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Sadomasochism's Ethical Predicament

Replication of power structures—or innocent make-believe games?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Once restricted to underground subcultures, the sexual practice of sadomasochism has in recent years come to the attention of the general public, not least with the publication of bestsellers such as 50 Shades of Grey.

Despite its recent popularity in mainstream culture, there is still an important question to be answered about the ethical status os sadomasochism.

The practice normally involves a person in a sadist role degrading, humiliating or physically hurting a submissive person—sometimes for the sake of the sadist’s own satisfaction.

A fundamental principle in ethics states that it is morally wrong to treat people merely as a means to an end. In this view, the moral treatment of others requires that we respect their inherent value as persons. But can you really truly degrade, humiliate, and physically hurt another person while still recognizing his or her inherent worth?

Complicating things is the fact that sadomasochistic activities involve a dominant/submissive dynamic that often simulates power differentials relating to race, class, gender, sexual identity and ethnicity. Can you use, say, racially derogatory language and still respect the target's inherent value?

Most of us believe that disrespecting others and treating them as objects rather than subjects is morally wrong. Using another person merely as a means to an end is not OK. So, degrading, humiliating, and physically hurting another person for sexual pleasure, while simulating power differentials relating to oppressed groups, would, on the surface, seem to be highly morally problematic.

Yet recent popular culture does not seem all that condemning of sadomasochism. One reason for this discrepancy may be that sadomasochism doesn't involve genuine disrespect for another person’s inherent value.

A multi-year study of sadomasochism in San Francisco conducted by Margot Weiss (2011) found that although sadomasochistic activities involve a dominant/submissive dynamic that often simulates power differentials relating to race, class, and gender, practitioners tend not to embody or act on these patriarchal and white supremacist attitudes outside of the sadomasochistic setting.

Sadomasochism in its typical forms is perhaps best seen as a kind of make-believe (Stear, 2009). Perhaps it can be seen as similar in its imitation of reality to other make-believe games such as the games children play when they pretend to be ninjas, princess-warriors, or cowboys as well as the games adults play when they engage with fiction as spectators or readers (Stear, 2009).

Sadomasochism understood as make-believe—unlike narcissistic sexual use of persons—may then be consistent with the recognition of all parties as inherently valuable subjects rather than objects used merely as means to an end.

But I have a lingering worry. Even if you are merely playing, can you simulate power differentials relating to race, class, gender, sexual identity, and ethnic cleansing without contributing to the continued oppression of these groups? The problem with denigrating historically oppressed social groups or their members, even if you are only playing, is troublesome for much the same reason as sexist or racist jokes are.

One problem with jokes made at the expense of historically oppressed social groups is that they trivialize the historical and current mistreatment of these groups, making discrimination and continued oppression seem somewhat socially acceptable. Presumably, denigrating historically oppressed social groups or their members during sadomasochistic "play" is equally morally problematic, given the potential that it could play a role in keeping existing power differentials in play.

References

Stear N-H (2009). “Sadomasochism as Make-Believe,” Hypatia 24(2): 1–38.

Weiss, M. (2011) Techniques of Pleasure. BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Durham and London, Duke University Press.

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