the ethics of sadism

I went to a Perverts Put Out erotica reading at the Center for Sex and Culture on Saturday night, and it was excellent. What a great line-up of readers. Highlights included Lori Selke’s piece “Cocksucking” in which the female protagonist’s boyfriend gets really into the idea of sucking cock (hers and others’), and Greta Christina, editor of Paying For It, who read a piece (which can be found in the Best Sex Writing 2008 anthology) about her experience paying for a session with a professional submissive.

But the piece that stood out the most, for me, was the very first one, read by Steven Schwartz. It was an untitled non-fiction piece about his experience at a bear gathering. Bears, for those not already familiar with these fine creatures, are the hefty hairy gay (or bi) men who are eroticized for that type of appearance; they often eroticize one another. Sometimes they pair up with non-bears. There’s a whole animal-metaphor culture out there – otters and the like – that I don’t know enough about to really explain, but that’s the gist of it.

The basic premise of the story is that the author hooked up with a bear couple and went home to bottom to them. When they got down to business, the guys tried to physically force him to have unprotected sex past his very clear “no,” by grabbing his head to immobilize him and trying to penetrate his butt sans condom. He reacted in self-defense, kicking one in the nuts and shoving the other one’s face into the bed’s headboard; once they’d backed off he told them to go into the bathroom and stay there until he was gone, and he gathered his stuff and left.

There were a number of interesting elements to this story, not the least of which being that it actually took place. Among other things I was very intrigued to note that he used the word “rape” but implied that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the term – I wonder why, and I didn’t get the chance to ask. 

The author spent quite a lot of time musing about his own relationship to violence enacted in self-defense. He is apparently someone with great strength and lightning-quick reflexes, who has defended himself from a skinhead gay-bashing at least once and took martial arts in order to, of all things, learn how to slow down.

In some ways, he has a problem I’d love to have – the ability to truly physically defend himself against attack and the attendant responsibility to know his own strength and manage it appropriately. Many of us with lesser strength have developed all kinds of intriguing ways to self-protect precisely because when push comes to shove, we’re physically outmatched. For me personally, I’ve escaped various classic “girl alone in the dark at a bus stop, big threatening man approaches” situations by learning how to quickly access a sort of dark rage that quite effectively scares them away – it’s worked numerous times and all I’ve needed to do is raise my voice and project that energy. My capacity to inflict physical violence in self-defense has never been tested, and I wouldn’t wish for such an opportunity – partly because I’m not sure I’d be successful, partly because I’m afraid I would be, and that I wouldn’t stop when the need for self-defense was past. I’d very much prefer to live out the rest of my life without ever knowing what would happen if my rage were legitimately triggered and I were in a position to mete out retribution past the moment of ensuring my own safety.

Now the twist to Saturday night’s story is that the author also happens to identify as a sadist.

Normally this is a part of himself that he indulges in during consensual play – so far, so good. But now, take the situation of an attempted rape, and fully justifiable self-defense, and place that in the hands of a self-defined sadist. Schwartz described the few brief moments of that self-defense as being a sadist’s dream – an officially justifiable free shot where it’s really okay to hurt someone, and not in a good way. To turn the tables and keep hurting them once they are no longer a threat to you, not so justifiable… but in the few seconds you have to defend yourself against a rapist, there’s a lot of leeway for the use of force. He described the way in which, in the moment, he defended himself and then got the hell out of there. (The attempted rapists got the hell out too – they were nowhere to be seen for the rest of the bear weekend.) But he then went on to describe how, for months following that experience, he would jack off to the memory of the crunching sound that happened when the man’s face hit the headboard, full well knowing that it wasn’t the wood that was breaking.

For all that I hesitate to qualify certain things as “real” in the BDSM world, as in “that guy’s a TRUE submissive” or “she’s a REAL top,” I think this is where we see the difference between a “sadist” in the sense of “a sensation top” or perhaps “a sensation top who likes to push a bottom’s limits for mutual enjoyment,” and a “sadist” in the sense of “someone who really gets off on others’ genuine pain especially when they really don’t like it, not even in that fun way.”

