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Is extreme but consensual sadism immoral?
January 2, 2010 3:44 PM   Subscribe

What is a good argument for the immorality of terribly sadistic but ultimately consensual sex, from a secular perspective?

In another online community I participate in, it is common for people with unusual and interesting life experience to post about it and invite questions from other users. Recently, someone into BDSM posted.

He confessed that he liked "to see women crying, bleeding and worse". When pressed to elaborate, he added that he has been "involved with things such as cutting, branding, piercing, bone-breaking, head-shaving, and more". All, of course, completely consensual.

Now, I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to sexual kinks, including BDSM, but I have a very strong moral intuition that what he does crosses a line and is terribly, terribly wrong.

I can't, however, justify it very well. I tried, and the best I could do was a very convoluted argument. I conjectured that many of his partners were victimized at one point, and that this somehow makes their consent non-relevant, since they are motivated by trauma rather than authentic, autonomous desire.

It's not a very strong argument, and I'd like to be able to do better. But if you think I'm being prude and moralistic, I'd like to hear your reasoning, too.
posted by limon to Religion & Philosophy (61 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds like what he describes could be illegal.

Some folks in my state were convicted of assault and IIRC got jail time for just such stuff-they claimed it was consensual but their "victims" claimed assault. If one of his partners chose to bring up charges against him he might be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Not exactly a prooftext of his actions being immoral, but definitely on the side of his actions being stupid in the extreme.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:57 PM on January 2, 2010


I can't speak to the morality of it, and I do know practices like blood sports and etc. exist, but I'd be wary of buying into anything anyone posts on Reddit. There are a lot of sexually frustrated fifteen year old nerds posting there.

Morality - I don't know. I guess I wouldn't consider it immoral. It skeeves me out some, but your argument that the women may have been abused and that explains their participation so the other partner has some responsibility doesn't resonate; it's not the responsibility of everyone to second guess their sexual partner's life history, in fact it's kind of a paternalistic instinct, which is a good thing to avoid sexually.

So all's fair, I guess. There are people out there who are into poo. I wouldn't say it's immoral. I would say they probably spend a fair amount of time doing laundry.

I guess I could speak to the morality of it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Consensual is consensual. You have no reason to make assumptions about the mental health or motivations of the hypothetical partners of a guy making an internet post, or to discount their ability to make their own decisions. I mean, it's not my thing either, but without a lot more, very specific information that no one but him and his partners are likely to have, it's not my place to judge either.

I may be way off base, but: How do you feel about, say, men who like to have their balls stomped by high heels? Does the gender reversal make a difference?
posted by cmoj at 4:00 PM on January 2, 2010


You could be old fashioned, and ask the person what makes this sort of "terribly sadistic" consensual sex virtuous, but that won't get you very far in today's philosophical environment.

I think you're on the right track with your argument about the mental states of those who willingly submit to such treatment. When it comes to such extreme behavior, I would argue that an extremely high burden is placed on the dominant party to ensure that the submissive individual is emotionally and intellectually healthy. Otherwise, this is just a case of exploiting someone who is unwell.

Why would a rational person take pleasure in submitting to branding or bone-breaking? If your friend can't supply a convincing answer, he should provisionally assume that the "consensual" submissive party offers his/her consent based on unsound emotions or assumptions, and he should refrain from engaging in such activities. A good question to ask would be: is this behavior of a sort that the submissive party would, on later reflection, regret deeply?
posted by BobbyVan at 4:02 PM on January 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure what your argument should be, but it would either have to find some metric by which to distinguish BDSM from consensual tattooing (and branding, as for instance some of the African-America college fraternities, in ways that seem to allude both to African tribal practices and to slavery), or you'd have to also argue that consensual tattooing (and branding) are immoral.

Perhaps one avenue would be to concentrate on the crying aspect -- our intuition tells us that crying is associated with pain fear and regret --, but would have to distinguish BDSM-provoked crying from any examples of "crying from joy" -- from relief or surprise or simply overwhelming good feelings. And certainly, some people like to cry -- they watch "Old Yeller" or get tears in the eyes from patriotic music or when Shane, mortally wounded, rides off into the sunset.

I think we can distinguish pain crying from sentimental or joyful crying, but then we still need to deal with the underlying problem: the person who consents to BDSM, feels real pain, cries real tears from that pain, and then signs up for more.

Perhaps we can condemn BDSM by referencing the German fellow who so wanted to engage in sexual cannibalism that he consensually joined in consuming his own cooked penis before allowing himself to be killed that the rest of him might be consumed, or the woman who met a man on the internet for the purpose -- which was achieved -- of having herself sexually tortured until she died of it. Perhaps "consent" doesn't apply if you're no longer around to enjoy the outcome -- but this would also mean that religious martyrs are suicides, and that the hero who throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers is somehow not consenting. (We can argue here about selfishness or larger societal goals of self-sacrifice.)

But ultimately, if we believe in "our bodies, our choice" as an axiom, it's difficult to draw lines that are not arbitrary.
posted by orthogonality at 4:03 PM on January 2, 2010


I'm pretty sure everything listed is legal, but that's irrelevent. Legal and moral are not synonyms; neither are illegal and immoral.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:03 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]



Why would a rational person take pleasure in submitting to branding or bone-breaking?


I don't think you can construct much of an argument based on that. Sexuality isn't rational, and people have all kinds of responses to totally pedestrian things (sexy nighties, etc etc etc) that aren't really rational, either.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


There were a number of years when I agreed with you, and with various people I tried to argue more or less what you are trying to argue here . Ultimately, I could never come up with a great argument and in my opinion that was because there is no defensible argument for controlling what people do consensually with each other - even when I happen to find what people do distasteful. For one thing, there is absolutely no way for an outsider to know what is happening in the heads of the people who we are assessing/judging/whatever, and further, even if we knew that say, the people involved were acting out traumatized childhoods or whatever, we have no way to know whether acting out "bad" feelings is somehow negative for them. Basically, we can't know what is helpful or harmful to anyone but ourselves, although it's a good bet that criticizing other people's sexual practices is probably not helpful to those people's emotional well-being. At least I can tell you that for sure when people judge or criticize my sexual behaviors, it feels pretty crappy to me.

