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  • Jessica Masterson

When consent is not enough

TW: Domestic violence, violent sex



On February 15th 2014, professional football player Ray Rice was arrested for assault after an altercation with his fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City hotel[1].  By February 19th, celebrity news site TMZ had published footage of the incident which appeared to show Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body from an elevator. By September, footage from inside the elevator had surfaced, this time showing Rice knocking Palmer out with a punch; the blow knocks her off her feet and she hits her head on the hand rail[2]. Unsurprisingly, the public reaction to the arrest and the videos was one of undisguised horror. What happened next took many by surprise – Palmer jumped to Rice’s defence. On September 9th, Palmer wrote the following on her Instagram page:


No one knows the pain that the media & unwanted [opinions] from the public has caused my family… To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don't you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you've succeeded on so many levels[3].


Rather than publicly speaking out against her husband, Palmer instead defended him and defiantly criticised the media for the negative impact their response had on her family. Her reaction is not uncommon among those experiencing domestic violence.


Domestic violence is a global issue impacting a huge number of individuals, the vast majority of whom are female. 77% of UK domestic homicide victims between March 2017 and March 2019 were female and 96% of the suspects were male. A total of 87,000 women were murdered in 2017 with over half of them killed by intimate partners or family members, meaning that every day 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family[4]. The statistics paint a clear picture; domestic violence disproportionately impacts women, and the majority of perpetrators are male. As Jess Hill writes in See What You Made Me Do, ‘the truth is that in every country around the world the home is the most dangerous place for a woman’[5].


The public response to what happened to Palmer is consistent with how people usually react to cases of domestic violence. It is accepted that it is morally wrong. There is a sense that any woman experiencing it ought to want to leave. If she does not and instead maintains a desire to continue in the relationship, this puts us, as onlookers, in an difficult position. There are many articles online with titles such as ‘My Friend Won’t Leave Her Abusive Husband. What Do I Do?’ and ‘When A Friend Won’t Walk Away From Abuse’. There is a sense that, whether or not a woman wants to leave, we are obligated to try and facilitate that possibility. I have yet to find an article advising readers to respect a victim’s decision to remain with her violent partner. Although the behaviour of a woman in a violent relationship may indicate her consensual participation in said relationship, consent is not considered when it comes to domestic violence. As Manon Garcia writes in The Joy of Consent, ‘the absence of complaint by battered women – which is common – could appear as an expression of consent’[6]. Regardless of desires expressed by the injured party, it is widely accepted that domestic violence is not the type of thing for which consent is meaningful.


It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to express a desire to remain in their current circumstances. It is possible for a victim to love her abuser; in fact, this is not unusual. Research has shown that women often have difficulties interrupting violent relationships, and that they frequently go through a ‘repetitive cycle of separations and reconciliations’[7] before the relationship ultimately comes to an end. There are many possible reasons why a victim of domestic violence may have the desire to stay but, as argued by Clare Chambers, none of these reasons ought to dissuade us from intervening because ‘if we respect […] a woman’s desire [to remain in a dangerous home environment and thereby refuse to prosecute] her attacker, we fail to respect her as a person’[8]. We need not ask whether a victim seems content to stay in an abusive household before we consider intervening. To intervene is to show respect for her ‘bodily integrity and well-being’[9]. This speaks to the most common argument raised in defence of sadomasochism – a resistance to paternalism. There are many instances in which consent is given but we legislate against the relevant consensual action, such as sale of organs or dangerous working conditions. The paternalism argument could be made in such cases, but people broadly accept that the legislation against both is justifiable. The desire of a person to sell their organs, to work in an unsafe environment, or to engage in violent sex does not necessitate that those desires are prioritised over the more general aim of protecting the dignity and well-being of the relevant individuals.


