The economics of consent: Why BDSM and consumer capitalism are closer than you think

Hidden in a passage of Douglas Adams’ 1980 sci-fi comedy novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most interesting cultural problems of our time.

While eating at Milliways, the eponymous restaurant at the end of the universe (literally — it’s located billions of years in the future), the book’s characters are introduced to the Dish of the Day: a talking cow who walks to their table and happily requests to be eaten.

The protagonist, Arthur Dent, finds the situation revolting. “I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing here inviting me to,” he says. “It’s heartless.” His tablemates are less reluctant, listening hungrily as the animal suggests cuts from its own body. One offers: “Better than eating an animal that didn’t want to be eaten.”

Arthur’s discomfort — and that of many readers — persists, even after this rationalization. But isn’t his dining companion correct? Isn’t it better to eat an animal who chooses to be eaten rather than one that didn’t?

Allow us, by way of an answer, to explore another situation.

Walmart encourages employees to act enthusiastic and helpful toward customers, but anyone who’s ever been inside a Walmart knows that the store’s “associates” are more likely to look miserable and burned out.

Hypothetically, it would be possible for Walmart to create a new private school, Walmart Academy, which would allow parents to send their young toddlers for residential education through the age of 18. Walmart Academy could teach desirable employee traits as personal and civic virtues — or, indeed, as the only behavioral choices that wouldn’t lead to punishment.

After such an education, students would be given Walmart jobs for life. They would be cheerful in their work, trained never to express dissatisfaction, boredom, or anger. Each of them would want his or her job — some would feel their jobs were, in fact, necessary for their life satisfaction.

It is doubtful that many of us would be swayed by the notion that these hypothetical employees chose their jobs. In the same way, most of us would not be comforted if we learned that the North Korean people really did think their leader was a living god, or that they were quite happily starving.

We can see, then, that consent — even enthusiasm — of the exploited is not necessarily a useful paradigm for evaluating whether that exploitation is moral.

This principle is simple, even intuitive, in these situations.

So why does BDSM get a free pass?

Today’s sex-positive rhetoric insists that BDSM submissives are empowered and choosing a form of consensual exploitation. BDSM pornography megasite kink.com features interviews with smiling, chatty performers before showing scenes involving their extreme degradation.

In this new, transgressive world of sexuality, sadists — recast, now, as “dominants” and the heroes of romantic novels — inflict pain and humiliation only to satisfy deep-seated desires of their victims.

But is this really a transgressive idea at all?

We’ve heard this reversal in recent years somewhere else: the workplace, where what used to be called “bosses” are now “job creators.” That two-word term recasts the bosses and owners, once regarded as exploiters, as heroes — the rest of us are just takers who they provide for. The heroes of our sports movies are no longer sports teams, but their managers.

Ah, but, you say, this is a stretch. What does our economic system have to do with BDSM?

Everything.

For starters, BDSM has become a hotbed for consumerism, with toy sites offering accessories costing hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars. With enough toys and props, bed is no longer “the poor man’s opera,” as in the old proverb, but instead becomes another opportunity for keeping up with the Joneses. Advocates of making BDSM more visible are, of course, also advocating for their ability to show off expensive accoutrements.

BDSM practices also adhere more closely to the worker/boss model than to that of the master and slave. America’s workplaces and its dungeons both maintain a fiction of equality between the parties, even though one has extensive power over the other. In both the board room and the bedroom, Americans — raised in a society where freedom is king — find it difficult to accept that not every “yes,” whether a signature on a binding arbitration agreement or a request for more punishment, is an indicator of meaningful consent.

The flaw of BDSM culture, then, is that it confuses the ultimate rehash of capitalism’s most troubling dynamics with transgression. In a culture where domination and cruelty are normalized everywhere, BDSM seems less like a rebellion and more like a surrender.

Consider this: US schools have emphasized workplace readiness — the virtues of servitude, not personhood — at earlier and earlier ages for more than two decades, at the cost of art, music, and other “non-essential” subjects. Can the graduates of these schools, when they become adults who gratefully accept both their low-wage job and their lashing from a “loving dominant,” be said to have chosen their path?

I don’t know the answer. But I also don’t know that it matters. If I ever find myself at Milliways, I’m ordering the salad.

 

Deirdre Skye is a romance novel writer working and living in Chicago, Illinois. Find her online: http://culturallyboundgender.wordpress.com/

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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