Interestingly, after my early days as an anti-BDSM type, I've into BDSM myself, and I find my whole anti-SM background to be a good personal lesson on the value of examining my motivations when I feel the need to judge other people.
posted by serazin at 4:11 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even assuming your conjecture his partners were victimized in the past is true, how does that give you the right to decide whether their desires are authentic and autonomous now? Just because they were victimized once doesn't give you the right to deny them agency in their sexual decisions now. And the fact is you have no real evidence that they were abused at all.

"Why would a rational person take pleasure in submitting to branding or bone-breaking?" Because they get off on it. People take sexual pleasure from all sorts of things that don't seem rational, or indeed seem disgusting, to people that don't get off in the same way. If all parties involved consent then that's the end of the story so far as morality goes. When we start requiring higher bars of consent for things that squick us out, that's the moral wrong, and it's far more dangerous and destructive than any amount of kinky sex.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:14 PM on January 2, 2010 [13 favorites]


If an act is against one's strong moral intuition, they should not engage that act. I can't see why you'd have to justify your morals, unless said participant has invited you on a BDSM date, and you've already used the answer of "Sorry, I have to bathe the dog that night."

My reasoning is that one cannot possibly know what is in anyone's head but their own, and while in the same circumstances you as the author may want your "consent made non-relevant", it's very self-indulgent to assume that one's judgment should be applicable to everyone else on the planet.

That being said, while I haven't looked for the post in the IAmA forum, I'd also venture a guess that the poster might be eager for some attention, and likes leveraging his or her creative writing abilities to encourage lively debate. Take the bait if you wish.
posted by TuffAustin at 4:17 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reads false to me. Extreme piercing and even full-on crucifiction - sure! But bone breaking?? I'm not buying it.

There is a difference between what looks & feels extreme, but is actually pretty safe if done properly... and bone breaking. Dude.

If anything, I'm guessing the sadistic mindfuck there was posting about this type of uber-extreme stuff on the reddits and getting a rise out of folks!

FWIW - I want to comment that you are probably disturbed on a visceral level because what you related to us are the pleasures of a sadistic sociopath. Such types don't feel pleasure like most folks, hence, your squiginess... They are predators... What they are goes against the grain, or at least the better interests of civil society... (I'm not sure I'm saying that right, but perhaps some other mefite can come up with the technical or literary term for what I am trying to describe regarding your reaction? Anyone??)

I'm interested in seeing how this ask progresses, Cheers!
posted by jbenben at 4:24 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a reson in secular society that we prevent, say, minors from entering into contracts or mentally deficient people from standing trial. They're simply not able to make decisions in their best interests. One could make the case that consenting to permanent harm is indicative of mental illness, or at least the inability to make rational decisions about one's well-being.

Since the spectrum of fetishes goes right from harmless to fatal, I guess we draw some arbitrary line to prevent those at the radical end from doing things that will have serious, lasting consequences. We assume that their decision-making powers are impaired.
posted by klanawa at 4:51 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would have to go with it's not really consensual. Maybe I'm just a rube, but I don't see where someone in their right mind consents to having that done to them. There is something wrong with them, and even if there isn't, there is something wrong with someone who enjoys the pain in others. It would be different if it was "hey, let's break each others' fingers because we both enjoy it". But the scenario posited sounds fairly one sided.
posted by gjc at 4:54 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm actually not sure what I think about this, but I can muster a couple of philosophical arguments for why extreme sadomasochism might be immoral:

- It's not consensual unless the consent is truly informed. The person inflicting the pain can't know precisely what kind of damage they're going to cause - at least, not the first few times they do it. Without, say, a medical degree, (which brings its own problems in the form of the Hippocratic oath) they can't give their partner an accurate estimate of how long the injury will take to heal, or whether it will cause long-term disability. The person being hurt can't truly consent to an injury whose quality is unpredictable. They might be consenting to the vague idea of 'pain', but they're getting a complex fracture of their fibula with an agonising recovery and a lingering limp.

- People who consent to being injured during sex will eventually need health care. If their care is funded by the government or by insurance, strangers are essentially paying for their kinks. Even if they pay upfront, they're taking up doctors' time and potentially pushing other patients - those injured by mere chance - further down the waiting list. Whether or not sadomasochism is inherently immoral, I can understand both taxpayers and fellow patients wondering whether people who intentionally and repeatedly seek injury are the most deserving recipients of scarce health resources. As soon as a masochist joins the queue to see a doctor, they can no longer claim to be the only person affected by their kink.
posted by embrangled at 5:07 PM on January 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


I can't, however, justify it very well. I tried, and the best I could do was a very convoluted argument. I conjectured that many of his partners were victimized at one point, and that this somehow makes their consent non-relevant, since they are motivated by trauma rather than authentic, autonomous desire.

I don't think it's a convoluted argument, but it is false. Without knowing the content of a person's consent, it is only possible for you to say "no right person would consent to this, therefore anybody who consents is somehow not right". Some people may actually be incapable of consenting to certain acts in a socially acceptable way, and some acts may never receive consent from people we would judge as capable of giving it. But without specific knowledge, the boundary is only where you set it according to your own moral feeling.

It's a struggle to find an argument that doesn't impinge upon the individual's right to dispose of their body as they wish. The argument cannot come from outside the individual, as the motivations or interests of others may not be shared. Focussing on the person's own motivations for consent is best, and perhaps orthogonality's idea of not being able to consent to something you won't be around to sexually enjoy at the very least puts an outer limit on the issue.

