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.