How many more Eric Schneidermans and Jian Ghomeshis before we stop pretending violence is sex?

How can we claim to oppose abuse, while simultaneously presenting it as “sexy”?

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Back in October 2014, just after the CBC announced it would be dropping Jian Ghomeshi — the public broadcaster’s star — the radio host himself published a defense against accusations of abuse. Ghomeshi claimed he had “always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom” but that he “only participate[s] in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” He explained that he and a woman he was seeing had begun “engaging in adventurous forms of sex that included role-play, dominance, and submission” and that they discussed their sexual “interests,” “safe words,” and “comfort levels” at length “before engaging in rough sex (forms of BDSM).” Ghomeshi played coy (after accusing the woman in reference of petty jealously, claiming the accusations were about nothing more than revenge after having been rejected), declining to offer further details, as “it is truly not anyone’s business what two consenting adults do,” adding, “sexual preferences are a human right.”

At the time, I found this all to be immediately revealing. Ghomeshi had clearly and intentionally adopted the language of the third wave “sex positive movement,” which claims that anything related to “sex” is beyond critique if “chosen” and “consented to,” even violence. To me, this demonstrated the trouble with our modern conversation around — and obsession with — “consent,” as well as the notion that violence and abuse can be “consensual.” People consent to all sorts of things that aren’t healthy and that are even quite dangerous, and it doesn’t necessarily make those things ok. That “sex” is considered a protected category is something worth interrogating.

This week, we are revisiting the notion of “consensual violence” yet again, after four women alleged that New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, abused them. Two of the women — Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam — claimed they had been “choked and hit repeatedly” by Schneiderman, and another said she had been “violently slapped across the face.” A fourth woman says that he slapped her across the face after she rejected his advances.

In response to these allegations, Schneiderman said:

“In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

Sound familiar?

Now, where might men have gotten the idea that slapping or choking a woman is acceptable so long as it can be construed as “sexual”? There is of course the obvious: mainstream media has long presented violence against women as titillating, offering gruesome scenes of rape and murder shot via the male gaze, and pornography has increasingly offered up every imaginable humiliation and pain as masturbatory material. But there is more: even women, we are told, watch and enjoy this, making it normal, harmless, and even empowering (we are “choosing” it, after all).

Truly, this was the most compelling and convincing argument — the one provided by women claiming to be feminist, who insist that violence, “games” of domination and subordination, scenarios and costumes emulating (and sexualizing) slavery and the kind of torture so-called witches were subjected to, and misogynist degradation were fun and exciting ways to “explore your sexuality,” and could very easily be “feminist” so long as we said so.

Indeed, it was this message that provided men with the golden ticket.

How could a man who enjoyed beating, choking, dehumanizing, and torturing women possibly be considered “feminist” or an ally? Easy: if the woman in question consented. He was in fact just helping her become more open-minded and in touch with her own repressed desires.

Like Ghomeshi, Schneiderman had painted himself as something of a feminist, speaking out loudly in support of the #MeToo movement and against Harvey Weinstein. The National Institute for Reproductive Health honoured him as one of their “Champions of Choice” at its annual fund-raising luncheon this month. When he accepted the award, Schneiderman said, “If a woman cannot control her body, she is not truly equal.” He introduced a bill making life-threatening strangulation a grave crime and criminalizing “an intent to impede breathing” — two forms of violence that abusive men commonly engage in, but that are often ignored, right up until those men kill their female partners.

I’ve written about the trouble with “male feminists” before, having learned the hard way that men who go out of their way to announce their “feminism” are almost always smarmy creeps. They are too-often manipulators and abusers, specifically glomming on to “feminism” as a means to justify talking over and at women, dominating conversations and weaseling their way into sexual relationships with those who don’t yet know any better.

To be clear, I am not naive about the fact that many of our personal behaviours and desires do not match our ethics and politics. Women who are feminist have not been socialized any differently than any other woman. We all live with contradictions and have likely struggled for years with attractions to assholes and desire or enjoyment of sexual practices that are far from egalitarian or respectful of our humanity. I don’t expect whatever might be considered perfection from myself or from any other woman in that regard.

Feminism is a practice, not a personality.

But there is a difference between feeling turned on by a thing that doesn’t align with your politics or ethics and advertising that thing as empowering, or claiming it is beyond critique because you “chose it” or “like it.” At no point is “liking” a thing a political defense.

