The Nuances of Consent: More Thoughts About Public Disgrace

I’ve been really intrigued by the comments on my post last week, Consent and Public Disgrace. Some folks found that it helped them unpack some of the issue of consent. Others pointed out (rightfully, I think) that the question of what forms of sexuality are permitted in public spaces is deeply influenced by privilege. Homophobia, for example, prompts plenty of people to use the “I don’t care what gays do, as long as it’s private” argument, even when male-female couples do many of the same things without any backlash.

Not surprisingly, some people argued that the walking a woman around in public, nude or tied up, or that having a woman on the ground drinking out of a dog bowl isn’t sexual. Personally, I’d be more willing to buy that if it wasn’t being filmed for a porn site. I don’t define sex as whether there’s penetration or whether there’s genital contact. My definition has a lot more to do with intention and desire, which is why I consider a peepshow dance behind a glass window (like they do at the Lusty Lady) to be sexual, while a doctor’s visit isn’t. While intention and desire are difficult to define if you’re looking for a legal standard, I think that since the intention is to create sexual arousal, nudity + being filmed for a porn shoot = sex, regardless of the legal definition. (This article by the fabulous Greta Christina is a fantastic look at how we define sex based on how it feels rather than the specific act, btw.)

A couple of people took things to the logical extreme and said that there isn’t any reason to not have sex in public other than a socially constructed taboo. In fact, one of them went so far as to say “What I do with my body is absolutely my own business and nobody else’s. Whether someone else chooses to watch is their business. The OP is hypocritical: either sex is ‘dirty’ and needs to be hidden, or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.”

I’ve been thinking about these ranges of responses and decided that rather than replying in the comments, there’s enough there to warrant another post.

First off, I do fully understand that laws regulating sexuality are consistently used against sexual minorities much more harshly than folks in the majority. Queers, kinky folks, poly people, sex workers, and many other groups of people who fall outside certain lines are targets of unfair application of sexual regulations. Although I’m not sure how that applies in this context since, as far as I know, it’s not as if the streets of wherever Public Disgrace goes are full of people being led around naked on leashes. The argument that cultures vary and things that are acceptable in one place aren’t in another would carry more weight with me if the activities shown on Public Disgrace were commonly done by the people who live there. Since they aren’t, I can only conclude that the local culture doesn’t actually condone it, even if there isn’t a law specifically about it.

I also firmly disagree that it’s an either/or. Yes, mainstream western culture generally sees sex as dirty or shameful and forces people to hide sexuality. Sexuality is overbounded in this world, which means that the boundaries are both too tight and too rigid. My observation is that some people react to that by wanting to get rid of boundaries. The person who called me a hypocrite sounds a lot like that- if sex isn’t dirty, then it doesn’t need to be hidden.

I’ll admit that I had a phase of my life when I said similar things. Fortunately, I think, I’ve outgrown those overly simplistic ways of thinking about it. After all, is it ok to have sex in a hospital room when people are recovering from surgery? On the table during Thanksgiving? On the stage during a theater performance (assuming you’re not the performers)? My answer is,”not without the consent of the people in the hospital room/at Thanksgiving dinner/in the audience.” While what you do with your body is your business, it is not only your business when it affects other people. Boundaries and consent are how we navigate that.

I’ve come to see that we need firm, flexible boundaries to protect us while also giving us room to move. Boundaries are like our skin- they keep things out, they keep things in, and they are an essential part of our well-being. The problem isn’t that boundaries exist.  Problems arise when our boundaries are too tight, too loose, too rigid, or too porous. And consent is directly related to our boundaries because consent is part of how we communicate them to other people.

Where this gets complex is that consent has a lot of nuances, or at least, it does once we let go of the legalistic interpretation of it. One challenge is how we assess whether there is consent. My standard is that someone has to actively say “yes.” Consent isn’t simply not saying “no”, especially when it comes to sex. It might be given non-verbally, but it still needs to be given in a clear and unambiguous way.

