Thursday, 18 September 2014

Purity vs. consent

Content note: rape culture, victim-blaming, sexual entitlement
Seeing as you’re reading this on the internet, you are presumably already aware that somebody hacked into a whole bunch of well-known women’s electronic devices (most prominently Jennifer Lawrence’s), stole nude photos which were not intended for publication, and posted them on Reddit. No, I haven’t seen them. No, I won’t be looking for them. Yes, I’m aware that the theft has been given an offensive and puerile name online, and no, I won’t be using it. I’m not really here to talk about it anyway. I’m here to talk about an attitude I’ve seen coming through in people’s responses to it. If you are unclear at all as to what’s wrong with looking at nude pictures of people who haven’t given their permission for you to look at them, start here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or, for some appropriately thunderous sarcasm, here (“It’s basic logic: If you don’t want your wallet stolen, don’t have money. If you don’t want to be strangled to death, stop breathing”).
I’m not a big risk-taker myself, but my faith in humanity must be, because I often read the comments on articles like that. Here are some excerpts.
I agree with your view and urge you to direct your obvious energy and intellect to the cause of banning pornography.

There are zero photos of me naked on the interweb. Know how I know this? I’ve never taken one (zero, coincidentally, is the number of people who would be interested in seeing said photos were they to exist, but I digress). Knowing they’re in the spotlight and knowing that predators like the criminal who hacked their accounts are out there, I do think they’re silly for taking the risk of sharing photos of this sort...

Just one question. Why did JLaw have nude pics done in the first place?

Can we have more articles supporting sending naked pictures to loved ones? I think any idiot should be allowed to electronically send their face atop their exposed body.
On the other hand, maybe people can learn from their mistakes, and not try to avoid the idea of deserving to have regrets. Is it perhaps possible that, though all rape is rape, girls can voluntarily do things with their body that they wish they never did?
Maybe, I’ll receive a scathing response from the public, who will tell me, “Even though this hacking has been happening for years, it is a woman’s choice if she wants to take that chance.”

If you’re an attractive female celebrity, you can be certain that at any point in time there are hundreds, if not thousands of people (some of them newspaper reporters), doing their absolute best to hack into any and all of your personal information. Hence, it would be prudent to restrict the amount of personal information you store in a digital form.

To be honest, I feel no sympathy for anyone affected by this hacking.
Anyone who allows their sensitive, personal, private information on the internet – no matter how “secure” the storage location – shouldn’t be at all surprised when that information is stolen. It’s unfortunate that there are people in our society willing to exploit others, particularly women... But ultimately, I cannot see anyone naïve enough to misuse technology in this manner as blameless.
Someone did point out to that last person that people’s medical history is stored in the Cloud, so that any new doctor they go to can access it quickly. Try the thought experiment: replace “nude photos” with any other kind of private information, and nobody would try to pretend that the hack was anything other than the nasty assault on personal autonomy that, indeed, it was. The “It was their own silly fault” stance makes no sense.
But you know me. I’m never content with “It makes no sense”. Let’s see if we can find a perspective from which it does make sense, and see if that teaches us anything. Let me compare two different hypothetical situations and see what they say about responsibility.
  • Suppose you’re walking barefoot on the beach, and you step on a fragment of beer-bottle just under the sand and cut your foot. Now technically it was your choice to walk on that beach, and your choice not to wear shoes, and both those choices were contributing causes to your injury. But I can’t see any reasonable person saying “It was your fault, you should have known better.” There shouldn’t have been glass there, is what should have been different. People ought to be free to walk barefoot on the beach. It doesn’t hurt anybody.
  • My high school lay at the bottom of a steep bushy hillside, with walking and cycling tracks through the bush. Where one track came down into the school car-park there was a sign saying No Cycling On School Grounds, on a chain across the path. The story I heard from a teacher one day was that a guy came down on his mountain-bike, saw the sign, undid it, took it off, walked his bike back up the slope, rode down at full speed into the car-park, hit a judder-bar in the drive (that’s what Americans call a “speed bump”), came off his bike and sustained an injury, and tried to sue the school for inadequate signposting. Assuming the story to be a balanced and complete picture of the incident, I’d say it was his own silly fault.
What’s the difference? Why do we hold the cyclist responsible, but the beach-walker not? In both cases, somebody ends up injured, and in both cases that person’s choices are part of the train of events that caused the injury. Sure, the beach-walker doesn’t know about the beer-bottle, but then the cyclist didn’t know about the judder-bar. The difference is that the cyclist was doing something he ought not to have been doing, even if there hadn’t happened to be a judder-bar. Applying this logic to the stolen photos, we must conclude that there is a widespread attitude among internet commentators that taking nude photos of themselves, purely for private viewing by themselves and/or consenting partner(s), is something that – consequences or no – young women ought not to do. Why?
“They shouldn’t have taken pictures.”  Yeah, right.  Abusers make a conscious choice.  They need to be held accountable for their actions.  It is ~not~ the victim’s fault.  Stop victim blaming.
I’m not sure how long the consent ethic has been around, but it was first clearly articulated in the 1970s. The consent ethic takes general ethical principles and applies them to the sex act: don’t harm, don’t coerce, don’t deceive. It combines the foundation of Enlightenment liberalism, individual self-determination, with the radical insight that this doesn’t just apply to straight white men with money. From a consent perspective, the attack on Lawrence and the others wasn’t just a theft, it was a sexual assault; and the idea that the victims somehow “brought it on themselves” by storing the photos in locations they reasonably believed were safe is inexplicable, nay mind-boggling. Wherever those commentators are coming from, the consent ethic isn’t it.
Before the consent ethic took hold, the primary ethic around sex in Western society, for centuries, was what I call the purity ethic. In a purity ethic, certain sexual acts are wrong Just Because. I’m not just talking about forcing people into sex against their will, or when they’re unconscious, or getting them drunk or lying to them to get what you want out of them, all of which are also forbidden by the consent ethic. In the traditional Christian ethic, you must not have sex with anyone of your own gender; you must not have casual hookups or brief flings even if that’s what both of you want; you must not have sex with the love of your life until after the wedding (if circumstances forbid a wedding, tough luck); and a marriage relationship lasts until one of you dies, regardless how unhappy it makes you. And various specific sexual acts have been considered “perverted” by different groups at different times, including but not limited to oral sex, anal sex, contraception, masturbation, and sexual fantasy. It’s no stretch to add “intimate photography” to that list.
Which of the two philosophies is better? I like to surprise my readers if I can, but I’m not going to this time. I think the consent ethic wins before the contest even starts. It can be derived by rational inference from a single principle which we can agree to be generally benevolent: that each individual has an sovereign and inalienable right over their own body. Breaching it is known to directly cause misery, and at present half the human race plan their lives around precautions, albeit of dubious effect, against occasions of that misery. There are some scenarios where it’s not clear what the right answer is, but they’re situations which would be morally complex even if there was nothing sexual at stake. Here’s an example.
People have asked me why income-support agencies should not be allowed to refer their clients to sex work jobs, and the answer of course is that consent under threat, including the threat of losing one’s welfare benefit, isn’t consent at all. But then what if someone has turned to sex work because it’s that or starve? Is it a violation of consent to engage their services? Is the right choice to make them wait for some selfless, wealthy benefactor (these qualities are seldom found in the same person) who can pay them a living income for nothing? Yes, of course you want to build a society where that doesn’t happen in the first place, but given that that happy day has yet to arrive... My point is that this conflict between survival and autonomy is the kind of thing that makes moral judgements fraught anyway. Sex doesn’t complicate it further.
Purity ethics cannot be derived from a rationally benevolent principle. You can make up a principle just to fit them and call it “chastity”, but it rests on nothing – and now sex does complicate your moral judgements further. Most suggested justifications end up relying on moral absurdities, such as that women who’ve had sex are “used”, or that you own the rights to your future spouse’s body before you even meet. Consequential arguments also take you to dodgy places. The sexual liberation of the 1960s coincided with a spike in the rate of violent crime, and in certain quarters it’s become dogma that the one causes the other, despite the fact that the latter quietly resumed its longer-term downward trajectory a quarter century ago. Then there are the vague warnings about “emotional problems” following casual sex. I’m not denying it can be emotionally loaded, but celibacy self-imposed for moral rather than preferential reasons has at least as much potential for causing grief, and being trapped in a loveless marriage, I gather, even more so.
So a lot of people nowadays try and support purity ethics with consent-ish language. When my town’s daily newspaper put a nudist event on its front page one summer, somebody wrote in saying the accompanying photograph “violated those people’s privacy” despite having been taken and published by mutual arrangement. The complaint was not that they had stepped over their readers’ boundaries, which at least would have been arguable if the pose had been explicit, which it wasn’t, but that you should not publish nude photos of anyone even if they invite you to. Now, to me, privacy means that people don’t see certain things about me unless I choose that they may. If it comes to mean that I may not even make that choice, it’s no longer privacy but the opposite: society interfering with my personal life.
The same goes for the first comment quoted above, equating “banning pornography” with preventing online sexual assault. Again, this makes little sense if we’re talking about “pornography” depicting willing participants, though I’ll grant that pornography is associated with seriously problematic attitudes towards sex and gender. It becomes much clearer if you assume the commenter is concerned about “obscenity” rather than consent. Even Andrea Dworkin, probably the single most prominent feminist campaigner against pornography, wouldn’t have conflated the two. “Obscenity laws are also woman-hating in their very construction,” she wrote in Letters from a War Zone. “Their basic presumption is that it’s women’s bodies that are dirty.”
Here’s another comment I found, this time on an article outlining some of the sexual pressures teenage girls encounter today:
I expect to be howled down for this “incorrect” view, but maybe it’s time we encourage people to delay sexual activity until there is mental and emotional maturity and until they are in the security of a mutually-respectful and committed relationship.
I know that this is counter to the view that “since they are at it, let's try and limit the damage” ... but as I look at the growing sexual exploitation and degradation of young people (and especially girls), I wonder who is standing up for their future.
No proponent of the consent ethic would hesitate to condemn sexual exploitation or degradation. It’s the conflation of “exploitation” with young people fooling around together that’s unjustified. I think the consent ethic and purity ethics are basically philosophically incompatible. I don’t mean that they’re totally incompatible in the sense that you can only follow one or the other. Hypothetically, you could have sex only within the context of a monogamous, life-long, opposite-gender Christian marriage, and also only with mutual consent between yourself and your spouse. Contradictions would not be bound to arise. But they might, and then you’d have to choose which one was more important to you.
My next couple of examples will appear poles apart, and yet we’ll find they both depend on the same confusion. There’s this one guy who welcomes a new “yes means yes” law because he thinks it’s a return to “traditional sexual morals”. He says
The law’s noble purpose is to eliminate campus rape, but its greatest impact will be to throw cold water on the campus “hookup” culture. We can expect to see less promiscuity among men – and that’s a good thing. The Bible has been warning men about this for thousands of years. (Read Proverbs 7:6–27)
Guys will think twice before hooking up with someone they barely know, especially when they can be charged with rape weeks or even months after the fact. Is 20 minutes of pleasure worth 20 years in the penitentiary? No condom will protect a man if his partner decides to press charges. After all it’s her word against his – and these days, whose testimony is more believable? Especially on campus?
Libby Anne, who posted that blog, answers
No, that’s not actually how it works.
First of all, men can already be accused of rape after a hookup. This does not change this. This law does not affect false rape accusations (which, I should point out, are very rare). Do you really think someone falsely accusing someone of rape would stop short of saying she had said “no”? The only time someone would have extra need to worry about “hooking up” after this new law is if they’re planning to “hook up” with someone who is unconscious or too drunk to consent – and those are exactly the times they should not be “hooking up” with someone in the first place, because sex without consent is rape.
And again? It’s “her word against his” with or without this law. That is a completely separate issue. What’s at issue here is whether sex is opt-out or opt-in.
Check out that Proverbs passage for yourself, by the way. It’s the tale of a wanton adulteress lying in wait to ensnare foolish young men. I do hope this is just the common Christian habit of misrecruiting Bible verses to make them look like relevant sources of wisdom, rather than that this Murrow bloke actually thinks campus rape victims lie in wait to tempt their rapists.
The second one I want to draw your attention to is Samantha Field’s piece responding to a Christian endorsement of rape within marriage. It might be germane to mention that Field is a Christian herself, because I remember all too well how carefully I used to read external criticism of Christianity when I was a Christian. The original author doesn’t call it “rape within marriage”, of course. She warns Christian wives against “sexual gatekeeping” and “sexual refusal”. If this seems completely twisted around from the idea that consent laws promote traditional morality, remember that in the traditional setup the important question is whether you’re married or not. The author claims to have found her new, submissive life to be joyful, but another thing I remember from being a Christian is that obedience is always joyful no matter how hard you have to fake it (“When it’s a trial, just do it with a smile”). In the Christian purity ethic, marriage is consent – I’ve had this idea promoted to me on the grounds that a public declaration before witnesses is “totally free of all ambiguity”.
Well, I’ve not been married myself, but I’ve been to a number of weddings and I was even Best Man at one of them. And I’m pretty sure neither the marriage vows nor the marriage certificate goes into any particular depth about what sexual acts the parties agree to perform and when and where and under what circumstances. And if it did, that still wouldn’t matter, because your sovereignty over your own body is inalienable. You always have the right to say “no” and expect your partner to respect that. Always. Always, always, always. And immediately afterwards, this person went on to say that withholding sex within a marriage was a form of abuse. And if you think that’s awkward, imagine that the person being accused by implication was known to you...
Also, this idea that there is some kind of “ambiguity” about consent, that you can only tell whether a woman really really really wants or doesn’t want sex with you once you’ve known her for years and years, is flat-out false. Yes means yes. No means no. Non-response, or a polite brush-off, means no. Pulling back means no. If you genuinely don’t know what she wants, ask. It’s that simple. You don’t need to have known the person even for a minute to understand that.
Oh, by all means, if you feel uncomfortable adhering to the consent ethic without a Bible verse to back it up, go ahead and find one that semi-fits and tell yourself that’s what it means. I’d much rather you did that than conclude, from the fact that consent isn’t in the Bible, that it’s all a snare of the World and you can pass it by.
I was going to do a blog post every week, gods damn it. I was even thinking of doing a wee lead-up to the election on Saturday. I still might, but it’ll be ranty, because I won’t have time to edit it down.
Anyway. I’ve been needing to get that off my chest for a while.

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