27 May 2015

Women on Leashes: Kink In The Public Eye

Ah, women being walked on leashes. One may have thought that since Snoop Dogg announced he is now going to respect women (having claimed that he only called them bitches and whores in the past because he didn't know any better, bless him) there'd be no more public displays of such imagery for anyone to get up in arms about. Yet this past week I ended up seeing two stories about this within a few days of each other, and since I've like, written a book on how BDSM is portrayed in pop culture and its implications for feminism, I thought it behooved me to take a closer look at these tales and how they're framed.
The first, a story on Complex.com, a pop culture news site, kicked off with the headline "Australian Playboy Calls Himself Candyman and Walks Women on Leashes." I have to say, before I encountered this story I had never heard of Travers Beynon, who is apparently "known as Australia's Hugh Hefner", so I'm immediately wondering if this piece is going to actually provide more of the oxygen of publicity to someone relatively unknown outside their native country. 

In somewhat prurient and scandalised tones, the article goes on to say "On Instagram, Beynon frequently posts photos from his multimillion-dollar "Candy Shop Mansion," where women who've auditioned to be his "angels" pose for photos, sometimes as furniture. There's this photo where women serve as chairs and tables for a game of chess. (How civilized!)" There follows a video where we can see plenty more exposed female flesh on show in Beynon's flashy mansion, including sushi being eaten off a naked woman's body, and a man (not Beynon, perhaps one of his staff?) walking two bikini-clad women on leashes, one of whom is apparently Beynon's wife. The reporter mentions that the grandparents of his wife are concerned that this is a 'toxic' environment for her two children. Beynon's defence is that he's a hardworking family man, and the imagery he's posting on Instagram are merely promotion for his tobacco company.

The reporter says "This is arguably not OK, and I'm glad that Beynon is coming under fire for posting pictures of human beings on leashes. While he claims that his wife is impressed by his lifestyle and is laughing her head off at all the media attention that his home is receiving, I still have to wonder if everyone in this photo [shows photo of three men sitting on the backs of women who are on all fours] is comfortable with what's going on."

There's a lot going on here, but as often seems to be the case, there's still a fairly predictable template being followed:
1) Get outraged at the treatment of women by X, while simultaneously giving more publicity to X and also showing as many pictures as possible of the supposedly degrading treatment and exposed butts, boobs, thighs, cracks and cleavages.
2) Dismiss the possibility that any of the women involved have agency and/or free choice.
3) Play the "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!" card
4) Impose own values on to the behaviour of consenting adults

If this seems like lazy 'choice' feminism to you, I think it's worth adding that I would love to live in a world where I never had to be assaulted by another bronzed female butt crack or cleavage on my TV, computer or in a magazine or on a billboard, ever, ever again. The commodification of the female form both sickens and exhausts me. I would love it if music videos were about music, adverts were about the products they were trying to sell, and that the biggest ripples in global news were caused by genuinely amazing events that indicated progress for the human race, rather than the fact that Kacey Cuomo has dyed her eyebrows pink. However, as a pop culture commentator, I know that's not the world we live in. Under capitalism, everyone's trying to hustle, and earn money the quickest way they can. For Travers Beynon, that way is apparently by running a tobacco company, buffing up his body til he resembles a condom full of walnuts, building a kitsch, gilded bubblegum palace of bling and babes, and showing it to the world. Apparently, it's working. There are still many men out there who secretly think Hugh Hefner has got it made, even though plenty more of us consider him a pretty sad and creepy old man unable to deal with women as equals. Beynon is apparently appealing to the first category through his Instagram account, and if he gets some public criticism along the way, well, it's just more exposure, right?

Then there's the women who participate in the supposedly oh-so-shocking pictures. We need to stop to consider that they may also be hustling the best way they see fit. Are we to assume they are in those pictures under duress? That they are coerced into the lifestyle they enjoy in the big blinging mansion? FFS, there are plenty of women who consent to be walked on leashes or serve as human furniture out in the real world, and if you go into a BDSM club or look on Fetlife you'll soon meet them. You'll find they're regular women with jobs, children, partners, bills to pay, and you'll find that they all choose to do what they're doing. They just don't turn up on Instagram for pop culture commentators to disapprove of in the name of feminism, but they remain adults in control of their own lives and I believe Beynon's female companions do too, even if the former group's actions may be more about private pleasure and the latter more about creating public ripples to ultimately generate more income.  