Another potentially sticky point is whether active consent is necessary in a given situation. I hold sexual consent to a higher standard than I do for many non-sexual activities. This goes a bit against what this commenter said:

If you’re familiar with free speech and expression law, the ability to avert one’s eyes is fundamentally important — our cultures are so diverse that many people encounter public events they find deeply offensive every day, but the law (and here, I think it’s in accord with ethical principals) expects the offended observer to accommodate, not vice versa.

While I think that’s useful around most other aspects of social interaction, such as art, music, or just some person on the street exhorting people to repent, I think there are some good reasons to place more of the burden of accommodation on people who want to have sex in public.

I’ve written quite a bit about the topic of sexual intrusion (e.g. this, this, and this). As a sexuality educator, a former sexual assault crisis intervention counselor, and someone who has had many survivors of sexual assault in my life, I have a lot of experience with the impact of sexual intrusion of people’s lives. When I talk about sexual intrusion, I’m not just talking about sexual assault, although that’s a big piece of it. I’m also talking about the ways that sexual energy is forced on people without their consent, such as men harassing women on the street or not taking no for an answer. And yes, while I certainly know that it happens in all gender combinations, that has been the predominant pattern.

Unwanted sexual attention, energy, and contact is epidemic in this world and I don’t think that adding more laws or enforcement is going to change it. A deeper understanding of how to navigate consent is essential if things are going to shift. I would love to live in a world in which people could be paraded naked in public on a leash and not have that be triggering or traumatic to anyone. To be clear here, I’m not worried about what people find distasteful or unpleasant or offensive. I’m talking about things that a significant number of people find deeply painful, often because of traumatic experiences they’ve had. I believe that people who have had these experiences deserve the safety of knowing that they can be in public and not have sexual interactions forced upon them.

folks enjoying Folsom St. Fair

It’s worth pointing out that context matters in this. For example, if you go to Folsom St. Fair, you can expect to see naked people being led around on leashes in public. What makes that different from a Public Disgrace shoot in a city plaza is that you can reasonably be expected to know that the rules are different during the fair. One of the reasons I’m glad that events like Folsom St. Fair exist is precisely because they give people the opportunity to have these experiences, both as witnesses and as participants in a setting where that’s OK. It’s a great way to make room for people to have that while also creating safety for the folks who need and deserve it. That’s why I have no problem with the Public Disgrace shoots that happen in settings where everyone has made an informed decision to participate or be present.

Context is relevant because context shapes our expectations. When someone is just walking down the street on the way to the store, for example, I don’t think they would reasonably expect to see a naked woman on a leash unless that’s a common experience in that culture. And while it’s true that the ability to avert one’s eyes is an important part of living in a diverse society, by the time you realize that there’s something you don’t want to see, you’ve already seen it. For people who have experienced sexual trauma or intrusion, that can be incredibly painful. I don’t think it’s fair or compassionate to say that it’s their responsibility to look away and wash our hands of it.

As I’ve said before (see this, this, this, this, this, and this, for example), I think that it’s important to give attention to the consent, pleasure and well-being of the people involved in or affected by a sexual interaction. And if someone is going to publicly engage in a sexual act that is likely to be triggering to many people, it’s fair to say that it will have an impact on their well-being. Of course, some people will point out that rabid homophobes could use some of these same arguments to keep queers in the closet. But the difference is that queers getting to do the same things in public that heterosexual people do (kissing, holding hands, having photos on their desks, etc.) is about social justice and equality, which trumps people’s discomfort with queers. Until and unless someone can show me how a woman walking around naked on a leash serves a purpose that is more important than the well-being of people who have experienced sexual trauma, I know which one I will prioritize.

My hope is that we can someday live in a world without sexual violence and intrusion. As as part of moving towards that, I think it’s worthwhile to recognize that whenever we have an injury, we need to bring extra care and support to the wound in order to help it heal. Generally, once things mend, we can be less cautious. Given that so many people are survivors of so many types of sexual assault and intrusion, I think it’s important for us to be particularly careful about public sex. And I think that the burden of responsibility should be on the folks who want to do it to make it safe for others, not on potential witnesses to avoid it or look away. My understanding is that Public Disgrace does this when they they shoot the actual genital contact scenes, and I think they need to apply those standards more widely than they do.

