Sunday, 3 January 2010

Form and Content

(xposted from my LJ)

I was perusing Scarleteen today and I came across this little bit from Hugo Schwyzer (who as many of you know, I do not always agree with, or even like, but hey) that I liked. It's discussing sexual ethics in the context of newfound Christian faith, which is not in any way relevant to me, but I feel it answers very well why people's objections to BDSM and even to D/s don't work for me:

Let me suggest, Christine, that God cares more about the content of our sexuality than he does about its form. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are often discussed in the context of what Christians can and can’t do. Some Christians will often say things like “the only form of genital contact sanctioned by God is that which happens in a marriage between one husband and one wife.” The implication is clear: if you get the “form” (heterosexual marriage) right, then the sex that follows is okay. If you haven’t got the form right, then you’ve “fallen short of the mark.”

But “form-based” sexual ethics clearly have their problems.

For example, it ignores entirely the great likelihood that coercion, disrespect, and force can take place within marriage. The Churches did not start condemning marital rape — or even acknowledging that such a concept was possible — until the second half of the twentieth century. Is a situation in which a husband demands sex from his wife against her will somehow more in keeping with the spirit of Christ than a situation in which two unmarried people make love with mutual enthusiasm? If you’re a stickler for “form-based ethics”, you bet. For the most traditional of theologians, marital rape is less of a serious sin than homosexuality or pre-marital sex, because form matters more than content.

“Content” based sexual ethics are concerned with the way in which people, in the process of being sexual, value themselves and their partners. Content-based ethics are deeply concerned with mutuality, with pleasure, and with the willingness of each partner to take responsibility for the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences of what is done. Form-based ethics teach the Christian to ask the question “Am I allowed to do this?” Content-based ethics teach the Christian to ask “Am I truly loving — in every sense of the word — the person or persons with whom I am doing this, including myself?”

This is what I can't parse about "BDSM is wrong," even when it's phrased as "Hierarchy is maladaptive for humans and limiting and restrictive."

[EDIT: The person who made the comment linked there has mentioned that she did not use the words I'm using to characterize her position. She says below that she meant that BDSM is wrong for her personally, and that I misrepresented her views on hierarchy as well. About them, she said the following, c&ped verbatim from the comment linked above: "I can't be of help as to whether something is "bad." That's not an idiom I work within or classify things by. I simply know for myself, and for the world I envision as better than what I see we've got now, I think, at a minimum, that less hierarchy would be really helpful." I mention in the comments that I still think there's a value judgment there, but I agree with her that it's best that people interpret her own words and not mine here.]

That's form. That's "The sex (or "the relationship" in the case of outside-the-bedroom D/s) you want needs to not have these features that look like this in order to not be this, which I find maladaptive." It follows that up with an explanation of where that maladaptiveness comes from, yeah -- but so do explanations of why homosexuality is wrong in conservative Christian moralities, sometimes in great detail. There's reasons given for "bad form." They're bad, but they're there.

Saying content matters instead implies that all the answers to "form" questions like "is BDSM compatible with feminism/okay for Christians/good for Buddhists/acceptable for snails?" (okay, that last is me giggling over "love darts") will not be quite right, because they start with the wrong question: "what are you doing?" or "what are you mimicking?" rather than "how are you doing this?"

It's funny how people who usually seem to go with the content-based ("of course it's okay that I'm gay, silly!") slip into the form-based ("he wears a collar [usually not, it's too big for his neck] and called you Master once being cute? OH MY GOD!") when things are outside their comfort zone.


Hcorinna said...

Wow, I can't believe we're back at a link to that conversation from '05.

But I am really uncomfortable with words being put into my mouth.

What I said in that entry of mine you linked to in that conversation, and the conversation was had there was not "BDSM is wrong," but "BDSM is (now) wrong for me." I also said that doing anything I felt was enabling hieracrhy was wrong... for me. That doesn't mean I can't be supportive of those from whom it is NOT wrong, either.

The "for me" part (and also perhaps the recognition that I did spend a couple of years in BDSM community and partnerships, and didn't make the choices I did about not doing that based on any horror stories, either, but instead based on a change in my own mindset, spirituality and ethics) is really important, and also quite in alignment with what Hugo was saying here.

Hcorinna said...

Do pardon my typos: clearly I went over the amount of caffeine I should have today. :)

Trinity said...

HC --

I think that the kind of comments you make there about hierarchy are pretty clearly form-based objections, which is why I don't agree with them.

