Public Disgrace is an online pornography series that advertises itself as “women bound, stripped, and punished in public.” It is the creation of a 30-year-old San Francisco–based porn director and dominatrix named Princess Donna Dolore. Princess Donna conceived of the project in 2008, during her fourth year of working for the pornography company Kink.com. In addition to directing, Donna performs in the shoots, though she is not usually the lead.
Emily Witt, quoted above, attended a shooting of Public Disgrace and wrote about what she saw. It’s an excellent, although lengthy, article, and I’d recommend settling in a comfy armchair, with a nice cup of coffee, before reading it. (Unless you’re squicked or triggered by explicit descriptions of public BDSM sex. Also, if you’re reading from a desktop computer, I guess the armchair thing might not be practical for you.)
Some of the conservative bloggers I read regularly have been having a debate about Witt’s article: Rod Dreher, Noah Millman (disagreeing with Dreher), Alan Jacobs, Millman (again), Dreher (again), Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Conor Friedersdorf (disagreeing with all but Noah), Dreher (again), Gobry (again, and doing a much better job of incorporating kindness and empathy into his thoughts this time), and Friedersdorf (again).
One thing that’s striking, reading the comments of the conservatives (excluding Millman and Friedersdorf), is that these folks have not learned anything from being so utterly wrong about homosexuality for the last fifty years, least of all humility or kindness. Which is unfortunate, because in fact many of these writers are saying interesting and humane things about topics that matter (loneliness, for example), but their reflexive contempt for sex that squicks them makes them hard to read.
It seems to me that when you call such behavior — I include the acts and the observation of them in this — “civilized” you have reduced the content of civilization to a single element: consent.
But this would mean, among other things, either than self-degradation isn’t uncivilized or that there is no such thing as self-degradation. I strongly disagree with both of those points. I think the people who act as Princess Donna does and as Penny and Ramon and the others do are pursuing, consciously or not, absolute degradation, and are publicly debasing sexuality in the process. They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made. I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways.
If we didn’t know the context was BDSM porn, the above could easily be an argument against homosexuality. Indeed, it is virtually identical to the arguments in favor of sodomy laws Christian Conservatives like Robert George made in the 1980s.
And it’s identical for the same reason, which is that “degradation” is a useful word for someone who is disgusted by other people’s consensual sex, and who has turned that disgust into contempt, but can’t describe a plausible mechanism by which the sex they find so icky leads to harmful consequences. Look, this bad sex that I find gross is immensely destructive! How do I know it’s so destructive? Well, it’s leading people to have bad sex that I find gross!
Similarly, here are some of Dreher’s reactions to the Witt article:
I warn you in the strongest possible terms: Do not click through to this Emily Witt essay on n+1 unless you can stomach descriptions of extremely pornographic acts. There are no pornographic images, but the acts described are beyond the beyond. [...] Reading the part I’ve just quoted, then this one, is like swimming from one island to another through a lagoon of raw sewage. [...] The thing that stands out to me in this Witt piece is not so much that human beings do vile things to each other, but that the most free and richest people in the history of humankind use their liberty to degrade each other and to choose to be degraded in ways that would get them arrested or confined to mental institutions if they did it to animals.
Christian Conservatives feel disgust, and then, in an attempt to rationalize their disgust, decide that their disgust comes straight from God. Their inability to put a finger on what, exactly, the harm is should be a signal to them that they might be mistaken, but instead it causes them to double down. This is exactly the mistake they once made with homosexuality, and even those Christians who no longer endorse anti-gay views are eager to repeat the same mistake in other areas.
(And by the way, notice that the crucial distinction between tying up a human and slapping her, and doing the same thing to an animal – that the human, in this example, has eagerly consented and says she loves what’s happening – doesn’t even seem to be on Dreher’s radar screen in this post.)
The idea of humility – that maybe they’re not qualified to sneer at other people’s needs and choices, and that maybe not every little emotional knee-jerk they feel is a reflection of God’s holy priorities – doesn’t seem to occur to them.