Even without this particular aspect to it, the argument that people should be able to look away doesn’t hold water in this instance since the entire point of the shoot is to garner people’s reactions. After all, if everyone in the background didn’t care or looked away or had no reaction, do you think there would be any impetus to make Public Disgrace? I think that it’s fair to say that that since the tagline is “Beautiful girls, bound, fucked, and humiliated in public”, one reason for these shoots is to elicit reactions from witnesses. The expectation that people can look away if they want is negated by the desire to capture their responses.

I know quite a few nudists and from talking with them, I can say that almost all of them would actually prefer to not be a spectacle since they just want to be able to be nude in public without anyone getting upset. The difference in intention is a big piece of the issue of consent. If your intention is to do your thing and not impact other people, then I could see the argument that they don’t need to look, which is exactly what my nudists acquaintances say. But when your intention is to get them to react, their active consent becomes paramount because your goal is to draw them into the experience. That’s the point at which things change. The desire to bring other people in and interact with them makes their consent important.

So although I’m glad that the various commenters gave me more to think about, I stick by my original statement. For the scenes that include public bystanders, I think that Public Disgraces has a responsibility to ensure their informed consent and well-being before beginning their shoots. And if anyone involved with Public Disgrace or would like to reply, either in the comments below or privately, I definitely welcome that.

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17 Responses so far.

  1. I agree with you that the problem is not the boundaries that today confine sex and gender; it’s their repressive rigidity. When researching for my new porn by women book, I was struck by how many women and even men complain about what they experience as claustrophobic categories for their experience and expression of their sexuality and gender. Yet, the solution is not no boundaries but more play-field for women and men to express their sexuality within flexible boundaries that ensure respect and consent.

  2. I am curious what response would the response would be if couples or groups had taken to doing sexual acts such as those in public disgrace.

    Wouldn’t the common reaction be take it to where it’s appropriate? Is the argument for the right to be nude or do sex acts in a public square such as in that video?

    It seems only because it’s a filmed production there some sort of compartmentalization.

    I am only a little familiar with some of the public disgrace shoots. I did talk to a model once about one shoot: Arinell’s pizza, he said they put up some kind of shading that allows to see out and not see in.

    And I can not say for sure how it works on the site, in the case of that clip Charlie linked, It looks like rainbow flags in the first part but the second part, the employee looks to try and end the filming.

    Wouldn’t we want to treat our European (or wherever they are) sisters and brothers with the same kind of respect even if they have different laws?

    It also concerns me for uninformed people to see such acts without context, such as understanding power play.

  3. Enumerator says:

    Speaking of context … these scenes are filmed in San Fran, it is not like somewhere in hillbilly land. Basically, by choosing to live in San Fran you’ve given consent for this kinda things to happen in your town … and if not, just move to another place 🙂

  4. This is not intended as any kind of comment on your point(s) re:, just a random thought..

    You said

    One of the reasons I’m glad that events like Folsom St. Fair exist is precisely because they give people the opportunity to have these experiences, both as witnesses and as participants in a setting where that’s OK.

    I wonder…where does this leave those people who will never have access to something like Folsom St. Fair, even here in the USA?

  5. Charlie says:

    The scenes that are filmed in SF are held in closed locations with pre-consenting participants. As I said, I don’t have any particular problem with that. And the ones that are filmed in public plazas or outdoor locations are not filmed in San Francisco.

  6. Charlie says:

    @Erisiana Cherie
    Well, there’s a reason that so many people travel to places that have events like that. Folsom is one of the only outdoor kink events that are open to the public, but there are plenty of other events that are more private but still have many of the same experiences to offer. Dark Odyssey, for example.