Perhaps a further limit could be around the issue of trust and expectation. BDSM involves a great deal of trust with your partners, and you expect them to do certain things in certain ways, in agreement with how you've consented. Even though we can consent to acts that have possible consequences beyond what we might want (say the possibility of death during surgery), it could be morally ambiguous for a person to act when they are unsure of the outcome. A doctor has a reasonable (or at least measurable) belief that they can act the way they say they will in performing surgery to achieve the desired outcome. Yet a BDSM partner may be overstepping their competence in performing an act for which they cannot honestly know they will be able to assure the outcome.

There are probably objections to this: that many BDSM practitioners are skilled and experienced, and that many acts do not carry the kinds of risks we assume. Yet on the assumption that a person doesn't want to be killed during BDSM, it may be that most extreme acts break the possibility of trust as the acting partner cannot offer to perform with the expectation required. I suppose this is a long way of simply saying, "some things just aren't safe", which I think is an acceptable summary of the argument.
posted by Sova at 5:10 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Or what embrangled said. Should've previewed...
posted by Sova at 5:11 PM on January 2, 2010


It's not consensual unless the consent is truly informed.
This is the first plausible and coherent moral argument I've seen about this. But then, what if they understand this risk?

People who consent to being injured during sex will eventually need health care.
I can see where this comes from, but by that logic, playing recreational sports is also morally wrong.
posted by cmoj at 5:18 PM on January 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


Why focus on the injured party to determine the morality of the Reddit poster's actions? Just because someone asks him to injure them doesn't mean he has to do it. Certainly he could draw his own lines as to how far to go (refusing to risk permanent injury through bone-breaking, for example). Furthermore, his independent desire to see women "crying and bleeding" deserves some scrutiny. It's not, "My girlfriend wants me to try hurting her; should I?" It's, "I like making women bleed and cry." Yeah, that's freaking disturbing.
posted by palliser at 5:31 PM on January 2, 2010


Reading this thread makes me think about how it relates to suicide. There are reasons it's illegal (in some places at least), not least of which is the view that if you're attempting suicide you must not be of sound mind. Not to turn this into a thread about suicide, but I wonder if that twinge you're feeling is a similar idea that, though it's officially consensual, you doubt the partner's ability to consent.

Full disclosure: my reasons for being put off to this sort of thing are based elsewhere, but I'm not coming from the secular perspective you are. Now, I would argue that that "twinge" you're getting isn't based in the secular, either, but that's another thread :)
posted by monkeymadness at 5:31 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could argue that there are fundamental moral limits to consent and the acceptance thereof. For example, if a young woman consented to be permanantly sold into slavery to pay her parents' debt, and I purchased her, would that be morally OK on all fronts? If later she refused to do things, despite having been permantly sold, would that be wrong on her part? After establishing that a fundamental limit exists, it's just a matter of arguing about where that limit lies.

You could argue that it's fundamental to BSDM consent that said consent can be withdrawn at any time. And hence that causing people permanant injuries is wrong, as you can't stop the injury hurting them if they withdraw consent. Of course, it's difficult to disapprove of sexual tatooing/piercing without also disapproving of non-sexual tatooing/piercing

You could argue that it's wrong to take advantage of a mentally ill person who wants to engage in self-destructive behaviour; and that someone who wants their own bones broken is mentally ill. That if my girlfriend asked me to break her bones, I should encourage her to see a doctor, rather than breaking her bones. You'll need to adopt a broad enough definition of 'mentally ill' to encompass whatever it is you want to argue against; easier for bone-breaking than for tatooing/piercing

You could compare a relationship including consentual bone-breaking BSDM to a physically abusive relationship in which the abused party chooses not to leave the abuser (you could say the abused party implicitly consents by going back for more). You could draw some analogies involving power and fear, comparing a BSDM submissive's proclivities to the reasons an abused spouse might stay with their abuser; then you could say both cases are equally morally wrong on the part of the abuser/domiant partner.

You could argue that people have a fundamental human right not to be tortured, beaten, or subject to degrading treatment; and then you could argue that fundamental rights cannot be wavied (using the example that someone can't consent to being sold into slavery) and it's immoral to violate them. Hence, torturing, beating, or humiliating someone is immoral. Of course, that implies you disagree with a large part of BSDM, not just the extreme stuff.

I'll admit that none of these arguments seem particularly compelling to me.
posted by Mike1024 at 5:40 PM on January 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


I am totally with you on being open-minded but being bothered by this particular statement. This isn't a very specific description of why, but there's just something about it that gives me the willies. Maybe it's the "or worse," and that the additional description seems a bit extreme even taking into consideration the BDSM factor. The first thing I wondered was if this was someone who has or is about to cross the line, and if the assertion of it being consensual could be false, or if what he's describing starts as consensual, but he continues when consent is revoked. That also introduces the issue of what our ethical obligation is when coming across something like this when you are uncertain of the veracity of what's being said. It's a tough call.

Maybe you could object to the misogyny implied by the "to see women crying, bleeding, or worse," part of his description. Because certainly there are women who engage in consensual non-sexual behavior that is rooted in their partner's misogynistic attitudes. Sometimes we might even describe those interactions as emotional abuse, and just because she's subjecting herself to that dynamic, doesn't mean that her partner isn't still a misogynistic jerk, and most people have ethical objections to misogyny.
posted by katemcd at 5:41 PM on January 2, 2010


This guy sounds a little hair-raising to me, too. It's just hard for me to imagine the mindset of someone who would want to have their bones broken; it seems so incredibly far from my own mental state, and of course I'd like to think of myself as "normal". This "normality" bias of mine leads me to the thought that the number of partners out there who would truly consent to such a thing in a mature, informed manner must be much smaller than the number of partners who would consent in an unhealthy, uninformed manner.

