Home > Uncategorized > 30 Days of Kink: Day 11

30 Days of Kink: Day 11

What are your views on the ethics of kink?

There are, again, a couple of ways that I read this question. The first is practical: how does one engage in kink without entering into the realm of abuse or harm? Consent and communication are important, obviously, but not sufficient: a couple of inexperienced, uninformed kinky folks can consent enthusiastically and communicate their plans in detail, but if they don’t learn how to do activity X safely, create a controlled environment, and prepare for things to go wrong, someone’s going to end up treed by an angry alligator.


Not that I’d know. . .

I’m a fan of RACK (risk-aware consensual kink) because hey, BDSM entails certain risks to both physical and mental health. It would be irresponsible to engage in fire play without a fire extinguisher and/or fire blanket, for an obvious example. Humiliation can create vulnerability and (at least for me) comes with elaborate and sometimes contradictory aftercare needs. But what about a simple mistake? Say a top is practicing with a new belt and misjudges, hits a few inches away from where she intended? It’s an honest mistake, one that doesn’t do any damage, but it’s frightening. Trust can be shaken. And handling it wrong, by blaming or being overly defensive or otherwise not being completely calm and caring will make it worse.

Not that I’d know that either. . .

In an ideal world, the risks can bring the need for consent and communication to the forefront. When talking about sex is non-optional, it gets done. Sometimes awkwardly or shyly or not as well as it might be, but it’s at least a given within the kinky subculture that the typical vanilla pattern of just trying to slowly escalate physical interaction until your partner objects will not fly. You can’t just start whipping someone if a date goes well. You have to talk about it.

The other reading, which I do think about quite a lot, is: Is kink inherently immoral? How does one reconcile the desire to harm and be harmed, to take even a part of one person’s will or autonomy and give it to another, with such basic philosophical tenets as “suffering is wrong” and “man’s free will is sacrosanct”? Is it self-deluding to believe that consent and desire are sufficient to bring the facts of BDSM into a moral framework? Are we all in fact Sadean and fatalistic, unconsciously resisting the fear of suffering and mortality by choosing to master pain and risk in a way we can control?

Ethics are not nearly as simple as many people seem to think. Several aspects of kink run into problems if you run them by e.g. Kant, even if we choose to ignore his extraordinarily conservative views on sex generally. So let’s set aside his belief that sex is dehumanizing. Good, glad that’s out of the way. Now can we universalize the maxims central to BDSM? This probably depends on how we express them. Let’s try “It is acceptable to respect another person’s consent.” This looks good to me; universalize it and no one gets violated in any way ever again. But when you specify D/s it gets harder. “It is acceptable to act according to another person’s will” would express submission pretty benignly (Kant would not call it benign: it violates the autonomy of mind), for instance, but if that statement is universalized then no one’s actions are according to his own will and society falls apart. On the other hand, this could be a semantic issue caused by my inability to correctly formulate the maxims to describe the relationship.

Or to put it more succinctly, I need a t-shirt that says “I majored in philosophy and all I got was this crippling sense of doubt.”

  1. January 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    well as long as its between two consenting adults. Then what goes goes…now if they are novice, then a little research and practice is needed. There’s a whole community online where they ask questions, some adult stores have open nights where they will show rope tying and such. So it depends on the couple and how “open” they are willing to be to seek info. Now the mental part is hard as the top can say alot of things to “break” a person, but you need that aftercare to bring the person back into a loving and secure reality.

    • gingernic
      February 8, 2013 at 11:43 am

      I would add that even a non-novice needs continual practice and research. This is not an area for complacency. I love that the club I’m a member of has communication facilitation groups, toy making workshops, rope and grappling workshops, and occasional other classes.

      Aftercare can be tricky. People–myself included–don’t tend to negotiate aftercare the same way they would a scene. Some people want water and quiet and stillness, some need cuddling and sweet words, some bottoms don’t need or want any traditional aftercare (I don’t, unless there’s humiliation or mind games or a scene goes wrong), some tops do (It’s how I keep from feeling like a terrible person after hurting someone.) It feels like an afterthought, but it’s actually an important conversation to have before the scene.