  7. Dallas says:

    I know that in the US they keep these shoots to indoor locations and the only people involved in any way (including bystanders) are either on the payroll or are people who have signed up to be invited to participate (everyone who goes through a tour of the Armory is given the chance and I’m sure there’s a place to sign up on the website too, though I haven’t looked). I know that these are not the types of shoots that you have a problem with but it’s the only example I have of how goes about these types of shoots and forms the basis for my thought-process when it comes to how they handle other shoots of this nature.

    While I also have reservations about the PD shoots – particularly those in other countries – I have given the benefit of the doubt (and perhaps I’ve given them too much credit, I’m willing to say that’s possible) that they have gone to some lengths to avoid people actually just stumbling upon the shoot- particularly children. I’ve never seen any children in any of the crowds in any of the promotional video clips and it seems unlikely that they’d be able to avoid having any children in the crowds if they weren’t actively trying to avoid “innocent bystanders.”

    My assumption (though I don’t have any proof in the form of evidence or an official statement from to reference) is that they get some sort of permit that allows them to shoot in an area and that appropriate signage is posted (outside of the camera’s view) to warn people who may be coming into the area that this type of filming will be taking place from X hundred hours – Y hundred hours.

    Admittedly in many of the shots I’m left wondering how something like that would be possible but then music videos and movies get permission to take control of whole blocks or public monuments to shoot and be able to control who does or doesn’t come into their shooting space for a while, too, so it is possible. At least I like to think that goes to these types of lengths, but I would be interested to know for sure one way or the other.

    The question is certainly worth asking. And the ramifications of their actions if my assumptions are wrong, as you covered in this and your previous post, are worth discussing. Thank you for articulating the consent-related issues so clearly (here and in numerous other excellent posts).

  8. LoriA says:

    I just did my first shoot for Overall, I’d say the experience was positive even if the shoot was ultimately more difficult than any I’d like to do in the future. There were several things, however, that really freaked me out about Kink. One is their lack of aftercare, which is something I’ll be writing about extensively at my blog. Another is their attitude about the bystanders on Public Disgrace. A video editor told me that he hated editing them, just because cutting out the children that walk by is labor intensive. I was thoroughly horrified by this. I will argue to my death that having sex in public without the consent of those who are watching is unethical, but I don’t think I even have to argue that having sex in public in front of people who *cannot consent* is downright vile.

    I am not ready to dismiss Kink altogether, but this? This is unacceptable, and it needs to change.

  9. Dallas says:


    Wow! It is disappointing to hear that I’ve been giving them too much credit on that front. The after-care issue is also troubling. Thank you for sharing. This is certainly a lot to think about.

  10. Will says:

    “The argument that cultures vary and things that are acceptable in one place aren’t in another would carry more weight with me if the activities shown on Public Disgrace were commonly done by the people who live there.”

    What about the PD shoots filmed at the Folsom Street Fair, or the fair itself? Since a bunch of leather enthusiasts don’t often congregate together in large numbers in public except for this yearly event, is the Folsom Street Fair unethical? There is usually public nudity, masturbation, spanking and sex at the fair, not to mention, at least at past fairs, children have been allowed inside as evidenced by photographs. What’s your opinion about that?

  11. Will says:

    Oh, you did address Folsom Street! Sorry. Must learn to read completely before commenting.

  12. Will says:

    While I’m a fan of, especially PD, you do seem to make a good point. There are cases in their outdoor shoots where bystanders show squeamishness if not outright disgust. There is an example of that in this promo video here: (This site isn’t part of, but carries many longer promo shoots from that site)

    As far as children are concerned, you can, if you pay attention, see where there are young children or adolescents in the background of certain shoots:
    Here you can see two young children at the 33 second mark at the top right of the screen. They’re a distance from the model but still visible ––harmony-out-on-the-streets-and-trains-naked

    At this shoot you can see what is obviously two young children crossing the street at the right of the screen at 1:49. Unlike in the first shoot, the children had to come in view of the model, revealing her breasts and genitals, to cross the street –