Speaking for myself, I can say that I enjoy both of those things. The vast majority of the time I play, topping is what I’m after – taking someone on a journey of sensation and / or submission, where I take my pleasure in their trust and openness and responsiveness. Sure, sometimes those scenes can be challenging for the bottom, and very intense for me too, but at their core they are still about a certain mutuality. At times during those scenes my Beast gets to have a little taste of what it likes, but those tastes are fleeting and not the focus of the scene.

But there have been a few precious times when people trusted me enough, and wished enough to give me pleasure that was solely about me, that they have offered themselves to me for an experience that wasn’t about their pleasure at all… that was purely about giving me a body to torture so that I could do what I liked. That sort of scene comes from a completely different place. It allows me to let go of the idea that this is in part for the bottom’s benefit, while nonetheless maintaining a basic attention to their well-being (i.e. nobody gets maimed). It allows me to cause them pain and fear and to feed off that energy in a way that’s entirely about the dark, freaky glee of just plain hurting the fuck out of someone, no build-up, no arc, just ow ow ow that fucking hurts and no I’m not going to stop. That’s when my Beast really gets to come out and feed. 

Sometimes the bottom wants to give me a gift, and feels they know me and love me well enough to love even that frightening, nasty part of me. Sometimes they want to see how much they can withstand when someone does their worst. In every case the trust required is enormous – they need to know that there’s a Beast feeding on their pain, but that I’m still there too right beside that Beast, and that I’m stronger than it is, and that I won’t let any true harm come to them. Needless to say, playing in this place is not something I do often, and when I do I have to be really goddamn sure that the person who wants it is deeply sane and very strong, and offering from a place that makes some sort of genuine sense. There are very few motivations for this sort of play on a bottom’s part that I think are really legit. I never expect this of anyone, and I never ask for it. I think it’s something that can only really be okay if it’s freely offered.

There was a time a few years ago when I wrote a piece stating how clearly I saw the difference between the BDSM understanding of sadism and the understanding of sadism as we usually apply it to psychopathic torturers and murderers. At the time, I felt that we were different breeds entirely; that our pleasures were simply on different planets, not sourced from the same place. But having met and acknowledged my Beast, I don’t think that’s true anymore, and haven’t for quite some time. I know a lot of people might disagree, but the experience of understanding sadism from the inside out, and the experience of meeting others like me, has made me rethink where I draw that line. We may be distant cousins, but we are definitely of the same species. Is that an uncomfortable thought? Hell yeah. But the things that keep us distinct are pretty enormous, and as such I’m not the least bit worried that a bunch of kinksters will wind up pulling Dahmers.

I think the distinction between criminal sadists and BDSM sadists of the Beast (true? real?) variety lies in three places: consent, competence and sanity.

Consent sort of speaks for itself. I know there are tons of discussions out there worth having about the idea of consent – having recently indulged in some musings on the matter myself, I would hardly argue that it’s a simple concept or one that’s entirely self-evident. However, for the sake of this post, let’s simply define the presence of consent as being about the mutual informed desire of all participants for whatever activity is taking place, even if that activity would normally be considered unorthodox or painful. The BDSM sadist requires consent before indulging in the pleasures of his or her sadism. Preferably, the BDSM sadist requires an extremely high degree of nuanced and thoroughly informed consent, and is quite sure that the willing partner is entirely healthy in their motivations for that consent.

Competence is about having the requisite knowledge and skill to inflict painful stimulus on a person, even when they don’t like it, without causing them undue harm or serious injury. The specifics are also a different discussion; the manners in which a sadist can cause pain can run from the banal to the extreme, and I’m not embarking on a post about technique. Suffice it to say that some of the most excruciating pain a person can experience can leave no injury whatsoever, or injury that’s barely visible and very low-risk. If you’re going to be playing with pain at all, you’d definitely better have learned how to do it safely before you subject anyone else to your ministrations. And as a bottom, you’d better know for damn sure that your sadist of choice is competent to carry out whatever actions you’ve agreed to explore together.

