Eight women have now come forward alleging sexual abuse at the hands of Jian Ghomeshi. Star article detailing their experiences here: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/10/29/jian_ghomeshi_8_women_accuse_former_cbc_host_of_violence_sexual_abuse_or_harassment.html
It’s clear that Ghomeshi is into violent sex, and has had violent and non-consensual sexual encounters with various women. The question now is how and why has Ghomeshi conflated violent sex with consensual BDSM? This is not only a question for people participating in the BDSM community. Deciphering the intersections between sex and power is culturally ubiquitous problem. Sex is a game of sometimes subtle persuasion. Sex involves seducing, enticing, innuendo and nuance. Power, such as celebrity or money, may be used as a currency of persuasion. Persuasion, however, is a dangerous game: it is a fine line between flirting and manipulating, and too much manipulation can obscure the authenticity of consent.
I am not the type to become star-struck. Mostly because my experience has taught me that the more someone is trying to overwhelm you as a strategy of persuasion, for example by mentioning their job or income, the more likely they’re trying to absolutely control the condition of your consent: men will often use money as a way of totalizing a sexual encounter. You accept a drink, therefore, you are obligated to endure some kind of sexual contact (verbal or otherwise). But, as any good political theorist knows, coercion is not consent; and while most sexual persuasion doesn’t land completely in the realm of coercion, it is the in-between grey areas of modern dating, the nuances, where most of the moral ambiguity really takes place. If a man like Ghomeshi uses his celebrity to establish desire and authority over young girls (and I think there is something significant to the ages of the women involved), baiting them with career opportunities, he has, I think, crossed an ethical boundary. At the very least, he’s wading in murky territory.
And we must ask ourselves, what kind of men want to overwhelm a woman, anyways? Power will always be a dimension of sexual exchange. Yet in the 21st century world, where we desire equality between men and women, what sort of man won’t plainly state his intentions?
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher: the Problem of Consent
I watched an excellent film on the blurry lines between power, consent, desire, and sex. The film is called the Piano Teacher. That film more than any other I’ve seen captured the nuanced subtleties of power and sex. Piano teacher Erika Kohut is into BDSM. After striking up a relationship with a gifted student, Kohut attempts to draw him into her fantasies, with extreme outcomes for both parties. This film perfectly captures the idea and fantasy of power, and compares it against its de facto operations between two people with imperfect understanding and communication. It brutally captures sexual violence as it can occur between two people who both physically desire each other. The inability to make fantasy into reality in a completely controlled fashion is a powerful theme in the film. Fantasies exist in our head; in reality their enactment requires negotiation that will necessary shape them, to the point of making them unrecognizable. No one can utterly control the terms of any social exchange, no matter how much money or power is involved. And though Ghomeshi may have attempted in his own way to establish consent in the lead-up to some of his sexual encounters, he ultimately failed to respond to the on-going and open ended negotiations that sexual exchange demands between two adults. Because a woman allows you to pull her hair once does not mean she will allow you to hit her in the face, for example.
This film is brutal and hard to watch but important. In times when men struggle to understand that relationships with women are not fixed, that money, power, and even previous consent cannot absolutely fix the terms of on-going sexual encounters, this film remains relevant not only for people interested in the nuances of BDSM.
One last thought: one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, Persuasion, would also make excellent supplementary reading on this topic. We use persuasion in our everyday lives, and this novel is an entertaining foray into its moral implications. What we ought to be persuaded to do, when we ought to persuade, and how we ought to go about doing it, are subjects that make this book fucking timeless. I mean, does anyone think there’s any moral culpability to Ghomeshi’s PR firm? A sleazy job but somebody has to do it? As I continue to wallow in unemployment, I’d be lying if I said going to the dark side isn’t on my mind.