Issues of Consent: Do Passers-by or Pornographers Deserve a Say?

I was perusing the interwebz this morning and came across a link on Violet Blue’s blog tiny nibbles to an article by Charlie Glickman, PhD, a sex educator and leading member of Good Vibrations. The article, called “Consent and Public Disgrace,” discusses the site “Public Disgrace” and how, though he loves porn and kink, the site gave him an icky feeling. Apparently the MO of Public Disgrace (which I’ll admit I’d not heard of until Violet pointed me in its direction) features footage of women being publicly gangbanged, most often indoors in controlled situations, but apparently sometimes also on the street and really in public, which involves passers-by being more or less forced to watch the action. Glickman makes the argument that while he’s ok with an environment where one has every reason to believe that everyone in the room knew what was going to happen, the idea of onlookers not being prepared nor inclined to watch a gangbang crosses the all-important consent barrier and should be nixed.

I thought about it for a little while. The issue of consent in porn, while vitally important to both performers and viewers’ understandings of those performers, usually only applies to participants in sexual acts on camera. So Glickman applying it to the watchers gave me pause. Part of me wanted to balk: well, is this really important? Is watching someone getting gangbanged really so bad? But then I remembered an experience of my own in which I ended up watching something I wasn’t prepared emotionally for, and I recalled walking away feeling frightened, discombobulated, and used, and I realized he’s right. (I’ll tell you that story another time: let’s just say it involves a summer night, a crowd all in white, and a swing party I thought I was ready for… but wasn’t.)

While most of the Public Disgrace scenes in question are filmed in countries with more lax rules about sex in public and it stands to reason that the general moral tone of the people in those countries may follow suit with the laws, imagine if a child happened to walk by a gangbang. What then? Or if someone’s dear old granny, prone to heart conditions and always very religious, passed by? Her heart might give out! But there’s more to it than that: the issue of consent in a porn viewer is something we like to overlook here in America, where obscenity is defined not by the law but the onlooker. Where pornographers can be, and are, sent to jail when the wrong person sees their smut while the people who actively chose to watch it and most often to pay for it are vindicated for upholding “community standards,” and where anti-porn sentiment is currently running high, it’s always better to implicate the pornographer than the poor, unsuspecting viewer. But ah, there’s the rub: the viewer for most porn is suspecting. That’s why he’s there. If someone really, truly, accidentally stumbled onto a Max Hardcore scene, then sure he or she might have every right to be offended. But that’s not the kind of thing that pops up when you click onto your favorite astrology site: you have to find it to watch it. You have to seek it out.

And that’s the idea: for people walking by on the street who might have religious mores or strict moral codes they want to follow, happening upon a public gangbang could be a serious breach of.. well, everything. Children could come away with a very skewed version of what’s normal, and though the men and women in the gangbang might be having a blast being humiliated in public, not everyone wants to watch them being humiliated. Kind of like the stocks in olden times: you didn’t have to walk through the center of the town square if you didn’t want to see someone being hit in the face by rotten tomatoes. There’s a line being crossed when someone surprises you with a gangbang, whether you’re the recipient or merely getting an unwelcome eyeful. You could walk away with your whole worldview shattered, feeling used and violated. And the whole point of wanting people to pay for porn is so that those who don’t want to watch it don’t feel violated by it. Ever.

Speaking of lack of consent contributing to making one feel cheap and used: how about the fact that the online porn community is being shunted off, despite loud and very logical protests that have been vocally going on for years, into the realms of the brand-spanking-new .XXX designation? Violet Blue got me thinking about this topic, too, with her excellent article, “.XXX Domain Approved: Now Begins the Era of Meaningless TLDs.”

A whole lot of things bother me about this state of affairs, but two more so than others. Firstly, for all intents and purposes, adult content sites, which are doing just fine, as far as I’m aware, as .coms and .nets, have no need to be hidden in the .xxx corner, which immediately fishbowl-izes them. The online public can now officially and easily deem a website dirty, and those dirty pornographers are being ghettoized against their will. Kicking and screaming. Even Speaker Boehner would have to admit that this move is forcible. And that gives me the ickies all over. “Oh, come on, they’re just pornographers,” one can here the ICANN and ICM people drawling. “They don’t have feelings. They’re loaded. Why not make them buy new, expensive domain names that label them for all the world to see as morally degenerate pseudo-people? We can protect our kids easier this way.” Yeah. protect them from respecting sex workers and pornographers as human beings. Protect them from the arduousness of learning not to label people automatically based on their attitudes toward sex.

Which brings me to the other thing about .XXX that pisses me off. There’s a whole burgeoning world of erotic film out there that doesn’t fit neatly into a category as “porn” or “not porn.” The general consensus on things pornographic is that porn is intended to be utilitarian (ie, you can jerk off to it and you’re supposed to) whereas all non-porn entertainment is meant for another purpose (ie, to tell a story, deliver a message, etc), but as time goes on, more film-makers like Erika Lust, Jennifer Lyon Bell, and even Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) step forward with sexually explicit fare that also tells a story, delivers a message, and gratifies physically as well as intellectually. From where I’m sitting, it seems to me that sex-positive and thinking people everywhere should be eager to see the lines between “the nipple ghetto” (as Nina Hartley put it in an interview) and mainstream entertainment blur. The more we let ourselves and generations to come be exposed to graphic sex in ways that involve the brain, demand respect, raise important questions, and show the act as an important and sometimes-beautiful part of life, I would argue, the healthier we’ll all be. Integrate sex into the fabric of society, not as a bane or a titter-worthy punchline, but as the driving force it actually is. We’ll be able to devote more of our time to thinking about it without blushing and running out of the room, perhaps. Of course, I realize that for many people, taking the sleaze out of sex on screen isn’t a goal; keeping sex off the screen entirely is a cherished goal for many. But the people behind this whole .XXX thing aren’t trying to protect anyone’s morality–they’re after the money. Ah, wait, I sometimes forget that in our culture, greed isn’t sinful. But sex is. And so let’s treat it thusly! Why not?


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