A preliminary note: Maymay has a history of threatening, harassing, encouraging the suicide of, and doxxing people who disagree with them. This makes many people I know afraid to engage with them and their writings. I probably wouldn’t write about Maymay otherwise, but it pisses me off when people silence disagreement with them. So whenever Maymay threatens, harasses, encourages the suicide of, or doxes me or one of my friends, I shall write a post about their beliefs. This one in particular was prompted by the doxxing of a friend.
In addition, Maymay is nonbinary. Using male or female pronouns for them is not acceptable and will get your comment edited.
content warning: perhaps more information about my relationship to kink than you wanted to know; discussion of self-injury
In this post, Unquietpirate questions the inside the bedroom/outside the bedroom dichotomy, specifically, the common statement that BDSM is okay because it is inside the bedroom.
But BDSMers cling hard to the notion of “the bedroom” as a sacrosanct zone of apolitical eroticism with which they can pre-emptively caveat any questionable activities. “I like smacking my partner across the face until her nose bleeds — but only in the bedroom!” “I think men are pathetic scum who belong on their knees — but only in the bedroom!” “Being beaten and sexually used and told what to do by my partner makes our relationship feel more intimate to me — but only in the bedroom!”
BDSMers need “the bedroom” because they believe they’re doing something wrong — but they don’t want to have to change their behavior, they just want to make sure they’re not punished or judged for it. They’re like my elderly grandmother who always leans over to whisper in your ear when she wants to make a racist comment in public; she’s whispering because she knows it’s not okay to make racist comments, but knowing that doesn’t mean she tries to stop making racist comments, it just means she tries to make them in a way where nobody who might judge her will overhear.
BDSMers know there’s something problematic about their orientations toward power — otherwise they wouldn’t need to reassure us constantly that their love of abuse and violence and authoritarianism exists “only in the bedroom.” But they don’t want to critically analyze, or change, or even have a conversation about those orientations. They just want to flag the bare minimum level of polite self-awareness to avoid being punished or judged.
As I understand unquietpirate’s argument here, it is twofold. First, human brains do not neatly separate the erotic and the unerotic in the ways this division requires, Second, just because an immoral behavior is in an erotic context rather than an unerotic context does not make it less immoral. I actually agree with both of those statements!
But, as a wise man once said, one man’s modus ponens is one man’s modus tollens, and I come to the exact opposite conclusion of Unquietpirate. I don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to give someone orders or cause someone permanent physical damage outside of play, either.
I like pain. In fact, as I write this, I have the space heater set up so it burns my feet and I am idly poking my finger with a sharpish piece of metal. (I have no idea where I found that piece of metal, actually. Weird.) This liking isn’t sexual in any way; pain just feels pleasant to me. Furthermore, I like scars; the scars I have from my cutting were one of the first things that makes my body feel like mine. (I have an abnormally uncomplicated relationship to self-injury; I would like to clarify that I am simply talking about my own experience and do not mean to invalidate other people’s. Many people experience cutting as addictive or harmful or self-destructive. It just happens that I didn’t.) While I’m currently choosing not to cut, I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with me cutting– and by a similar token, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with other people cutting me. Even though it is not sexual!
Similarly: sometimes I have a hard time making decisions, even relatively small ones like what to order at a restaurant. Sometimes, when I have a hard time making decisions, I will ask someone I’m in a close relationship with to tell me what I do. I think it’s okay for someone to order me to get a salad because we both get off on them exercising control over me; I also think it’s okay for someone to order me to get a salad because I’m having a bad brains day. On a more macro level, a lot of my happiest and most functional relationships have involved, at various levels of explicitness, me as someone’s minion: they more-or-less set the agenda (with concern for my interests, of course); I provide loyalty and admiration and general right-hand-man shit. Again, this is not because I get off on it! This is not erotic: my longest-lasting such relationships were nonromantic and nonsexual.
I think it makes sense to be cautious about relationships with power dynamics. There is a lot of potential for bad things– ranging from “one person’s interests tend to get short shrift” to “literal abuse”– in a relationship where one partner tends to make the decisions. It seems reasonable to me to argue that sort of relationship is harder than more conventional relationships. But I don’t think that that makes those relationships wrong.
I think that this is getting at one of the main differences between me and Unquietpirate and Maymay. As far as I can tell, they seem to believe that power relationships is inherently destructive, the ideal society would involve no one having power over anyone, and we should move as much as possible to a society where people don’t have power over each other. I agree that in the real world power relationships often (perhaps usually?) cause enormous harm to the people without power. But I don’t think the ideal world would have no power differences whatsoever. I am, if anything, a choice-maximizer: I believe people should have freedom, meaningful freedom (which means no coercion through, e.g., social pressure or poverty); and I believe that in those circumstances some people would choose to let others have power over them, including myself.