But I have to recognize that that's my own bias talking; I don't really know the numbers involved. Maybe my intuition is right about the unlikeliness of his claim, or maybe more people are into that kind of thing than I realize. Regardless, I must admit that it's possible that some person exists out there who truly enjoys these things and consents to them in a fully informed, meaningful way, and in such a case, it would be none of anyone's business.

Certainly you don't have to adhere to the moral principle that whatever goes on between consenting adults is fine. There are other principles out there, like the ones Mike1024 mentions. But if you do hold that principle, there can be nothing special about this case.
posted by equalpants at 6:06 PM on January 2, 2010


The radical feminist argument is that in a patriarchal society, where domination and violence are sexualised as a result of and for the benefit of patriarchy, true consent is impossible. In its strongest form this argument actually makes consent to all heterosexual and some other kinds of sex impossible, but this is exactly the kind of example I would present as evidence when arguing the case.

Another angle: an argument for forbidding animal cruelty is that this may lead to cruelty towards humans. I see a clear parallel here -- stipulating for the moment that consent is possible here, what if practising (consensual) extreme cruelty tended to tempt to practitioner to non-consensual cruelty? Perhaps this would start with failing to truly ascertain consent, progress through identifying vulnerable and easily manipulated people, and finally cuminate in full-blown assault.

A third angle -- if we allow this, how will we identify true victims of sexual assault? The perpetrator will claim consent, perhaps coercing the victim into providing plausible evidence of consent beforehand such as letters or video testimony. There is a clear case for forbidding this practise (which harms a very minority of people, who may well have other outlets to get their rocks off) in order allow society to deter rapists.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:15 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, a counter to the notion of consent in advance being impossible, as posited above by embrangled -- this would make all kinds of medical procedures impossible. For example, no one can know what it's like to have major surgery without having had major surgery. If a genuine full knowledge were required for consent, I would never have had facial surgery, which hurt more and longer than I could possibly have imagined.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:18 PM on January 2, 2010


There are a lot of people out there who consider anal sex, gay sex and other things immoral. Some even consider sex for fun as opposed to procreation immoral. Just use whatever arguments they use. I've yet to hear a good one, which is why I think there's no reason for anyone to tell two consenting adults that anything they do to each other is wrong. If you want to have anal sex and you're both into it, go for it. If you want to have sex with someone who is the same sex as you and you're both into it, go for it. If you want to have sex with someone who hits you while you have sex and you're both into it, go for it. Who are you to tell someone that they can't do something they like simply because it grosses you out? There's probably things you do that would gross someone out and you wouldn't appreciate them imposing their squeamishness on you, would you?

FWIW, I've heard of it all aside from consensual bone breaking, but I'm sure there's people out there who are into it.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:28 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I conjectured that many of his partners were victimized at one point, and that this somehow makes their consent non-relevant, since they are motivated by trauma rather than authentic, autonomous desire.

I think you're close to a decent argument here, but it works better if you focus on mental illness rather than trauma. A person who has been severely traumatized in the past may be more prone to mental illness, but they're not perfectly correlated. A person who has been traumatized may be mentally fine, and people who have had no major trauma in their lives may suffer from mental illness.

Now we turn to the suicide analogy monkeymadness brought up. The vast majority of people who commit suicide suffer from depression or other mental illness. At the same time, some people who commit suicide may be level-headed and thinking clearly, and the decision to commit suicide may even be a rational one.

Now, some people believe in the right to choose the manner of ending one's own life. But even people who believe that, I posit, would recommend intervening if someone threatened to kill themselves, unless they were fairly certain that the person were not mentally ill. Because the majority of suicides are not thinking clearly, it's reasonable to make the assumption that someone threatening to kill themselves is mentally ill, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, and to stop them, even to the point of physically restraining them—even if one believes in the right of people generally to end their own lives. That doesn't mean that every potential suicide is mentally ill, but because the vast majority are, we go with that assumption until we are reasonably convinced otherwise.

So, the argument would go, the same applies to the cases you describe. Even if a few clear-thinking people would want to be cut, have their bones broken, etc., most people who would want such a thing are suffering from mental illness, so we make the assumption that they are until we are reasonably convinced otherwise, and should not indulge such wishes.

[One possible line of counterargument would be that we take such extreme measures to prevent suicides because suicide is irreversible, while cuts and even broken bones can heal in time, so the analogy does not hold.]
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:43 PM on January 2, 2010


Whether some action is moral or immoral isn’t solely determined by whether an action was consented to. The only people who believe that consent should be the sole criteria for determining the morality of an action are libertarians. And since so few people are libertarians, I think this indicates that most people believe that other factors besides some one saying “yes, I agree to this” matter in determining whether some action is moral (and permissible). The paper, Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron, by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Thaler, makes some interesting points about the murkiness of the idea of consent:

in many domains, people lack clear, stable, or well-ordered preferences. What they choose is a product of framing effects, starting points, and default rules, leaving the very meaning of the term “preferences” unclear.
...
[W]e emphasize the possibility that in some cases individuals make inferior decisions in terms of their own welfare -- decisions that they would change if they had complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and no lack of willpower

The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better, by their own lights, than the choices that would be made by third parties. This claim is either tautological, and therefore uninteresting, or testable. We claim that it is testable and false, indeed obviously false. Indeed we do not believe that anyone believes it on reflection. Suppose that a chess novice were to play a game of chess against an experienced player. Predictably the novice would lose precisely because he made inferior choices, choices that could easily be improved by some helpful hints. More generally, how well people choose is an empirical question, one whose answer is likely to vary across domains


posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 6:43 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hmm. I'm a bit uncomfortable with any of the arguments that rely on the victim and perpetrator's gender. Try this test: imagine that the participants were both lesbian women or gay men. Does that make the cutting, branding and bone-breaking moral and proper? Not to me. So I have to conclude that male violence towards women, and the patriarchal nature of society aren't the most important factors in the morality of this situation.

