This year, the 20th of January was the fourth International Fetish Day, building off the 2008 National Fetish Day in the UK. The purpose is both to raise awareness and support for the BDSM community and create opposition to laws concerning extreme pornography. I’m mostly going to focus on the laws as it shows what I’d consider governments going to far, i.e. attempting to regulate people’s private lives.
A little background first though. Sex itself is not generally a topic people are comfortable with, and fetishes are even more taboo, so it’s not unlikely that a large number of people are unfamiliar with what BDSM is. It’s an incredibly broad grouping of sexual activities with three, overlapping abbreviations in its name. BD for bondage and discipline, those activities concerned with controlling the sub’s movement or behaviour; DS for domination and submission, the voluntary exchange of power between the people involved; and SM for sadism and masochism, the activities involving pain. Dom and sub are just shortened forms of the words submissive and dominant that can be used to describe the individual taking that specific role.
While it is not necessarily mainstream, it does pop up from time to time and just last month there was an article about BDSM, The Trappings of Bondage, published in the Mail & Guardian. It’s also featured, though not necessarily in a positive light, in popular culture. In Desperate Housewives one woman’s husband reveals that he is interested in BDSM. She finds it shameful though but goes along with it to keep him from prostitutes and save their marriage. It also appears in House, with one episode concerning a man who’s parents disown him due to his “proclivities” which include erotic asphyxiation.
In some cities it’s quite visible, San Francisco comes to mind as it has the Folsom Street Fair, which is all about BDSM. A couple in the UK made international news when a bus driver refused to let them board because the woman was on a leash.
People may also be interested in BDSM for non-sexual reasons, such as aesthetics. The University of Cape Town has had an art display of bondage paintings, something for which Japanese rope bondage, Kinbaku, is well-suited.
The important point to note here is that BDSM is consensual. Although the acts can be violent or degrading all the participants have agreed to them beforehand. Sometimes participants may even draw up and sign a contract specifying what will or can be done and at all times you are meant to have some signal that both parties recognise that will immediately terminate all activities. This makes BDSM hugely different from rape or assault where the victim does not consent and has no safeword. The problem is that governments do not always recognise this and so pass legislation that can criminalise consensual activities. A well-known example of this is Operation Spanner where a group of gay men were charged and convicted for assault after police saw a tape of sado-masochistic activities, even though those hurt said that it was consensual.
What this really means is that some governments impose their ideas or morality and decency on people who have different ideas. This is a very backward position of the same kind that criminalises homosexuality or inter-racial couples. Just as worrying is the position that people are not allowed to consent unless the government decides they can. The position that some governments take now prevents consensual harm but could potentially be used to charge piercing parlours, tattoos or perhaps doctors performing surgeries. If people are capable of consenting, then let them consent. I do not think the government has any business legislating activities that cause no harm to anyone else (In some cases this would extend to another person’s property and such but that’s not important in this discussion) or that causes harm with the consent of the person who is harmed.
Let’s look at a situation that happened in South Africa and contrast it with BDSM. Students at the University of the Free State forced black workers to eat food on which they had urinated, or at least that’s what the video appeared to show. There was an outcry at the racism and humiliating treatment, which violates the workers right to dignity, and the students were punished and later pardoned at the University itself.
Now there is a practice in BDSM known as waterports, or a golden shower but the former is far more entertaining to bear in mind when hearing descriptions of holiday activities, which involves one person urinating on another. Should the person involved be punished like the students? No. In this case the person who is urinated on consented to the activity and desired the humiliation and degradation. Furthermore once the scene is over and everyone is cleaned up the people involved are probably friends or lovers who view each others as equals. The humiliation is all a sort of game, it’s a sign of affection.
On the topic though, and it’s interesting to see human psychology warp perceptions, urine is sterile. It’s made up of waste products but it is filtered in the kidneys and, while in the bladder, has no bacteria or viruses. However, if you’re sick your urine may not be sterile. People still see urine as dirty though and will sometimes go to ridiculous lengths because of it. I’m thinking here of a case where a man was caught urinating in a reservoir in the US, leading to 7,8 million gallons being drained, even though the amount of urine compared to the water in the reservoir was negligible and many animals already must urinate in it and countless insects die in the water.
Protecting someone from being harmed against their will is important for a functional society but it is also important to allow people their freedom. As I wrote before, and it’s applicable here, if you can not relinquish a right it ceases to be a right and becomes an obligation. You don’t give someone obligations to empower them. As consensual BDSM activities harm no one else they do not impose on anyone’s rights, they should not be regulated by law.
One might try to argue that the government’s position is taken to protect people, even from themselves. This isn’t the case, which we can see by looking at the South African Film and Publications act of 1996. In the act it says, corrected to the best of my knowledge with the Films and Publications Amendment Bill of 2003, that
A film shall be classified as XX if, judged within context, it contains a
scene or scenes, simulated or real, of any of the following:
(2) bestiality, incest or rape;
(3) explicit sexual conduct which violates or shows disrespect for the
right to human dignity of any person or which degrades a person or
which constitutes incitement to cause harm;’’;
(5) the explicit infliction of extreme violence or the explicit effects of
extreme violence which constitutes incitement to cause harm.
(1) originally contained child pornography but that got it’s own section in the amendment and (4) was deleted with it’s contents now covered under (3).
There is no consent clause and even virtual, violent sexual conduct will be given an XX rating and making the publication, importation, distribution and public showing, among other things, of it illegal. The tiniest glimmer of hope is that possession appears to be legal. The fact that these rules apply to simulated scenes shows that the government is more concerned with enforcing it’s own brand of morality than with any potential harm the actions may cause.
To summarise, the protection of people is important but should not override their ability to consent to harmful activities. Specifically, there should not be laws preventing consensual BDSM activities as those decisions are not the government’s to make.