The UK’s obscenity law is a history of attempted prosecutions that have failed or been reversed. The latest such attempt has just been dismissed from court – it was the attempt to prosecute a man for putting online a story (titled ‘Girls (Scream) Aloud’) about the erotic kidnap, rape, torture, mutilation, and murder of the five members of ‘Girls Aloud’.
The coverage has been varied – the commonest line has been that the story is very offensive and very unpleasant, and the author ‘sick’, but that nevertheless – perhaps, and this is the question posed – does even a sick man have the right to publish obscene and terrible material? I had various thoughts reading this story, and so I felt that I should perhaps write a post about this kind of sexuality – what I’ll call hyper-sadism, the erotic fascination with, not just inflicting pain or exerting control, but with mutilation and murder. One tendency that can be seen very widely in mainstream discussions of hypersadism (and indeed ‘mere’ sadism) is to take it as something profoundly alien and other to ‘us’, the healthy people. This can have both pro- and anti-versions: commonly it’s the basis of an uncompromising denunciation of hypersadism and its horrible sick depravity, but it can also often be the basis of a good-liberal defense – even what is most incomprehensible to us deserves to be respected, because who are we to judge someone who is Else? Of course, it would lend itself much more easily to the former, if we suppose that people have a deep-rooted hostility to what’s alien.
This, I think, is completely the wrong way to go about understanding hypersadism. It’s not some aberrant opposite of mainstream sexuality – it’s a variant of it. Anti-BDSM feminists have been saying this for ages, that BDSM is a particularly explicit formulation of the sadism and domination characteristic of all sexuality in a misogynistic society. And on this basis they condemn it.
Now, I think that they’re completely correct on that basic factual point, but then replicate the error one step further back when they take this as a condemnation of BDSM. The unstated premise that patriarchal (or even fratriarchal) sexuality is the aberrant opposite of healthy human sexuality, which either they (as pure and untainted) can have no empathy with or (since they are by and large sensible enough to see that that’s implausible) which they reject wholeheartedly and try to destroy or starve within themselves. That is, they treat the misogynistic mainstream the way the misogynistic mainstream treats hypersadism.
I’d suggest that in fact, the sexuality of a male-dominated society is one variant of human sexuality – i.e. it creates nothing new, but adjust, deploys, combines, certain natural parts of human sexuality in a certain way. So no particular such part, not even hypersadism, is simply a patriarchal invention – it’s simply a particular sort of sexuality, which socialisation may encourage or discourage, modulate or modify or require.
I haven’t said it explicitly before but attentive readers may have picked up that I am myself kinky, with sadistic tendencies, which obviously is part of why I find these sorts of issues interesting and part of what informs my perspective (and, quite possibly, warps my perspective). And one of the ways that it informs me is by giving me direct awareness of the lines of connection between vanilla, sadistic, and hypersadistic sexuality (not to mention also between those and masochism etc). The sense of power, of being pleased not just by what you do but by being able to do it, and the pleasures and displeasures associated with it (and with giving it, and its close relatives, freedom and responsibility, away) are some of the most general features of human motivation.
The first-generation descendent of falsely ‘othering’ hypersadism is to say ‘well, perhaps it’s on a continuum with mainstream and sadistic impulses, but isn’t it still important that it’s at the extreme end of that continuum? Don’t we want to restrain movements towards that end of it?’
But why is there only one continuum – why is this dimension the most important? There are a great number of dimensions, and what’s at an extreme of one may be moderate on others, or vice versa. For example, sadism can mean inflicting painful things or disgusting things on someone, and a certain (qualified) suppression of empathy is needed on the part of the sadist. I find that much much easier to do with pain than with disgust – I can’t stand the thought of inflicting really disgusting things on someone because I feel the disgust myself very strongly. Other people might be the other way around.
Other variables include whether someone’s urge to dominate takes a benevolent ‘paternalistic’ form, or a sadistic form, or a ‘split’ form in which it is sadistic and aggressive against de-sexualised targets, but nevertheless closely links the victory over them with the ‘conquest’ of a sexual target (slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess as two sides of the same coin).
And of course there’s things like how much you understand and examine your desires, how honest and communicative you are about them, how ‘natural’ you regard them as being, and so forth (note that the story at issue begins with an explicit reminder that it’s a work of perverse fantasy). It’s these sorts of things that I think are more important in practice – which is why I think it’s fairly inconsequential whether people who have already worked out that they are aroused by descriptions of murder can find such stories to read, but more significant whether people just going about their daily business are surrounded by images pushing certain styles of sexuality.
After all, it’s not hard to see how adjustments on one ‘continuum’ can change others. Most obviously, we can imagine how the amount of confidence and dominance someone feel in ‘non-sexual’ situations could interact with the ‘extremeness’ of particular acts that appealed to them – that if unexpectedly challenged or undermined, someone who had previously been entirely a ‘benevolent’ lover, satisfied by the ‘infliction’ of pleasure, might ‘resort’ to more directly aggressive and violent forms to ‘punish’ those who had ‘slighted’ them.
If we take seriously this multi-dimensional nature of sexuality, even of sadism, then the idea of condemning, avoiding, or being concerned about a story or person simply because on the ‘non-sadistic to sadistic’ spectrum they’re very far to one end, becomes very questionable – it rests upon a very crude view of the human mind where the presence of such representations will, entirely by virtue of this aspect of their content, shift people along that spectrum.
I don’t think such a view is psychologically very accurate, so I entirely support the author of ‘Girls (Scream) Aloud’ – not because I think he has a right to produce obscene material, but because of all the sexualities in the world, and all the actual dangers that they present, his apologetic and well-hidden fantasies seem among the least obscene.