I think Mike1024 is on the right track - there are fundamental rights a person can't waive. To take things to an extreme, remember the S&M cannibal from Germany, Armin Meiwes? He killed and ate Bernd Brandes with Brandes' explicit consent. But I still think that a murder occurred, and that it is morally impossible for Brandes to consent to his demise.

In the case of the Reddit post, I think a few activities described may fail the Brandes Test. Bone-breaking almost assuredly, unless extremely small bones such as the pinkie and small toe were broken in ways that assured proper healing (tough to do). Cutting and branding may also cross the line, depending on the severity of the damage and the degree of permanent impairment, I guess. On the other hand, I'd have to conclude that reversible damage - such as minor cuts, small burns, hair shaving, etc. really can't be considered immoral, even though I do find them personally disturbing.

Another possible approach might be to consider whether society as a whole has a legitimate interest in preventing certain activities. Clearly, murder and involuntary human bondage are considered morally wrong, and military forces has been used to stop the latter. Along these lines, I'd argue that society has an interest in not letting anyone consent to having their bones broken. The victim would require medical treatment as a result, and in the U.S. health care costs are socialized, either via private insurance or via taxpayer-supported medicaid/medicare. This money is limited, and funds used to repair the voluntarily broken arm could have gone instead to a much needier person. This line of reasoning feels rather dispassionate and cold-blooded in light of the subject matter, but it also feels very defensible, morally, since it is completely neutral as to issues of consent.
posted by centerweight at 7:11 PM on January 2, 2010


Hell's bells. I somehow missed that embrangled had previously made my second point.
posted by centerweight at 7:15 PM on January 2, 2010


This money is limited, and funds used to repair the voluntarily broken arm could have gone instead to a much needier person. This line of reasoning feels rather dispassionate and cold-blooded in light of the subject matter, but it also feels very defensible, morally, since it is completely neutral as to issues of consent.

Defensible, perhaps, but socially very weak given the acceptance of activities like smoking and drinking.
posted by jacalata at 7:43 PM on January 2, 2010


Bone-breaking? Yeah, I guess it could happen, but I'd take that one with a grain of salt.

Causing permanent harm to someone with the excuse that the person consents, when that person is temporarily (or permanently) insensible* is immoral. If you know someone is exercising poor judgment, and you exploit that to benefit yourself, you're an asshole. Guess that's not a technical term, but I didn't go to a Jesuit high school or nothin'.

Of course, that's assuming the masochists/submissives involved are insensible. In some situations they are, in some they are not. I imagine the same scenario exists with vanilla sex. Sometimes it's really, really not cool even though it's technically consensual.


*(because they're like, really horny or you've seduced them with your supermanly dom voice, grrrr)
posted by kathrineg at 7:57 PM on January 2, 2010


centerweight: same-sex sexual violence is not incompatible with being a consequence of life in a patriarchy, which requires for its continuation both domination of men by other men and indeed domination of women by other women. In the radical feminist account (as I understand it) all sexual expression is potentially modified by patriarchal conditioning, not merely heterosex.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:57 PM on January 2, 2010


I didn't mention abuse because I don't see how that has anything to do with it. People who have been abused don't suddenly lose their capacity to consent, nor do they suffer permanently impaired judgment.
posted by kathrineg at 7:58 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Assuming that psychologically damaged people can't consent, and that we're hung up on consent as being the only factor: how does one ascertain that an apparently ok consenting person is not psychologically damaged?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:04 PM on January 2, 2010


I will start with quoting what my Master said to me upon my collaring.

"I WILL hurt you, but I will never HARM you."

We like a nice intensity, but not harming me includes him being able to stop if I even feel faint. And he does. I trust him completely because of him keeping his promise to me.


As far as breaking bones, fingers and toes and noses are NOT hard to break, and can generally be treated at home or with an office visit. If the Dom/me is paying for the medical, unless it's part of the agreement or scene that the sub pays, then it's on him.

It's hard to say exactly what does or SHOULD get someone's panties wet. It's different for everyone.

As far as speaking to your friend, just reiterate that as long as it IS consensual, and that proof of the consensuality is provable in a court of law (through contracts and agreements), that you won't take action to stop him. Let him know that you are open about this, but a bit concerned at the extremity he claims to be going to in his activities. Perhaps gently suggesting that a sub who is in good shape to "play" EVERY DAY is far more fun than the momentary thrill of breaking their bones.

I'm not sure about talking with the woman or women or men he is involved with. It could be overstepping to actually seek them out, but you might have an opportunity. Just let them know that you can be trusted as a nonjudgmental friend, and that if they feel they want or need help, that you can be trusted to be discreet.
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:26 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


i_am_joe's_spleen, that's my understanding of the radical feminist account too. I guess I tend to stay away from this line of argument because it seems to be begging the question. Yes, if we assume that the patriarchy exists and functions in the manner of the feminist critique, and if we assume that living in a patriarchy removes one's ability to consent to certain types of sex acts, they yes, it follows from these premises that the extreme bondage acts in question must be immoral. But there is considerable debate as to whether either premise is true.
posted by centerweight at 8:27 PM on January 2, 2010


i_am_joe's_spleen: "Assuming that psychologically damaged people can't consent, and that we're hung up on consent as being the only factor: how does one ascertain that an apparently ok consenting person is not psychologically damaged?"

The many issues involved in determining the nature of temporarily given consent lead me to conclude that doing anything to someone that is likely to lead to permanently lessened quality of life is immoral, whether or not consent is obtained.

Example, I would shave someone's head if I knew them decently well. I would not break their bone, because arthritis, loss of mobility, etc. are serious risks. I would never tattoo someone on their face or hands. Etc.

(Guess no one should impregnate anyone, either, under this particular standard I'm laying [laying?] out).
posted by kathrineg at 8:33 PM on January 2, 2010


Now, I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to sexual kinks, including BDSM, but I have a very strong moral intuition that what he does crosses a line and is terribly, terribly wrong.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why you're worrying so much about an issue which doesn't concern you. If you're not into it, then don't do it, no need to cast those who do as the abused and mentally ill and/or wrong.