And I do think your comments slide back and forth from overarching commentary on hierarchy itself to comments on how you personally choose to live your life, which is why I'm uncomfortable with them.

None of that means that I think you made a bad choice for yourself.

I'm commenting on what I see as the nature of sweeping objections to "hierarchy," especially when they then extend to who you want to associate with and the like. I see those objections as absolutely form-based. Which is the problem I have with them. Being leery of "hierarchy" full stop means looking at the structure of an interaction and critiquing it.

It can't mean looking at its effects or personal significance, because there are vastly different examples and kinds of hierarchy in the world. And... back in '05 I said "hmm, this style of critique doesn't make sense to me" and, when I tried to ask you to explain your position, you told me I was "asking such questions of myself."

Perhaps I was... and now I know why that style of critique doesn't make sense to me. I find it hard -- impossible, really -- to see as anything other than irreducibly form-based.

Hcorinna said...

I kind of hear you. However, I'm still uncomfortable with you framing my statements, especially without a direct reference to them as "BDSM is wrong," since I never said that.

I said, it was for me, as was being around some parts of it, such as friends who called partners "slave" around me and would not hear my boundaries when I asked them to please not do that (which is something that was going on with a friend at the time) or to choose not to be around me with those partnerships if that's the only name for someone they wanted to use.

Now, it may be that in that personal journal entry, where I made lots of "I" qualifiers, I didn't qualify every statement. But that was likely because there were enough of them, and it was in the context of talking about myself and my life, that I felt I didn't need to. Clearly, I was mistaken.

But what you have said I said still isn't what I did say, nor something I think, so I'm still asking for you to trust that when you talk to the original source on this and I say that, you give me the respect of trusting that source to know what she thinks and means. Especially without linking to it (which is now archived, as I archive my older entries) to show its context to others who may not have read what I said there years ago.

Trinity said...


Yeah, the archiving is something I noticed too. I would directly link that post on your journal, but I can't do so since there aren't permalinks to each individual entry.

For people who want to know what you said then, and in order to make sure your words are represented as they were said: is the closest thing to a permalink, and then it's the second entry from the bottom.

There are things in that post that really alarm me, but in the interest of not being obnoxious I won't dredge them up.

And I stand (well, sit) corrected about the statement that you called BDSM wrong. You didn't use those words, and in the conversation we had, did carefully avoid the word "bad" and explain why you did.

The thing is that when you say, in the linked bit, that less hierarchy would be "really helpful" not only for yourself but for "the world," I see that as making a value judgment. I don't see how it could not be one, unless we presuppose that we're not actually invested in improving our world, but rather simply viewing it dispassionately and commenting on what would "be helpful" without commitment to bring that about. I don't think, as a person who seems to care passionately about social justice, that you think of things that way. So it's difficult, if not impossible, for me to see your calling less hierarchy "helpful" for the world without thereby making some sort of value judgment on how the world ought to be, whether you use the word "bad" or "wrong" to describe it or not.

And... I understand what you're saying about your friends. I don't like it at all when people insist that, because they have kinks they're deeply invested in, everyone else should be forced to bear witness to everything they do. I do think that some of the things that some BDSM people do are actually arousing to them in part because they are scary, frightening, beyond comfort zones. I tend to think that we all have a shadow side and that exploring it, if done carefully and wisely, can help us know ourselves better, so I don't agree with those who say that playing with such concepts is unproductive or regressive full stop. (Not saying you said this.)

But at the same time, our own work with our dark sides, examining and understanding and accepting (or rejecting) is not a public show. It's not something to be put on display in front of other people who are uncomfortable with it. I don't think friends of yours who don't/didn't honor requests not to use words around you that made you uncomfortable is okay, and I certainly don't think people should (as you described in your post, if I'm remembering right) try to pressure you into making art depicting relationship styles you're not personally comfortable with.

I just think that when someone says "I'm not comfortable with this kind of relationship," and fills that out not just with statements about personal comfort and personal life choices but what's "helpful" for the world, that's not entirely personal any more.

And this may be a difference in how you and I see the Internet, but as I understand the Web anything that is publically accessible is not just a personal statement but something that can be linked, quoted, and talked about.

If we mean to be personal and private -- well, nothing we put on the 'Net is ever truly either, but access locks of various kinds ensure that only one's intended audience see one's comments.

Hcorinna said...

I certainly didn't insist it was private: rather, I said it was said in context of talking about my own life (which includes my choosing what I decide are places I want to put my energy and don't per what I feel is helpful for the world) and what I do with it.