There are a number of features of domestic violence which largely explain why we do not consider consent to have normative power in such circumstances, and why we consistently judge it to be wrong regardless of how the victim feels. Some of these wrong-making features are as follows:


  1. Causes physical/psychological harm.

  2. Relies on a power imbalance.

  3. Linked to male domination and female oppression (sexual hierarchy).

  4. Propped up by social norms regarding male and female behaviour.


The potential physical harm that can be experienced by those in a domestic violence situation is indistinguishable in kind from that experienced by submissive individuals in sadomasochistic partnerships. The injuries that can be sustained during violent sexual encounters are wide-ranging and varied. Allena Gobosch, a development director of the Center for Sex Positive Culture claims to have seen somebody with nerve damage from being tied up in a particular way during a scene, and another person who cut themselves with a knife[10]. A UK woman died of asphyxia in 2018 after she fell asleep with a tie over her mouth after she had engaged in BDSM play with her partner Warren Martin Coulton[11] and this is just one of countless examples of sadomasochistic sex ending in serious injuries or fatalities. Myriad examples of sadomasochism-related injuries and deaths clarify that, much like domestic violence, sadomasochism can cause serious physical harm, often with life-long consequences. 


When discussing both domestic violence and sadomasochism, imbalance of power is a core element – the former relies upon the relative powerlessness of one individual in relation to another, and in the latter, the power imbalance between a dominant and submissive partner is eroticised in the context of a BDSM scene . The practice of sadomasochism refers to a wide variety of sexual acts and behaviours that ‘have an implicit or explicit power differential as a significant aspect of the erotic interaction’[12]. In accordance with this understanding of sadomasochism, power differentiation is foundational. When it comes to sadomasochism, males occupy dominant roles more often than females, and females tend toward submissive, masochistic roles[13]. One 2013 study of participants in a BDSM online forum found that only 34% of men consistently preferred the submissive position, while a relatively small proportion of women – 8% – identified as dominants[14]. The same study found that dominants tended to be low in the agreeableness personality trait, meaning that they were more inclined to be assertive, demanding, and forthcoming in expressing their desires. The submissive participants however tended to be more agreeable than average; this means that they tended to be more eager to please and to prioritise the desires of their partner. The findings from this study indicate that, contrary to the arguments of some pro-BDSM parties, those involved in BDSM do not generally adopt roles that are contrary to who they are in their day-to-day life. In the real world, ‘BDSM does not defy the sexual domination of women by men – rather, it reinforces it’[15].


Our culture teaches women and girls that it is more important to be likeable and tolerant and patient than to assert themselves. Generally, women are much higher in agreeableness, which could also be called niceness, than men are. There is a substantial gap between the sexes when it comes to this trait[16]. Those who are high in agreeableness are inclined to put their own needs and desires last, and to prioritise the desires of others. Agreeable people generally prefer to avoid conflict and can struggle with asserting themselves for that reason. This puts them in a vulnerable position as they are likely to be taken advantage of by those who are less agreeable and more domineering[17]. This cultural conditioning of girls only increases their vulnerability, putting them at significant risk of being taken advantage of by predators. When it comes to domestic violence, Bancroft has pointed out that an abuser can, at times, seem ‘emotionally needy’, and that women can get ‘caught in a trap of catering to him’[18]. The idea that women are more likely than men to engage in sexual activities that they do not enjoy or find painful for the sake of prioritising male sexual pleasure is echoed in the work of Dr Sara McClelland who has pointed out that the barometer for what qualifies as good sex is different for men than for women:


While women imagined the low end to include the potential for extremely negative feelings and the potential for pain, men imagined the low end to represent the potential for less satisfying sexual outcomes, but they never imagined harmful or damaging outcomes.[19]

In other words, women and girls are conditioned by society to sacrifice their own happiness to take care of others.


Sadomasochism, in possessing the same, previously mentioned, wrong-making features as domestic violence, is more closely aligned with that than with “normal” sex in terms of how it should be viewed from an ethical perspective. When it comes to both domestic violence and sadomasochism, although consent may be given, it is not normatively transformative. Consent’s power in such circumstances is negated by the harm caused by the relevant acts, both to the individuals involved and to society more broadly. When we consider that women are more likely to adopt a submissive role in a sadomasochistic scenario, that women are less inclined to want to engage in sadomasochism, and that women are, on the whole, more agreeable than men and therefore more likely to agree to sexual practices that harm them or make them uncomfortable, it leads us to a potentially uncomfortable truth: in a world where the level of violence, and particularly sexual violence, against women is overwhelming, we may be contributing to the problem by portraying sadomasochism as ethically permissible, thereby shrugging off the harm done to women behind the veil of the consent narrative.

 




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