Notice how most of the arguments here are concerned casting those into BDSM as mentally ill, damaged or focusing on the more extreme bone breaking and using that as argument against BDSM practices.

Bottom line, I don't think you have an argument, because they're consenting adults and that trumps everything. It doesn't matter if they've been abused or experienced trauma or never done BDSM before. They're adults, responsible for their own care and well being and to presume that these people can't take care of themselves is the more objectionable and degrading line of thought.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:40 PM on January 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


centerweight: it's not an argument I can make very convincingly on account of having a lot invested in being a man and wanting to continue to have sex with women, but you know, it is an answer to the question, so I thought I'd do my best.

BB: I'm pretty sure I've provided two arguments that don't hinge on capacity of the masochist partner, and in general, I side with the point made by Jasper Friendly Bear that there is more to it than consent.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:44 PM on January 2, 2010


this thread has been sticking in my craw all day and a lot of points i was going to make have been made, and better than i could say them. however, in the interest of having a voice and not silencing it when i feel uncomfortable (one of the things i'm working on for my own betterment) -

when i hear people say things like "I conjectured that many of his partners were victimized at one point, and that this somehow makes their consent non-relevant, since they are motivated by trauma rather than authentic, autonomous desire." it makes me angry.

in my past some assholes didn't care for my consent or my free agency which somehow in your mind makes you feel ok, moral even, about saying now that my consent is non-relevant because you can't understand my desires. do i like kinky shit because i was molested and raped? who the hell knows. but what i do know is that i'll be damned if i listen to a single other person tell me what is and isn't ok for me to feel and experience.

it's hard enough for people with difficult pasts to find love, trust, respect, and sexually pleasing situations without you trying to save them.
posted by nadawi at 10:17 PM on January 2, 2010 [14 favorites]


A Google search on Safe, sane and consensual and Risk-aware consensual kink might help you. As stated several times above, a key point in both approaches is free and informed prior consent.
posted by rjs at 11:00 PM on January 2, 2010


You could argue that it's inevitable that what adults do in the privacy of their bedroom will end up being publicly discussed - such as by means of reddit posts. And this public discussion affects society; it changes what is considered normal, what 'everyone does', and what people think it's reasonable to expect from their partners. For example, did you know genital shaving is a fashion? So even though genital shaving only goes on consensually behind closed doors, it inevitably still has an effect on society and the expectations placed on other people. Due to that, plus the categorical imperative, genital shaving is only moral for me if I'd be fine with lots of people doing it, and the changes to society that would result (i.e. people expecting their partners to be shaved).

Likewise, fetishising women crying and bleeding is only moral if I'd be fine with changing to a society where that is expected of women, and 'everyone does it'.

You can also use this as an argument against homosexuality.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:46 AM on January 3, 2010


I'm pretty sure I've provided two arguments that don't hinge on capacity of the masochist partner

Yeah, but they don't really work, IMO.

For instance, when you write "what if practising (consensual) extreme cruelty tended to tempt to practitioner to non-consensual cruelty?", that's all hypothetical and very general. I'm sure you could find an example of people who did go this route, but what of those who didn't, do they not matter? In short this argument ignores the individual in favor of general principles and continues the oppressive and restrictive thought process of the original poster.

Finaly, the other angle, "..if we allow this, how will we identify true victims of sexual assault?" trys to equate BDSM with sexual assault, which is odd as the situation was described as consensual. The argument sounds like it would be insulting to those who do practice and enjoy BDSM. Like much of this thread, it's coming from a point of ignorance where people are trying to apply their own standard of morality to others.

BDSM is weird to me. It's been weird since I first heard of it years ago. But since we have the internet, it's pretty easy to look up and find blogs by those involved in it and come to an understanding of why they do what they do. It seems like it's interconnected with love,trust, and the desire for a extremely close intimacy via exploring non traditional sexual fansties and roles. Though you and I may not agree with or fully understand various decisions and desires made by those into BDSM, ultimately we have to respect their choice and the right to make such choices.

the point made by Jasper Friendly Bear that there is more to it than consent

Here's part of what's he's quoting from:
The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better, by their own lights, than the choices that would be made by third parties.
First you have to define what "best interests" are and of course then you get into the fact that what's in the best interests of one person may not be in the best interests of another. Who gets to decide what those best interests are? When are those scales weighed? For instance, is a person has to choose between going to their dream school in a foreign land or staying with their dream love in a particular town, which answer is in their best interests? If they have a successful career and good marriage, was it better to go school? What if that marriage ends in divorce, was that decision still in"their best interests"?


As to the argument that consent isn't the sole factor in deciding whether an act is moral, I'd agree, but ask who gets to decide if the act is moral? Who's opinion matters more, the person doing the consenting or the third party judging the act who has never tried the act, but finds it repugnant?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:51 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who's opinion matters more, the person doing the consenting or the third party judging the act who has never tried the act, but finds it repugnant?

This proves too much, though, as it would draw in the German consensual-cannibalism case. I'll go ahead and come in as a third party who's never tried it, and say that it's immoral to drug another human being, bleed him to death in your bathtub, and then eat him, even if this was agreed to as a mutually satisfying act.

Why? Well, you could say the consequence of the act is permanent, so cannot be consented to, but as others have noted, that might drag in all kinds of things, like impregnating someone or performing plastic surgery on them. I think, in the end, you're back to the notion that, from the perspective of the "hurter," the possibility that someone who is consenting to something as extreme as bone-breaking will regret it later is very high -- so high that it's immoral to take advantage of that lack of good judgment (which may spring from all kinds of causes, no need to speculate or to deprive the person of autonomy more generally) for the hurter's own pleasure.
posted by palliser at 11:23 AM on January 3, 2010


I think, in the end, you're back to the notion that, from the perspective of the "hurter," the possibility that someone who is consenting to something as extreme as bone-breaking will regret it later is very high

it's immoral to drug another human being, bleed him to death in your bathtub, and then eat him, even if this was agreed to as a mutually satisfying act.