When you're at someone's personal journal, rather than talking about something unlinked in the abstract, especially with words that were not actually said, I think it's easier to see that. And that'd also include, then, in that context, all the kinds of hierarchy I was talking about, not just BDSM.

And for sure, I agree anything on the web can be quoted. But that's not what you actually did in this entry, you attributed a statement to me I didn't actually make, which you've also just agreed.

By all means, I was making some value judgments in that old entry, but I feel now, as I did then, that they were not the kind of blanket judgments you interpreted them as. However, it's possible that my frustration at that time in feeling so much pressure and having my boundaries so frequently disrespected around this may have obscured my root meaning.

All that said, I appreciate your replies here. Thanks.

Just to be clear, even when I do work with BDSM issues, as happens now and then given I can't control what questions I get asked, I feel like over the years, even with my own feelings (ones I had when I wrote the Scarleteen piece you liked way back when, which is still up, just not at the same HTML after we upgraded the site in '08), I've found a sound way to still be supportive and accepting of others.

One of the more recent questions in the last few months is here:

And, as is the case with anyone, it's also entirely possible I have nuanced my approach with all of it in the years since that entry and our conversation back in /05. :)

Trinity said...

HC --

Yes, you're right, and I've edited the entry. I've left my original wording up as well so people can see why you were commenting about it to me, as well as because hey, if I messed up, it's cowardly to delete my words as if I didn't make a mistake.

And thanks for linking me to that newer comment; as I liked the original piece I mentioned in '05, I really like that one. The only nit I can pick is that personally I might, when recommending Dworkin or MacKinnon to someone, mention that it can be helpful to have some kind of guide to help you understand it. I know when I first tried to read them I just found it all shocking and offensive because I had such trouble understanding the POV it was written from, and I couldn't really glean anything from it until someone sat me down and explained to me how to understand the basic view they're espousing.

But that may also have just been me, and my own lens of looking at the world being so different from theirs. I remember one day looking at some porn from Dworkin's time, and finding it very degrading though I don't really feel the same way about other porn, and just having an "Ah-ha! So that's what she was talking about! It wasn't some hidden meaning, it was right there!" moment. :-)

And I know a few people who just thrill with recognition when picking up Dworkin, rather than needing a year even to figure out what she said. So yeah, that's probably just me. Never mind. :-)

And as long as we're trading links:

Not sure if it helps anything, but it might clarify something.

Hcorinna said...

I so appreciate that, and that's a very cool thing of you to do. Thanks.

And that entry you linked me to? That was seriously awesome. I appreciate that even more, even just on a basis of sharing your process (with everyone, yes, but also with me). And I'm glad that exchange was of value to you: it was to me, as well. Which, I confess is some of why this came up in my email, and I was like, "What!?! I thought we parted on that in a good space and with respect." So yay, all around.

Btw, when I first read Dworkin in college, I literally threw it out the window and patently refused to discuss it in class. :) Every five years after that, I've tried to reread her, often failing, but occasionally managing it. I don't throw it anymore. I also still don't agree with much of what she has to say. However, like you it sounds, I get more empathetic towards her as the years go by.

Should we really keep anyone from similar experiences? It seems kind of like the way everyone processes her. :)

Hcorinna said...

Btw, I would have actually made all these comments in an email to you, but I couldn't find your email address anywhere.

Trinity said...

Actually I got really empathetic toward Dworkin and then got less empathetic again. There's a lot to get angry at in there! :-)

Hcorinna said...

There really is.

I also think her own heteronormativity was potentially her biggest enemy.

Trinity said...

Yes, I definitely agree with that.

And... dammit, I was gonna say something profound but I'm tripping over language here so I'll talk later about it. :-)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

The form and content thing reminds me a great deal of the relationship I was in where the form was strictly egalitarian and the content was deeply heirarchical-oppressive, because I had to squelch so much of me in order to conform to that strict egalitarianism.

My partner at the time was profoundly uncomfortable with the way kink played out for me, and his occasional forays into the edges of it upset him greatly. So it was easier to be half of myself than upset him and deal with the consequences of having to put him back together. In the end, that was one of the factors that made the relationship untenable.

It's funny, now that I'm in a stable d/s relationship with someone else, my ex has commented to me, basically, that the content of what I'm into isn't actually as upsetting to him as he thought it was when he was mistaking it for the form. This doesn't mean he thinks he could do it comfortably, but there's yet another form/content tangle to be had there.

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