The Ghomeshi Affair and the Ethical Power of Consent

The internet is abuzz with reactions to Jian Ghomeshi’s dismissal from the CBC. At this point, it is unclear what exactly Ghomeshi did to whom and how whatever he did could be grounds for his dismissal. There are allegations from three anonymous women that Ghomeshi violently assaulted them during sex and a fourth claims he told her at work: “I want to hate fuck you.” Ghomeshi’s response has been to claim that the allegations of non-consensual ‘rough sex’ are false and that those making the allegations are liars. He does not dispute that he has engaged in BDSM practices with women but he insists that the activities that he has engaged in have all been fully consensual and thus are above reproach. Brenda Cossman, a professor of law at University of Toronto, has already pointed out that in Canadian law consent to violence is not always sufficient to immunize oneself against a criminal charge of assault. So some extreme forms of BDSM sex may be crimes in Canada even if those participating in such sexual activities do so fully voluntarily.

Leaving law aside, one might also wonder about the power of consent in sexual contexts to affect the ethical character of conduct. Take the example of a ‘hate fuck’. I assume that absent consent it is wrong to hate fuck someone. (I assume consent is a necessary condition of ethically permissible sex but it’s not always a sufficient condition.) Having sex with a person in a way that manifests hate for them could be wrong for many reasons. But one important reason is simply that is seems profoundly disrespectful. A hate fuck involves the expression of morally inappropriate attitudes. It seems aimed at conveying the attitude the person being fucked is not a moral equal with dignity that merits acknowledgement but rather is a lesser kind of being to whom contempt, derision, and callousness may be appropriately expressed. Moreover, this wrongness at stake here can obtain even if the person who is hate fucked is unaware of the hateful attitudes taken by the fucker. (In general, I assume it’s possible to wrong someone without them knowing it.)

Could consent change this and somehow make ethically repugnant attitudes ethically acceptable or innocuous? It’s not entirely clear to me that a person can actually consent to a hate fuck but suppose that genuine consent is possible. We might then ask whether consent provides appropriate ethical permission for a hate fuck such that consensual hate fucking is ethically permissible. I am inclined to resist this possibility. The main concern is that consent does nothing to change the objectionable attitude that expressed via hate fucking. Even if the people who consent to hate fucking both derive a great deal of pleasure from the activity, the fact remains that one person manifests deep disrespect for the other. Moreover, in inviting disrespect, the person who consents to be hate fucked fails to acknowledge and appreciate their own status as a being with dignity. The currency of human pleasure cannot be used to buy disrespect or compensate for the loss of dignity. So even if the pleasure of consensual hate fucking is genuine and great for all participants it is still seems ethically objectionable.

Now it might be contended that mutual consent to hate fucking is itself an expression of mutual respect through which adults acknowledges the capacity and ultimate authority of one another to decide how they are treated. So maybe consensual hate fucking only seems disrespectful because we fail to appreciate the manner in which it is a manifestation of autonomy. I think this strategy only seems plausible to the degree that it conceptualizes autonomy in terms of self-ownership. On a self-ownership model, persons stand in relation to themselves as they do any alienable piece of property. Providing she does not violate the claims of others, the property owner has the prerogative to dispose of her property as she sees fit. She may destroy it, damage it or transfer it to another person. Of course, this is to abandon the idea that persons have a kind of non-negotiable basic moral status. It misses the wisdom in the old joke that goes as follows. Unattractive Alex asks beautiful Bobbie: ‘Would you sleep with me for $1,000,000?’ Bobbie replies, ‘Well for $1,000,000 why yes I would.’ Alex: ‘Well how about for $10?’ Bobbie: ‘Of course not! What kind of person do you think I am?’ Alex: ‘We’ve already established that, we’re just haggling over price!’

Whereas autonomy conceived as self-ownership sees no betrayal of something of value by viewing oneself as mere chattel, the more robust, and in my view more plausible, Kantian view insists that human dignity has a value “beyond all price”. This value lies partly in our capacities as autonomous choice-makers but that does not mean that all choices we make, simply in virtue of being our own choices, give due recognition to our own moral standing. Just as we can be denied access to the conditions of self-respect and hence fail to recognize our claim not to be servile to others, we can (wrongly) deny ourselves the respect to which we are entitled. On the self-ownership model, it seems that people can arbitrarily assign a value to themselves qua property – the price at which they can be literally bought as a person. And they make no ethical error if they declare that they are worthless providing that is the value they choose to assign to themselves. But that strikes me as mistaken hence I reject the self-ownership conception of autonomy.