I find it interesting that on the scale of possible kinky acts, people are consistently highlighting the more extreme acts and using those acts a basis for their argument.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:53 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


BB: apropos focussing on extremes, I assumed that was because the poster specifically asked about an extreme case.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:04 PM on January 3, 2010


First you have to define what "best interests" are and of course then you get into the fact that what's in the best interests of one person may not be in the best interests of another. Who gets to decide what those best interests are? When are those scales weighed?

As a practical matter, all societies make (and have made) these types of decisions all the time. There are many things that adults are prevented from consenting to. You can’t consent to buying and selling many types of drugs. You can’t consent to selling your labour below the minimum wage. You can’t consent to having a non-licensed doctor perform surgery on you. There are also lots of things adults are forced to do whether they consent to or not: paying taxes; wearing seatbelts while driving; etc.

If giving consent was the be all and all of moral reasoning, then we wouldn’t see the types of restrictions on adult behaviour that we see in real life. The majority of people would find them morally objectionable. In general, people are comfortable using factors like risk to personal safety, economic efficiency, imbalances in negotiating power, etc., to override issues of consent in determining whether some activity should be allowed or not allowed. There isn’t much evidence that “they're consenting adults and that trumps everything” is a convincing argument for determining the morality of some action.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 12:06 PM on January 3, 2010


Case of Brown in the UK is a legal argument that one can't consent to assault. (wikipedia has some interesting links).

Counterargument: I can consent to you breaking my nose in a boxing ring, do I lose the ability to consent if I get off on it? How about if you do? I'm de facto consenting to assault when I jump in a moshpit, for that matter.

Another perspective to consider is whether you consider it OK for doctors to inflict harm on people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder. If it's OK for a doctor to do it, is it OK for (bluntly) a suitably-trained pervert who gets off on it?

I guess the salient factors are informed consent, permanent or severe harm (does it change your opinion if the state of the art in medicine advances?), and societal good versus individual rights (maybe there really are things which we can't allow people to consent to).

I would argue that the categorical imperative doesn't apply: just because I don't want kids doesn't mean I wish for human extinction.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:22 PM on January 3, 2010


There are many things that adults are prevented from consenting to. You can’t consent to buying and selling many types of drugs. You can’t consent to selling your labour below the minimum wage.

You can apply whatever moral argument you want as a third party or society, but the individual always retains the de facto right to ignore that morality in place of their own.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:03 PM on January 3, 2010


It's an interesting question, that I can't answer. But it might be worth considering in relationship to the morality of selling someone a drug like that generally leads to consuming physical or psychological dependency. Sure, its consensual, right, but it creates and reinforces a pattern of destructive behavior (bone breaking, for fuck's sake).
posted by Good Brain at 1:48 PM on January 3, 2010


A possible moral argument against this type of BDSM is the reinforcement of negative power paradigms that reflect a sick culture. Radical feminists have formed a number of arguments around this subject. While most may not agree with some of their more extreme positions (all porn is wrong, all BDSM is wrong, consent to heterosexual sex of any kind is impossible), these arguments could certainly be applied to the type of behavior you're talking about. It isn't relevant to these arguments whether or not the masochist partner is consenting; the issue is the moral responsibility of the sadist.

Basically, you can't engage in this kind of activity in a vacuum. In a rape culture that glorifies and excuses the violation and humiliation of women everywhere, from movies to magazines, from schoolbooks to courtrooms, is it really morally neutral to bring this same exact dynamic into the bedroom?
posted by Danila at 1:09 PM on January 6, 2010


a possible argument against Danila's is that the only people you're morally responsible to in the bedroom are the people you're in the bedroom with (with all the normal caveats of consent, age, and fidelity [if that's your bag]).

what if you reverse the genders - if the sadist is the female and the masochist is the male - the same argument of rape culture fails to hold water, yeah? because if feminism really is about equal rights, then i should have the right to submit to my partner if i chose.
posted by nadawi at 1:28 PM on January 6, 2010


the only people you're morally responsible to in the bedroom are the people you're in the bedroom with (with all the normal caveats of consent, age, and fidelity [if that's your bag])

The argument is that what occurs "in the bedroom" is both influenced by society and has cultural ramifications ("the personal is the political"). No one is immune, and in this case, the parallels to attitudes toward women in the larger society are very clear. Wanting to see women hurt, bleeding, and crying is misogyny. Wanting to hurt and humiliate them as much as possible is misogyny. Getting off on it does not make it *less* misogynistic. Do we have a responsibility to avoid perpetuating misogynistic attitudes and practices in our personal lives? Even in...the bedroom?

what if you reverse the genders - if the sadist is the female and the masochist is the male - the same argument of rape culture fails to hold water, yeah?

"What if you reverse the genders" is automatically problematic. As Nine Deuce wonders, I have to ask myself whether the practice would occur in a society that wasn’t characterized by male supremacy and the hatred of women, both of which tend to manifest as the mixture of sex and power.

The whole point is that the current male-supremacist power structure uses objectification and sexual violence as a tool to maintain dominance over women. So when a man comes along and says "I like to see women cry and bleed, it turns me on," it is worth examining in light of the fact that these kinds of attitudes are pervasive in this patriarchal culture (see, for example, these advertisements featuring hurt, dismembered, or dead women). Men and women live in a culture that glorifies male sexual violence against women. A man acting out the impulses of a sick culture deserves at least examination, if not approbation. It's not his "special kink" like a preference for cheese-less tacos or strawberry milkshakes.


if feminism really is about equal rights, then i should have the right to submit to my partner if i chose.

