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.
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 Kink.com would like to reply, either in the comments below or privately, I definitely welcome that.