In the realm of sanity, of course that includes all the classic elements, which to me (without wishing to offend any therapists by my over-simplicity) means being free of major emotional or mental disorders. If someone schizophrenic also happens to be sadistic, they’re probably not the best choice of a sadistic play partner, unless they’re really good about taking their meds. If someone heavily addicted to a mind-altering substance happens to be a sadist, I would also wish to avoid placing myself in a vulnerable situation with them. And of course, if a person is psychopathic in addition to being sadistic, there’s definitely some sanity missing and you should probably avoid letting them aim their sadism at you.

Last year I read the book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, and it rocked my world – it gave me a completely new understanding of psychopathy, what it looks like and how it plays out. It put words to the things I have noticed in a few people over my lifetime. The book includes a list of diagnostic criteria, all of which must be met for a person to be considered a true psychopath, but it sheds light on a lot of the behaviours and personality types I’ve encountered which, while not necessarily indicating full-on psychopathy, certainly lean in that direction. The basic idea is that a psychopath is a person who is lacking the element of conscience that operates in most people – compassion, empathy, a sense of connection to fellow human beings. (Read the book A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon alongside Without Conscience if you want a really neat picture of how all this works. It’s frickin’ fascinating and both books are absolutely excellent, two of the best I read in their respective years.) Not all psychopaths are sadistically or criminally inclined; in fact it’s quite a small percentage, all things considered.

What I’m getting at with all this is that sadism is not intrinsically linked to insanity, criminal behaviour, psychopathy, rape or any of the other things pop culture likes to attach it to. Sadism is the enjoyment of other people’s pain, period. There is a very narrow framework within which that enjoyment can take place and remain ethical. One of the very few places I can see that working is within a tightly controlled situation that meets high standards of consent, competence and sanity… of the nature one might find in the BDSM world. In the past, I would have said that this was pretty much the only framework within which a sadist could ethically enjoy their sadism. Until Saturday night, I might have continued to think that was true.

But one more narrow framework in which sadism might remain ethical is exactly the one the author described in his story: when a person needs to lash out physically for the purpose of self-defense. Inflicting a physically painful action upon a non-consenting partner is only acceptable if you truly have no choice – when that person has negated their right to consent by acting against yours, and your action is carried out with the purpose of escaping that situation. The ethics of it last as long as it takes to get yourself out of immediate danger, and not a second longer.

Taking pleasure in that very moment of inflicting pain also would make the situation unethical, in my opinion. The logic is that if you’re fighting for your safety, I don’t think there’s room for experiencing pleasure at the same time, so if you are experiencing pleasure at that moment, you’re probably no longer in a situation of immediate danger and necessary self-defense. Which of course neatly negates the ethical acceptability of the situation. In this kind of situation, if you’re able to think of what you’re doing as the indulgence of your sadism in the moment you’re doing it, it’s probably not ethical to be doing it at all.

But if you do encounter one of those incredibly narrowly framed moments, and you do act ethically, and you happen to be a sadist so you can eroticize or otherwise attach enjoyment to the experience once it’s already past – well, that’s a bit hard to argue against. I would never wish to experience that myself, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, but I can see why it would make for seriously interesting jerk-off material, and I’m grateful that Steven Schwartz shared it so some of us can experience some vicarious pleasure.

6 thoughts on “the ethics of sadism

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Your post was provocative and interesting. I identified with some of your remarks, and I appreciated your opening up a distinction between sensation topping and sadism–I’m one of those sadists who thinks hurting people is fun and deeply satisfying, and who thinks hurting consenting, reasonable adults is ethically and morally okay, and therefore I only hurt consenting people. I hadn’t thought about inflicting pain in self-defense as akin to inflicting pain in a consensual manner, but I’m glad you brought up this reading, because it’s compelling to think with.

  2. I’m reading through your whole backlog via RSS – who knows if you’ll ever see this comment. But this one made me bite my lip and want, and reverie thinking about it. I have no idea if I could take that kind of damage. Almost certainly not – but the way you described liking it makes me wish I could. Thank you for that 🙂

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