This brings me onto the second story which I saw on Jezebel a few days later, which tells a bit of a non-story about a couple who were asked to leave a New York mall because the man was walking his female companion on a leash. There's an accompanying photo of the woman, wearing a thick collar with large spikes, kneeling on the pavement. You can only see the legs of her male companion. She's fully clothed and smiling. I found it hard to know how to feel about the story because I generally fell between two stools - I couldn't fully agree with the outraged commentators who wrote "Keep it in the bedroom, assholes," or sarcastically referred to "the public degradation of another human, shockingly, and soo unexpectedly, a woman," or went straight for the "What about children who saw this?!" line (see how it keeps coming up? How much time and energy is expended on fretting about what kids might actually think when kids spend so little time thinking about anything than the Frozen song?), but nor could I get totally on board with the writer's groovy, laid-back, "I'm from San Francisco where anything goes," attitude which adds up to: what they were doing isn't inherently sexual, kids who saw the couple will understand it was just make-believe, and it's not as bad as some weird stuff she's seen in public, including a man defecating on her porch. Hmmmm.

Both stories raise the questions, which has reared its head again and again in my writing on kink, on how far it's acceptable to inflict BDSM play on a viewing public. In the case of the first story, I doubt that the instance of the women being walked on leashes has nearly as much to do with BDSM, as it does with getting as many hits as possible on Instagram. Maybe the man and two women in the picture are genuinely playing a kinky game that they all find pleasurable, but I somehow doubt it - it just comes across as too staged. The couple in the second story do seem more like they are enjoying the thrill of public play, inadvertently yet crucially showing how the hottest kink scenes can take place when everyone is fully clothed and there's not a bikini or bum crack in sight, but as someone points out in the comments, there's no way to get the consent of everyone who has to view them, and if some people find it offensive or upsetting, that goes against the SSC (safe, sane, consensual) or RACK (risk aware consensual kink) mantras that are the foundation of the BDSM community.

However, I think it's important to ask ourselves why these images are potentially offensive. In response to the commenter who calls the mall couple's act degrading, another commenter immediately calls them on their assumption that the leashed woman feels degraded rather than empowered. This simplistic statement also obscures the fact that there can be empowerment/pleasure/erotic thrills found in that which we are supposed to find degrading, precisely because they are roles which are considered humiliating and which we are therefore not supposed to desire. One wonders if there would have been similar outcry if the gender roles had been reversed, if a woman had been thrown out of a mall for walking a man on a leash (would that even have happened?), or if Travers Beynon was a female feathering her nest with a bevy of thong-clad men on leashes? I understand that it's not as simple as that, because we're not talking about a simple and equal switch of positions. There is no equivalent history to that of male violence against and oppression of women. There is no equivalent culture of objectification and dehumanisation of the male form. It's just not the same. People get uncomfortable seeing women in positions of sexual submission to men because it's too close to what is still sadly really going on out there at times - rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, enslavement, trafficking. But what is really, really important to remember is that the existence of the latter should not lead to the censorship or condemnation of the former. That does not help any of us. Treating content, consenting adult women like they need to be protected does not help protect the women who really are in danger. Assuming that women don't know what they really want or like and sneering oh my god how could they really be comfortable doing such a thing merely echoes the voices of misogynists who want to portray us as brainless playthings and then use that to excuse their violence against their female form. 

It's tricky, though. I'd still probably be on the side of the mall cop who thew the couple out, because I do believe in a time and a place for things, and I think it's disingenuous to imply that there isn't at least some kind of sexual element to collar/leash play. Even if it's not sexual for that particular couple, it's undeniably BDSM-themed, and definitely originates from a place that's going to be tricky to explain to kids - or, for that matter, a lot of older people (trying to explain the BDSM acronym to my mum, who's in her 60s, has been fun - she's asked me on about 6 occasions to remind her what it stands for and what it actually means). I don't subscribe to the argument that "Kids are going to see it and think that's how it's OK to treat women," because that kind of epistemic leap involves enough mental gymnastics when you're an adult, let alone for a child. Listening to The Prodigy's Firestarter at age 12 didn't make me believe that arson was a great idea, reading The Story of O at age 19 didn't make me think that it was normal or expected that a woman should run off and submit to a palace full of perverts, and no one or ten or hundred images makes a child think it's OK to treat a woman like crap. With regards to the mall couple, I do generally agree that it runs counter to BDSM ethics to inflict kink play on an unsuspecting public, although I wonder if Travers Beynon's Instagram feed comes with any kind of warning. I'd guess that the type of people who want to follow him are probably used to, ready for, or actively seeking the kind of images he puts out there. I probably have more truck with those criticising him, who are happy to reproduce his images with no kind of warning just so they can add a disapproving commentary, therefore giving more exposure to depictions of women that they claim to find demeaning.

***To read more essays on BDSM, feminism and pop culture, check out my new book "Thinking Kink," which is now out in the US and the UKAvailable in both paperback and eBook***

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