I think someone may be confused at this point and think I am justifying most cases of a person causing permanent physical harm to another or giving another person orders. I am perfectly willing to admit that the vast majority of cases where someone causes permanent physical harm to another are bad, and it seems plausible to me that the majority of cases where someone gives someone else orders are bad. It might even be that most of the cases where those two things are morally justified are sexual. But they are not all sexual, and them being sexual justifies nothing. What justifies them is that they contribute to the happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and general flourishing of everyone involved.
The observant reader will notice I haven’t talked about Unquietpirate’s second example: the person who believes men are scum, but only in the bedroom. This brings up a second issue: that of play and of pretend.
Again, this is not purely a sexual issue! People constantly do things in play that are not okay in real life. They play D&D and paintball and first-person shooters. They take up martial arts. They fantasize about murdering their boss or cheating on their wife. They pay to watch other people’s fantasies about beating people up or becoming con artists or starting revolutions. In fact, it seems like more play is about things we shouldn’t do than is about things we should.
I don’t think everything we do in play is 100% okay. For one thing, what kinds of play you like is evidence about your real-life attitudes. For some kinds of play, this is not so bad; the base rate of “approves of genocide” in the United States is low, so even people who like committing genocide against goblins almost certainly don’t approve of committing genocide against Jews. On the other hand, lots of people are rapists; enjoying rape fantasy is moderate evidence in favor of them being a rapist. Being turned on by rape doesn’t mean you’re a rapist, but it might mean you have some aliefs about rape you need to poke at. (Not necessarily, of course– I am still a noncon fetishist despite my best rape-alief-poking– but perhaps.)
For another, it seems plausible to me that play is, in part, preparation for the rest of life, and it might be reasonable to ask what, exactly, your play is preparing you to do. I myself have noticed that the fiction I consume tends to affect my values (particularly if I participate in the fandom around it) and my expectations about what happens in the circumstances depicted in the stories. It’s obviously hard to disentangle correlation and causation about sociological questions like this, but it seems at least worth consideration that, in the same way venting anger makes people angrier, expressing unethical desires makes people more likely to be unethical. However, I think this is clearly personal piety territory rather than basic morality.
Finally, aesthetically, I think there’s something to be said for an ethos like Audre Lorde writes about in SM: Not About Condemnation:
In order to make integrated life choices, we must open the sluice gates in our lives, create emotional consistency. This is not to say that we act the same way, or do not change and grow, but that there is an underlying integrity that asserts itself in all of our actions. None of us is perfect, or born with that integrity, but we can work toward it as a goal.
The erotic weaves through our lives, and integrity is a basic condition that we aspire to. If we do not have the lessons of our journeys toward that condition, then we have nothing. From that life-vision, one is free to examine varying paths of behavior. But integrity has to be a basis for the journey.
There is something aesthetically pleasing about one’s actions being all of a piece, and something dissonant about “I oppose violence… but I sure as hell love acting it out.” Aesthetic displeasure is not enough to justify trying to get other people to stop, I don’t think, but it is certainly enough to justify, in your own life, a turn away from playacting things you wouldn’t endorse.
However, I don’t think these arguments warrant a wholescale rejection of that sort of play. For one thing, empirically, a lot of people have desires for violence, manipulation, domination, and other ethically unacceptable behavior. I personally think this is a result of evolution, but even if you believe it’s purely cultural, they still exist. Some people can stop having those desires, but not everyone. Sublimating those desires into something harmlessly hypocritical seems like the best possible option: no one is hurt and some people have fun.
I admire Lorde’s vision aesthetically, but I question its wisdom. If you set yourself the goal of “don’t do bad things”, then it is really easy to conclude anything you do isn’t bad. On the other hand, if you leave yourself the option of “okay, I’m going to do some things that aren’t congruent with my ethical system”, you will at least be honest about your hypocrisy. On a certain level, I think that if you aren’t failing your moral standards, they aren’t high enough. And certainly an endless quest for an unattainable Good is at least as aesthetically pleasing as an underlying integrity.
And of all the moral standards to fail, one that doesn’t hurt anyone is probably the best moral standard to fail.
Finally, on a very basic level, I am a hedonist. (This is even more basic than the choice-maximizer thing.) I think there aren’t enough sources of joy and pleasure in the world. If I get joy from blasting zombies or you and your lover get joy from you calling him scum, and no one else is harmed and as far as anyone can tell it is not contributing to us being crueler or more thoughtless or more aggressive in the rest of our lives, that is good! I would go so far as to say that it is a bad thing when changing your attitudes about something means you can’t enjoy it anymore: it is better to embrace an attitude of nonviolence than to shoot zombies, but it’s better to be a zombie-shooting pacifist than either. You get the joy without the harm.
I think there’s a tendency to denigrate fun; it seems so shallow, so childish. It’s hard to look at someone telling you all the problematic tropes something is rooted in and respond with “but it’s fun.” It feels insufficient. But I think that’s a mistake. There is nothing to construct morality out of except what we want or prefer or like. And of course one should pay attention to what other people want and prefer and like. But I think it’s a mistake to look at the things people like that sound grand and high-minded and prefer them to the things people like that are, well, sort of shameful. It’s okay to like things.
Inside and outside the bedroom.