Monday, November 08, 2004

Slavery and social consent 

There's an interesting article here about BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism) and feminism. The feminism question itself isn't that interesting, because failing to see that those involved in BDSM could be feminists just misconstrues what BDSM is. I'm suspicious of female sex slaves who say they're feminists, but then I've never been persuaded out of a belief in false consciousness theories (i.e. in this case mentioned in the article I don't believe that 'Bailey' submitted to her master in full rationality, since he'd had some element of power over her since her teens).

What's interesting, though, is the distinction made by the dominatrix in the article between sexual submissives, who submit themselves habitually, and slaves, who submit themselves in advance, forever. There must be something wrong with this. Whatever the slave says, they cannot always escape this sort of relationship if their consent is withdrawn, because the whole apparatus of their lives has been established to enforce their submission. Similarly, if the simulated rape involved in some communities becomes real, what distinction can be made other than in the head of the victim?

If we were to accept that such relationships can be valid, then we could all too easily reach regressive arguments which, rejecting false consciousness, say that slaves more generally can willingly give themselves up in advance. If we reject that, as has been done admirably by many theorists for a long time, then we should probably reject the sexual case too. However, in rejecting that, we jeopardise relationships of ongoing but repeated, not permanent, consent - where the sexual submissive says in each instance that they wish to continue - which at least some of us might be less willing to do. We jeopardise them because this further distinction between repeated consent and general consent is just as hard to make as the others, particularly when simulated non-consensual acts are involved.

Should the whole idea of a BDSM relationship then be rejected, allowing only for ad hoc or occasional acts between strangers and acquaintances? Saying this involves entering into whole sorts of problematic areas regarding the rights of the majority to say that, though we accept others' right to engage in such acts, we reserves for ourselves the right to regulate them how we want. Liberals might baulk at this, but then we've entered into a very interesting area indeed.

Is the whole concept of liberal egalitarianism incoherent? In refusing to allow sexual or any other sort of slavery, we in a sense force someone to be equal, just as much as we 'force them to be free'. We are saying to them that we cannot accept them as people who've subjugated their will to others, who've allowed themselves to be placed on a lower rung of society. And there's a whole area of supposedly liberal concern of this sort which actually involves coercive acts of equality-enforcement. The really liberal concerns, to allow people to enter into the sorts of lives they want as individuals, regularly leads us to problematic areas such as this, and it's very tempting to say that this is because equality necessarily involves some act of coercion, and that if we decide in favour of equality we should bite the bullet and say so.

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