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There has recently been a great deal of debate around the topic of consent in sexual politics. Stakeholders in this debate have vocalized a wide range of positions, from positing the centrality of consent in questions of sexual ethics to considering the negative implications of undivided attention allotted to it. Meanwhile, on the ground, a certain kind of pornography starring women being tied up, chained, gagged and penetrated, whipped, and made to bleed has become exceedingly popular and widely sought out. To understand the nature, let alone the implications, of this kind of pornography, we have to understand its origins—the origins of Sadomasochism.
Marquis de Sade, a prominent member of nobility and a convicted rapist, kidnapper, and abuser was the namesake of the term sadism. Although he is now celebrated throughout philosophical and literary discourse as somewhat of a pop icon, Sade was undoubtedly a deviant of the most sordid variety. In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin devotes a whole chapter to enumerating Sade’s abundant sexual escapades and convictions in a worthy attempt to expose him for the fiend he was. Among his atrocities, Sade was guilty of torture, poisoning, kidnapping children, and raping countless women. Sade’s ill formed justifications for these actions are articulated in his pornographic literature now commonly consumed as erotic philosophy. In his works, he claims to be an advocate of absolute freedom, a right he argues needs to be realized in sexual practice.
Needless to say, his conception of absolute freedom did not apply to his victims. To conceal this obvious inconsistency, Sade argued that the recipients of his violence would enjoy it, even ask for it, if they were to just surrender their prudish boundaries and openly realize their repressed sexuality. It is my opinion that anyone with a pulse who reads a factual account of Sade’s life would want to distance themselves as much as is worldly possible from this individual and his legacy. And yet, amazingly, in recent years sadism has become not only popular but widely accepted. This philosophy, stemming from a man who made no secret of the fact that he derived the greatest pleasure from inflicting bodily pain onto unwitting victims is flourishing even in activist circles, the communities that are supposed to be the most concerned with justice.
Sade’s legacy, the concept of absolute freedom applied to sexual practice, continues to legitimize the widespread dissemination of the most vicious sexual scenes imaginable. Instead of recognizing the practice of sexual violence as what it is—sexual violence—the ideology of freedom has precluded the possibility for critique, calling any challenge censorship. This practice has silenced the victims of pornography as well as those who question the ethics of enjoying the same treatment that has marked the most horrific of atrocities. This is called ideological orthodoxy, more commonly known as dogma. The job of radicals—those who get to the root of things, those who consider material circumstances, not merely ideals—is to challenge ideologies when they begin to threaten the lives of real humans.
As Andrea Dworkin has said, “when theory becomes an impediment to action, it is time to discard the theory and return naked, that is, without theory, to the world of reality.” As Sade has shown us, what the theory of absolute freedom in practice really means is freedom for some at the expense of others. In the case of BDSM culture, absolute freedom means freedom for rapists at the expense of the raped and freedom for abusers at the expense of the abused. This, of course, is the legacy of this culture from its birth—the history of oppression masquerading as freedom.