Gobry writes the most hilariously condescending sneer at another human I’ve read all year:
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 lack of self-awareness it took to write that sentence is awesome. (But I’m not casting stones.)1
After reading all of that, Friedersdorf’s “defense of consent as a lodestar of sexual morality” was a breath of fresh air. Here’s a lengthy quote, but I hope folks will read the whole thing, and also the followup.
My generation doesn’t treat consent as a lodestar merely because consent permits pleasurable sexual activity that more traditional sexual codes would prohibit. The ethos of consent is regarded as a lodestar because its embrace is widely seen as an incredible improvement over much of human history; and because instances when the culture of consent is rejected are superlatively horrific. The average 30-something San Franciscan has had multiple friends confide to them about being raped, and multiple friends confide about participating in consensual BDSM. Only the former routinely plays out as extreme trauma that devastates the teller for decades. Little wonder that consent is treated as the preeminent ethos even by many who suspect that transgressive sex like what Witt describes is ultimately unwise or even immoral.
Let us imagine that, 50 years hence, we have a society where the ethos of consent and attendant norms of sexual conduct have triumphed so completely that rape is as rare as cannibalism. Everyone would regard that as a civilizational triumph. Would it be a bigger or smaller triumph of sexual mores than a culture where consent was valued exactly as much or little as it was in 1950, but BDSM and kink, extreme or tame, was so widely rejected as to render it as rare as cannibalism? That I’d strongly prefer the former triumph explains why I cannot agree with Alan Jacobs when he writes of the San Francisco pornographers, “I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways.”
I think rapists are far more uncivilized, and that every champion of consent, however myopic they are about other moral norms they ought to follow, are trying to build “structures of thought and practice that harness humankind’s sexual instincts and direct them in socially up-building ways.” Consent isn’t, after all, entirely separable from other widely accepted norms of civilized behavior. Taking it seriously means refusing to watch certain types of porn (the hidden up-skirt camera, for example); it means being forced to conceive of every potential sexual partner as an autonomous individual with inherent worth and desires so important that they frequently trump yours; it means, in at least that one respect, treating other people as you’d want to be treated.
None of that means one must approve of the acts described in the San Francisco basement. I happen to think it doesn’t in fact threaten civilization, that transgressive sex cannot, by definition, become the norm. Others may differ, and I’m just guessing there; but it is to say that, whatever you think of the porn shoot, the scattered, unconsensual sex that went down in the Bay Area that night was more worthy of condemnation, more uncivilized, more destructive and less moral.
Reading Witt’s essay, I don’t think the problem she’s struggling with is that she’s willing to have sex outside of marriage, or that she can witness BDSM porn being shot (and notice the obvious trust, affection and kindness going on between the director and performer) without considering herself superior because that’s not the kind of sex she’s into. Her problem, judging from what she writes in this article, is that she’s lonely.
It is reasonable, I think, to see this as a social problem, because there aren’t enough structures which provide connection. Our society lacks a safety net for loneliness. One legitimate solution to this problem is marriage, and another is the Church. But these are not the only legitimate solutions to the problem of loneliness, nor are they one-size-fits-all solutions.
And to the extent that Christians encourages knee-jerk judgementalism, the Church becomes less effective at fighting loneliness and alienation. There are plenty of people who feel like lonely outcasts within Church communities (a problem that’s especially common among Church folk who have strong desires for non-mainstream, non-hetero sex), and plenty who feel like lonely outcasts within marriage. (In his second post, Gorby steps away from saying “if you feel lonely, just stop having per-maritial sex and join the Church!,” and I appreciated that.)
There’s a lot more to be discussed here – Witt’s article is lengthy, and multifaceted, and about much more than porn, and the responses I’ve criticized are about more, too – but this is already long enough for one post.
- By the way, I hope readers won’t form a judgement on Gorby based only on those two sentences. Gorby can write with a great deal more kindness and empathy than those two sentences indicate; they just were too funny not to quote. [↩]