As it always does when stories like this come out (as evidenced by numerous pieces responding to Ghomeshi’s self-defense), we are now seeing the “BDSM community” speak out to clarify that what Schneiderman did is in no way associated with what they do. In The Guardian, Susan Wright writes:

“As a member of the BDSM community, I think it’s important to clarify the difference between rough sex and assault. In today’s post-50 Shades world, we all know there are many people who enjoy kinky sex and they like being called names or roleplaying. So you can’t judge the difference between rough sex and assault based on the behavior itself. The way you determine the difference is consent.”

She also explains that you can tell whether something is “consensual or abusive” by asking if you can stop what’s happening. “As soon as someone wants to end the activity, it must stop, otherwise it’s assault,” Wright explains. But in fact this is not true. In Canada, you cannot consent to an assault that causes bodily harm (much to the chagrin of BDSM enthusiasts). This makes a lot of sense, because the notion that a person could consent to abuse is a dangerous one. If we put this in the context of an abusive husband, for example, does a woman’s choice to stay in the relationship, knowing he beats her, constitute “consent”? If a man is able to get his wife to sign a contract stating that his abuse was ok with her, should he not be culpable?

My unapologetically judgemental opinion is that a man who gets off on beating, degrading, or abusing women is not a man who truly believes in women’s humanity. I’ll go a step further: a man who enjoys hurting women is a dangerous man. I can’t imagine deriving sexual pleasure from intentionally harming another person. It is (prude alert!) sick.

What women want from men in bed is very much enmeshed with the circumstances that have surrounded them for their entire lives. We learn to be attracted to dominant men and to put up with disrespectful behaviour, to the point that we don’t even see it as such. We stay with abusive men, because we learn to be (and want to be!) compassionate, and because we are told and tell one another that men simply can’t control themselves sometimes. We are accustomed to behaviour that should be unacceptable, but that is fully normalized. We teach ourselves to enjoy practices that harm us, or, at very least, don’t help us. We have all sexualized inequality and sexual practices that, generally, serve men, but not women.

As feminists, is is our responsibility to push back — to question and challenge our own beliefs and behaviours — but as the group of people capable of hurting, harming, and even killing women (and who too often act on that ability), it is men who are responsible for not engaging in this behaviour and in these practices. Even if she tells you it’s ok.

To be clear, none of the women Schneiderman abused asked for his violence, or told him it was ok. Based on the account relayed to The New Yorker by Manning Barish, who was in a relationship with Schneiderman, on and off, for a few years, he was abusive in every way possible — emotionally, psychologically, and physically — certainly the abuse was not limited to “sex.” It was just regular old abuse. He would get drunk and threaten and beat her, he would pick at her self-esteem and condescend to her, and he exhibited controlling behaviours.

Selvaratnam, who was born in Sri Lanka, was in a relationship with Schneiderman for more than a year. She characterized him as a “sexual sadist” and told The New Yorker that he would tell her “to call him Master” and slap her until she did. He beat her regularly during sex. She added, “He started calling me his ‘brown slave’ and demanding that I repeat that I was ‘his property.’” Selvaratnam tried to rationalize the abuse, telling herself she could take it if it was only happening during sex. But, she said, “the emotional and verbal abuse started increasing,” and “the belittling and demeaning of me carried over into our nonsexual encounters.”

While, as a society, we claim to agree this behaviour is wrong, we, at the same time, have determined it is potentially sexy. Fifty Shades of Grey is a prime and easy example of the way we, as a culture, sexualize men’s controlling behaviour and abuse, but this trend did not begin in Hollywood.

What message does pornography send, if not that women actually enjoy being hurt and degraded. That they like being called “whores,” “sluts,” dirty bitches” and worse. That they like being face-fucked, being slapped, and being “pounded” in every orifice, by numerous men. The very explicit idea behind BDSM is one sexualizing the “master-slave” relationship, and embedded within it’s history and practice are racist and misogynist themes.

Schneiderman very clearly internalized all these messages — the ones men masturbate to daily. The ones we are told can be liberatory. “You’d really be surprised,” Schneiderman told one terrified and shocked woman, who he had slapped across the face. “A lot of women like it. They don’t always think they like it, but then they do, and they ask for more.”

The fact that we use “sex” as an excuse for violence reveals some very dark truths about our culture. We are told abuse is wrong in one context, but that once an erection is involved, it ceases to be abuse — it becomes “kink,” “play,” “fantasy,” and “fetish.” We all know who this narrative really benefits — indeed, men know it better than anyone.

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 The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, 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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