Well if the question is, "is this guy wrong," then the primary focus ought to be on his actions. Whether or not women in a patriarchal society can freely consent to engaging in activities that are misogynistic isn't really relevant to whether "I like to see women hurt and humiliated, and I like to break their bones and burn them because I get off on seeing them in pain" is hateful and misogynistic all on its own.

The interesting thing to me is that if this guy were just saying "I get off when women are hurt" the misogyny would be apparent. But since he is actually going out and engaging in these acts, the misogyny is lessened somehow?
posted by Danila at 9:01 PM on January 6, 2010


a possible argument against Danila's is that the only people you're morally responsible to in the bedroom are the people you're in the bedroom with

Given that we are having this conversation about what people do in their bedrooms, and that people are posting about what they do in their bedrooms on Reddit, I think it's fairly obvious that the effects of what those particular people do in the privacy of their own bedroom extend beyond the bedroom door.

I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss what people do in their bedrooms - only that it's disingenuous to publicly discuss what people do in their bedrooms and say their activities' effects are confined to the bedroom.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:02 AM on January 7, 2010


The argument is that what occurs "in the bedroom" is both influenced by society and has cultural ramifications ("the personal is the political").

This is also an excellent way to "prove" that homosexuality is wrong and immoral.

At some point, consenting adults have the right to give a finger to whatever society says should be going on in the bedroom and just let their freak flag fly.

The whole branding, breaking bones and seeing people (not just women) bleeding and crying still squicks me out and makes me immediately think "WTF is wrong with you people?!" but if that's their choice, then that's their choice.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:35 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would see a significant moral issue if any these partners have psychological issues that are the root of the consent. The bone breaking stands out as extreme and beyond consent given by a mentally stable person. Exploiting someone who giving verbal consent taking advantage of some emotional, psychological, or mental disability is no real consent. No consent is a significant moral issue.

Looking for a moral issue with a degree a sadism is a non starter. Blood letting used to be a medial procedure, head shaving is practiced by some peaceful sects, piercing is widely practiced by all kinds of people, and there is a whole body art from around branding.

The intentional bone breaking seems way out there and may indicate that the person giving consent is not competent to do so.
posted by empty vessel at 5:19 PM on January 7, 2010


This is also an excellent way to "prove" that homosexuality is wrong and immoral.

I don't see how that follows. For one thing, homosexuality is not confined to the bedroom. There are certainly social consequences to homosexual relationships, although most would argue that it is a good thing for society to embrace love in all its (consensual) forms.

In addition, in order for the comparison to be relevant, it would have to be shown that homosexual "attitudes" and behaviors are detrimental in some way, which is what I argued with regard to the attitudes and behaviors of sadists.

And then there's this story where a man is fooled into raping a woman when he thinks it's just "extreme but consensual sadism." He broke into her home, fought off her strenuous attempts to defend herself, tied her up, and raped her at knife point. In this case, he happened to be wrong because she wasn't the one who'd arranged the "kinky sex," but would it have been immoral otherwise?

Over at Jezebel commenters are arguing that the kind of man who would "do such a thing" is sick and wrong and therefore he has no excuse, but they're saying he should have stopped when he saw her crying. Mefites are arguing that he should have stopped at the "fear in her eyes" or because she was fighting back so hard. But the Reddit poster is just the kind of guy who, like the rapist in this case, would only be turned on by the kinds of things "reasonable people" might see as extreme.
posted by Danila at 5:58 PM on January 11, 2010


to use the craigslist story to argue against risk aware/safe sane consensual kink is like saying that gay sex should be illegal because it spreads AIDS, or matches should be illegal because of house fires, or craigslist should be shut down because of this and prostitutes, or gay marriage should be illegal because of tila tequila. while using the absolute worst examples to strengthen your position is a time honored tradition, it doesn't really pass the logical fallacy test.

to quote you: although most would argue that it is a good thing for society to embrace love in all its (consensual) forms. i
posted by nadawi at 2:00 PM on January 12, 2010


Danila: "In addition, in order for the comparison to be relevant, it would have to be shown that homosexual "attitudes" and behaviors are detrimental in some way, which is what I argued with regard to the attitudes and behaviors of sadists."

Please provide evidence that consensual sadistic/masochistic behaviors or attitudes are detrimental in some way. Or we have the same argument that can be made about sodomy. I also question the relevance of your newly-introduced example.
posted by kathrineg at 5:26 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think there's some relevance to the new example here. In a way, the existence of what we might call extreme BDSM leads to a sort of second hoop for a rape victim to jump through in order for the system to hold the accused responsible.

Say extreme BDSM didn't exist, or in any event were subject to strong moral condemnation. If an incident occurred such as was described in the FPP linked by Danila, there would be no question that this was rape, and that the person who carried it out should be jailed for rape.

But if, on the other hand, extreme BDSM such as described by the Reddit poster is considered acceptable, the state has to prove something more -- that the accused was not under a reasonable impression that the victim liked to be badly beaten, along with all the other things that happened to the woman in the FPP that I don't want to describe here but that almost all women would never, never want to experience, under any circumstances. The more widely accepted extreme BDSM is, the more likely a jury would be to consider "reasonable" the accused's belief that there was consent to the extreme violence of the assault.

And though these particular circumstances are super-rare, it's not so rare, really, for a defendant in a rape case to explain away bruises/choke marks/etc. with "she wanted it rough." The more it's considered acceptable to rough up a woman under certain circumstances, the harder it is for rape victims who've been roughed up to prove their case.

Not saying this is the only or even the most important consideration here, but that it's at least relevant.
posted by palliser at 12:21 PM on January 13, 2010


palliser, considering your argument, conversations like this one (and perhaps like the reddit thread, I haven't looked at it) would actually do more harm than private consensual sadistic activities.
posted by kathrineg at 8:53 PM on January 13, 2010


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