done her reading and her research, gone on the marches and waved the placards, but still wants to be sexually submissive at the end of the day? As Cliff Pervocracy puts it "It's impossible for anyone to make a decision free from harmful social influences. Why single out kinky women?"

Murphy's analogy of wearing make-up but not claiming it as a feminist act is an interesting one which I think actually shows that you can participate in an activity, be aware of why you're doing it, be aware of the social influences that have contributed to it, and be OK with it. Murphy doesn't say whether her own make-up habit causes her to call women without make-up ugly, or go out into the streets and force lipstick onto unsuspecting girl's faces, but I'm guessing it probably doesn't. However, whilst awarding herself the ability to be self-critical, at the same time she is implying that Cpl Jim Brown's penchant for BDSM means he is incapable of intelligent self-examination or separating his private life from his work. And I think that's a really fucking patronising assumption to make.

To think that men who dominate consenting female partners just go ahead and start tying up and beating women without a second thought is to show just how little you know about kink. I've spoken to many male doms who describe the guilt and shame they went through in processing their desire to tie up, spank or 'force' a woman into sex (PLEASE note quote marks, they are there for a very important reason). Many say their desires felt at odds with their culture and upbringing, where they were taught to respect and never harm women. So much for this idea that we're always constantly bombarded with messages that tell us to hurt, degrade and discard women. Jay Wiseman even writes that he considered suicide if his desires did not subside, and it was only by finding a willing female partner that he began to understand the difference between actually harming women, and enacting erotic power struggles in a safe and respectful environment.

Of course, the kink-hating feminists will probably be sneering 'Oh boo hoo, poor guy, what about teh menz, god forbid they have to stop and consider their privilege for a second!'. I guess suggesting that men might have the ability to be self-critical as well as us feminists is a bridge too far for some, and I would venture that the reason Murphy and other anti-kink feminists snort at the idea Jim Brown could be a 'man of integrity' is that perhaps they just don't associate men with integrity full stop. The notion that male dom/fem sub BDSM must originate from a patriarchal model of contempt for women assumes a) that erotic power play is synonymous with violence and hatred, and b) that only a man who hates or wishes to degrade women could participate in it. I think you've got to have a pretty fucking low opinion of men in the first place to make that assumption.

Ultimately, if you believe that eroticising power dynamics which may or may not have their root in sexism (many would argue that BDSM can mimic all kinds of power dynamics - racial, class-based, familial, academic, workplace, human-to-animal - and that male/female roles are just one of many that can be chosen) is dangerous for society and women as a whole, you're not going to see Jim Brown as fit for investigating crimes against women. But if Meghan Murphy is asking me to stop harping on about 'my kink' as a defence for the likes of Brown, then in return I'm demanding that anti-kink feminists stop using their own sexual prejudices as a means to condemn him.

No comments: