Saturday 20 July 2019

Why is it so hard to say that you shouldn't cut women?

Defenders of extreme sexual behaviour are blinding themselves to the dark side of S&M, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

MURDERED: Elaine O’Hara
MURDERED: Elaine O’Hara

Eilis O'Hanlon

As the country still struggles to make sense of the murder of Elaine O'Hara by a man she met through an adult website, Ryan Tubridy's radio show called on Emily Power Smith, "Ireland's first clinical sexologist", to enlighten 2fm listeners about BDSM, a range of sexual practices involving bondage, domination, sadism and masochism.

She immediately reassured him that there's nothing sinister about consenting adults including BDSM as part of a healthy sex life. Between 10 and 14pc of people are said to have done so in some form.

The devil lies in those three words. "In some form." There's a huge difference between a bit of spanking and light bondage, and the more extreme practices which Smith defended last week on the grounds that "the people who are giving the pain will be trained and they will be very boundaried (sic) and very caring".

"Trained by…?" wondered Ryan unsurely, trailing off.

"Trained by other professionals," his guest replied, in what may well be the most ridiculous use of the word "professional" ever. "Maybe a dominatrix." Oh well, that's all right then.

It got worse. "For blood-letting and knife play," Smith continued, "the people who do that ethically are very highly trained."

At this stage, Ryan should have been trying to pin down this bizarre notion of "training", but such is our collective fear of appearing judgemental when it comes to sex that it never even seemed to occur to him to suggest that blood- letting might not be a valid lifestyle choice, or that those who fool themselves into thinking it's just harmless, kinky fun should cop on.

When did it become so hard to say that you really shouldn't cut women?

It's difficult to even define what consent means in this context, when the relinquishing of power to another is already so advanced that the boundaries start to break down. Emily Power Smith effectively said as much in a video on the Irish Times website, in which she spoke of the point of so-called "knife play" being not such to damage the other person but "may be more about just pushing them to the limits on a psychological level".

If your alarm bells aren't going off as you read that, then perhaps you need new alarm bells. Pushing someone to their psychological limits is already damaging them.

Abusive relationships, as Smith herself says in the same video, often "begin with the psychological torment and wearing down of a person, so by the time it gets physically violent that person doesn't have as much judgement as somebody else, or as they might have had before they entered the relationship. It can be difficult for them to gauge if they're being abused."

Exactly. And isn't that where the more extreme forms of BDSM lead?

Even EL Gray, author of Fifty Shades Of Grey, kept herself right in that respect by having Christian and Anastasia draw up an agreement for their relationship which eliminated "hard limits of harm" such as fire play, cutting, piercing, blood letting, and the use of electrical currents.

The law may choose not to get involved in this area, because people can indeed consent to being hurt, as in boxing or plastic surgery, both of which can cause disfigurement and permanent physical harm; but that doesn't mean society as a whole isn't damaged as a result. The law has found against people engaged in BDSM practices on that basis. They did it in private, they consented, but it was deemed, in one particular ruling against those who took part in a gay S&M orgy, that "public policy requires that society be protected by criminal sanctions against a cult of violence which contained the danger of the proselytisation and corruption of young men". Normalising certain practices desensitises society to the damage they cause.

No doubt this all sounds very moralistic to the sexologists, but surely it should be possible to raise qualms about these issues without facing accusations of being a prude who only wants couples to have what BDSM enthusiasts dismiss as "vanilla sex"? Ryan Tubridy's take on all this is that Irish society has had a "giggly, puerile" approach to talking openly about sex and that this "inability to cope with anything that is sexual" has done more harm than good. He's probably right.

But why must a wish for more open discussion of sex go hand in hand with an attitude of endorsing an "anything goes" attitude to sexuality, as if the very act of believing that there are limits and that those limits should be respected, makes one an enforcer of outdated moralistic values? Are we now supposed to treat all sexual practises equally?

What about coprophilia, whose adherents get sexual pleasure from eating faeces? What about men who get it on with sheep? Are we permitted to disapprove of these people any more? To mock their fetishes, at least?

It's hard not to conclude that a culture which regards all sexual desires as equal can end up being as messed up as one which regards some as more equal than others, whatever those with an ology to their name may proclaim to the contrary.

Sunday Independent

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