By way of illustration of this error consider a fictional nonsexual example. Suppose my wife, who is Jewish, credibly tells me that she would derive a great deal of pleasure in being the object of vicious anti-semitic remarks. (The fact that she would derive pleasure from this may, of course, indicate that she lacks self-respect.) Suppose next that I too would take great delight in subjecting my wife to anti-semitic insults. (Even if this is directed only to my wife, one might naturally wonder about what this would imply about my views of Jews in general.) I might inquire whether she is sure about this and we might agree on a ‘safe word’ that either us can use at any time to put an end to the anti-semitic remarks. It seems clear that, insofar as I really respect my wife, I should decline the invitation to insult her in this way even at the cost of foregoing the pleasure we could both experience. In this sort of case, consent does not operate as a powerful ethical cleanser that magically removes the stain of disrespect. The hate fuck case is structurally parallel so it seems that we should reject the idea that consent, even fulsome consent, can have the requisite ethically transformative effects.

I am not arguing that all BDSM practices are ethically problematic. My point is only that whether they are or not is not settled solely via an inquiry into the presence or absence of (meaningful) consent. This means that Ghomeshi may not be off the ethical hook even if his claims to have always secured consent from his sexual partners are completely true. Whether or not we should judge his conduct as ethically dubious depends on more than consent.



The Ghomeshi Affair and the Ethical Power of Consent — 4 Comments

  1. I think applying the idea of alief here resolves the ethical issues you point out.

    Alief is the idea of, from Wikipedia, “an automatic or habitual belief-like attitude, particularly one that is in tension with a person’s explicit beliefs.”

    Examples include crying or being frightened at a movie despite knowing that it is fiction.

    I think a similar thing is happening when people roleplay during sex. Just as the actor who plays Caesar realizes that the actor playing Brutus doesn’t actually desire to kill him, the victim of anti-semitic remarks in your example could reasonable realize that what they’re doing is the product of imagination, and not based in actual feelings or beliefs.

  2. I’m not sure I agree that regarding consent as transformative in these cases makes sense only on a self-ownership view of autonomy. How does the following analysis sound: the semantics of ‘hatefuck’ are such that it can apply both to actions sincerely expressive of hatred and to actions that play at expressing hatred. Consensual hatefucking, when the relevant consent is present and valued on both sides, is not genuinely expressive of hatred but only plays at expressing hatred, rather as actors in a play might do (I’m not an expert on speech-act theory or anything, so I’m not sure of the best way to understand ‘express’ here, but it seems like actors’ lines do express attitudes, but not sincerely, and that playing an evil character is not evil).

    Essentially, this boils down to treat consensual hatefucking, or other consensual sexual acts that express morally objectionable attitudes (e.g. rapeplay or raceplay) as a form of pretense, in which those attitudes are ‘expressed’ in a sense that secures pleasure for the participants but not in a sense that implies endorsement of them (which would be morally vicious).

    (That doesn’t touch your anti-semitic abuse example: I just don’t share the intuition that you ‘clearly’ should decline that request.)

  3. Thanks for the interesting comments. There is a common thread in the comments, namely that in the fully consensual situations the participants who might seem to be expressing morally inappropriate attitudes towards one another are not really doing so because they are, and understand themselves, to be engaged in a kind of fiction or pretense. So if I make antisemitic remarks to my wife they don’t, in the special context, constitute real antisemitism but rather ‘pretend’ antisemitism’. I think this is a plausible analysis of some but probably not all cases. In some cases, I think the pleasure for the parties rests on real expressions of contempt etc. However, even if all or most cases can be analyzed via the lens of pretense, I am not sure that this fully disposes of the kind of objection I tried to raise. One might think it is objectionable for me to pretend to be antisemitic in order to derive pleasure. Suppose, to take an extreme example, that I took a great deal of pleasure imagining myself to be Hitler devising and pursuing the Holocaust. I think one might reasonably worry that the fact that I can take delight in sending innocent people to their deaths expresses an objectionable attitude. If I really respected people, the critic might urge, I wouldn’t find the imagined prospect of killing them so delightful. Nonetheless, I think the points you both raise about pretense or imagination are important.

  4. As one who has dabbled in both acting & BDSM, I believe there is a subtle difference between acting & roleplaying. The actor attempts to fully immerse himself in the character to achieve a portrayal of the character & derives pleasure (satisfaction is a better word) from producing an accurate portrayal. To use your Hitler example, he does not derive pleasure by sending Jews to the gas chamber but by producing a good imitation of the man who did. On the other hand, in roleplay pleasure is derived, I believe, by replicating the actual emotions of the character.

    My actual BDSM experience is limited & its “rough sex” content extremely so (I wussed out at hair pulling despite lots of encouragement to continue) however I have read on the subject fairly extensively (not 50 Shades). But until Ghomeshi I had not come across the term “hate fuck”. In fact the use of the word “hate” seems to run counter to the expressions commonly used in BDSM which include respect, nurturing, submission, consent etc. Having said that it should be obvious to many observers of BDSM websites that there are many (male) predators ready to take advantage of unsuspecting prey. Since it is common practice for a dominant male to be partnered with a subordinate (not necessarily meaning weak) female, this can lead to dangerous situations.