      • February 8, 2013 at 11:49 am

        Yep, advice that I’ll surely follow!

  2. January 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Putting so much thought and words to this. I think it is worth it. There are no absolutes in philosophy. Doubts may often exist but when you are aware of more alternatives and their scopes, then you are better equipped to be rational with issues.
    Lovely post!

    • gingernic
      January 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Huh. I actually used Kantian deontology as an example because it is an absolute measure of ethics with a firm rational basis. The problem with it is that it’s impractical, and not very human. Then again, I think the doubt and anxiety are a big part of avoiding complacency and constantly reevaluating myself (oh, hi Kierkegaard) so that’s a good thing maybe, if a bit stressful.

  3. writingthebody
    January 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    We struggle to do better than mutual consent – but you are right to say there are limits. I feel as though the struggles we all go through in kink (such a cute word for such a diversity of practices, it hides them to some extent) – those struggles are always ethical it seems to me. Feelings that pull us one way, to the point of madness, can hurt others – and I have a pretty keen sense of the damage I as a masochist have done over the years. And I guess the journey is always one towards ethics, even if we cannot arrive. The very idea of punishment has some kind of ethical frame behind it somewhere.

    But I think Schopenhauer is the one who nailed it, not Kant. S understood that we delude ourselves in our rationalisations, and that humanity is for the most part driven. Freud took that in some silly directions afterwards, so I prefer the Will and idea version of. In this respect, weirdly, it is as if by enacting our desires, we force our own rational minds to bear witness to them – and to their weakness. Kant’s answer, I guess is that the blockers – RACK etc – can supply limits. But I do not believe that, not really, not when I feel the surge, not when I give in to it. I feel rather as if a part of the universe is out of control, and that I am right at its centre, ablaze, reckless, insane..

    • gingernic
      February 8, 2013 at 11:52 am

      It’s worth noting that it’s impossible to live as a social animal, even without any BDSM, without hurting other people. Knowledge is imperfect, needs are incommensurate, hurt is part of being human. I actually find BDSM comforting in that many people involved in it understand this and there’s more awareness and dialogue about reducing damage within the scene than among the general population.

      I actually never read any Schopenhauer. Can you elaborate? I’ve also come across an interpretation by Lacan that suggests that De Sade was in a sense Kantian, and that the insanity of the world is what makes sadism morally acceptable. Not sure I go for it, but it’s interesting.

      • writingthebody
        February 8, 2013 at 11:09 pm

        Arthur Schopenhauer is to me two things – or at least I like him for these two. He was one of those really great German philosophers who really in the tradition of the stoics tried to find a way to live. He is often called a pessimist – and John Gray rightly called him a “cheerful pessimist” unlike Nietzsche (Gray really does not understand the significance of Nietzsche, but that is another story). Schopenhauer argued that we are driven by what he called our blind will, and that we rationalise things to ourselves. So he argued using Buddhism among other things that we need to follow a kind of middle way – between our misery and our tedium. And that way we could have a reasonably not-unhappy life.

        There is a second reason I love him. He wrote beautifully. Amazing examples of thunder storms approaching, of the arts, and of suffering. He wrote some pretty erratic essays (including a stupid one about women, whom he considered the unaesthetic sex), but to find him in full flight, there is really only one book to read – The World as Will and Idea. And it is great. For philosophers, or those who care about such things, he was hostile to both Kant and Hegel (and Hegel outshone him in the university they both worked at). I guess all three are important, but of them only Schopenhauer could write a decent sentence.

  4. January 22, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Interesting! This sounds like advanced philosophy. It is alright to make use of theories, as far as they are practical and we understand them. There are numerous school of thoughts on the numerous fields of existence. Everyone has got to stick with what works best or keep searching till it’s found.

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