    That being said, PD does seem to do a good job at either avoiding children or editing them out compared to many of the “nude in public” sites I’ve seen where the directors seem to look for places where children will be to gauge their reactions

  13. Hacker1983 says:

    I totally agree with charlie. I like public Disgrace, but in some episodes they go to far.
    First: Especially in the Scenes taken place in Germany… where teenager (almost 18) comes along and record everything with their mobilphones, some of them also involved. I saw this episodes. Maybe these teens regret their behaviour after a time because everybody can see them now in the intenet.
    Second: I think that public space must also be safe for our children, what do you think if a mother comes along with her littel children and see a guy deepthroat the actor…maybe this happened but kink cut these scenes. Who knows???
    Third: When strangers getting motivated to take action, im my opinion, this do more harm than good four our society. Maybe some of them cant distinguish between reality & movie, maybe they act again in other situations and it comes up to a violation.
    Fourth: Of course people a force to be in a situation which they dont want to be. I mean nobody of us expect to find people fucking and deepthroat around in public..come on!!! How would you react in such a situation? Maybe you do things you regret later, because this is a new sitaution you never thought about it.
    I cant see what this has to do with reduzing freedom of speech or homophobia??? nudism is welcome, also gays in public, no problem. But Strangers, who probably have aids or something, should not be allowed to fuck around. 
    at least: Can someboy tell me if the bus scene with Uma Masome in Germany is real? I mean now bus driver will let this happen! Can someboy bring some light into the dark?
    thx for reading.

  14. Michael says:

    Your contention seems to be that everyone involved in the shoot should somehow give their consent to be involved with the activities taking place.  The simple answer is that in the countries where public sexual acts are legal, everyone in that society is giving their consent by simply living there.  That is the essence of the social contract in a democratic society.  I don’t really see how your argument is any different from someone in the states saying homosexuals should not kiss or even hold hands in public without getting consent from everyone around them.  In most jurisdictions that is legal, but I’m sure many would argue that children or anyone else  shouldn’t be subjected to that.  Too bad for them.  If they don’t like it, they can live somewhere else or petition their representative in the legislature to change the laws regarding public displays of affection.  If the citizens of that society were forced to live in that society, then no they wouldn’t be giving their consent.  As far as I know that is not the case.  Previous comments have addressed this, but I’ll mention it once again.  A muslim man living in the states cannot make the argument that his rights are being infringed upon because he has to witness women walking around in public without being completely covered.  That is the argument you are making here, that people’s rights are being infringed upon for having to witness an activity that is legally permissible in their society.  If these scenes were being filmed in a jurisdiction somewhere in the states where the act is illegal, then your argument would have some merit because we as a society do not consent to having to witness these acts.  Hence, their prohibition written into law. 

  15. paloma says:

    Michael, I live in Germany and can assure you that this is 100% illegal.
    Public indecency is criminal here and offenders will be either charged with a penalty or a jail sentence of up to one year (§183 StGB). Our society in general may not be more open-minded considering nudity in public, it is not uncommon to see a womens exposed breasts in tv, nevertheless sex in public is illegal here as well.
    Therefore, even following your argumentation, the majority of the bystanders on the streets will not have given their consent to seeing live porn, and I suppose many are rather irritated and displeased by the sight.

  16. paloma says:

     sorry mistake:
    our society may be more openminded to nudity, …

  17. James Bass says:

    “Whether someone chooses to watch is their decision, not mine.”

    Plain and simple, if you are “in public” EVERYONE CAN SEE YOU WITHOUT ‘CHOOSING’ TO. If I am just walking down the street, and 2 people are naked and screwing on a car, I can’t just not look, if they are in front of me and in the general direction that I am walking. Fact: when walking, your eyes subconsciously wander around. It’s a safety mechanism…don’t walk into things…don’t get blind-sided by a man with a knife…etc. Once my eyes glance even in that direction, I have been forced to see it. It’s not a matter of ‘choice’…it’s right in front of where I am walking.

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