Drawing the Line


Sexual tastes tend to simmer below the level of rational thought, and they tend to be quirky. This is why they should not be confused with moral standards, but since every organized religion has something to say about sex, esthetic standards (this feels good, this feels okay, this feels awful) tend to be confused with moral standards (this is good, this is decent enough, this is evil and should result in criminal charges).

Few people want to be known as members of a lunatic fringe. At the same time, no one wants to be considered naive, prudish or narrow-minded. So when discussing controversial topics (including sex in any form or flavor), those who want to command the sensible middle ground usually say they can accept X (sex outside of marriage, discreet prostitution, polyamory, BDSM, “gay rights,” women’s rights, reproductive freedom of choice, erotic art, name the issue of the day) as long as it doesn’t go “too far.”

Thus we have the concept of the slippery slope that leads to hell if followed all the way down. During the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, self-defined liberals bravely claimed that sexual pleasure could be a morally good thing, but only in a committed relationship. Any fooling-around outside that clear boundary was immoral and would cause hideous disfigurement followed by painful death from a sexually-transmitted disease. The liberals and moderates of that time were generally opposed to same-gender sexual activity on grounds that medical science found it unhealthy. Liberals who were not strictly heterosexual and monogamous generally defined sex as a very private thing; their line in the sand was between publicly-admissible information and that which really shouldn’t be mentioned anywhere, because reckless exposure could destroy lives.

Even now, women who are sexually attracted to men must constantly negotiate the line between “good girls” and “bad girls” in the minds of the men they date. Supposedly the difference is clear and obvious, even though virgins can still get bad reputations in the purgatory of high school, and most straight, single men claim to be looking for open-minded (sexually available) women, not sexual conservatives.

Not long ago, all the sexual activities covered by the umbrella term BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism/Domination/submission) were beyond the stated limits of most liberals. The usual objection was that all that stuff was essentially sexual abuse, even if the victims “consented.” Consent in that context was explained away as the result of drinking, drug abuse or brainwashing, so it wasn’t taken seriously. The more sophisticated liberal objection to BDSM was that it was actually boring, not exciting. Supposedly the whipping of a bound, blindfolded victim (shown on film or described on paper) quickly got stale for the audience, whereas kissing and cuddling never did.

Most lines drawn between morally-acceptable expressions of sex (including literary erotica) and bad, perverse, unhealthy expressions of sex (including “porn”) are scary because the vehemence of the line-drawers is only matched by the arbitrariness of the line.

I am often reminded of the rules on the use of makeup by teenage daughters that were enforced by some parents in my youth. Once a girl was deemed old enough to wear eye-shadow, it had to be light blue until she had reached eighteen, or some other milestone. A girl’s first lipstick had to be pink, of course, and this color code applied to girls of all complexions, regardless of what they wore. Brown eye-shadow and red or even coral lipstick could get a girl grounded, if not kicked out of school and forced to earn a living in a rat-infested whorehouse. Don’t even get me started on the length (shortness) of girls’ skirts, the length of boys’ hair, and the dire threat to everything wholesome that was supposedly represented by rock music.

Recently an erotic novel by a writer I admire was trashed in an anonymous review on grounds that the book “goes too far.” The reviewer claims:

“As for the sexual content, I was warned by the author, but still I wasn’t prepared. I like to think I’m fairly open-minded when it comes to BDSM and the whole kinky sex scene, but I draw the line at urination (which is mentioned as something the couple did in the past).”

This squick grabbed my attention because it was the subject of a debate in the 1990s. A series of erotic films named Rain Woman had to be screened and voted on by the local Film Classification Board (of which I was a member) before they could legally be shown or rented anywhere in the Canadian province where I live. Liquid is a kind of visual motif throughout the film series: attractive people get caught in the rain, so as soon as they run indoors, they need to take all their clothes off and shower together. The flow of body fluids in the sex scenes includes female ejaculation, or at least this is what it looked like to me. The chairperson of the film board insisted that these scenes showed urination, which was (and still is, to my knowledge) legally banned from all films shown in this province. I kid you not.

Despite my efforts to educate the female board chairperson about the marvelous sexual potential of all female bodies (I showed her a diagram), the films were quickly returned to their point of origin on grounds that their subject-matter was not legal, case closed.

Apparently this case is also closed for the reviewer of the BDSM novel, even though urination is only referred to as something the couple has done in the past, presumably in a sexual context. I could point out that all physically healthy human characters in fiction can be presumed to be pissers by nature. If they couldn’t eliminate waste in this way, they wouldn’t survive.

The limits of the reviewer’s open mind are further revealed:

“The blurb on the site makes you think you’re getting into a fun sexy story about a married couple looking to explore their sexual horizons. I thought I was in for “Leslie has no clue about the BDSM, Phillip her husband wants to try it out,” but oh no-no . . . not even close. Leslie and Phillip have been doing lots of BDSM and Leslie isn’t shocked, she’s trained for it.”

Knowledge and experience in the murky world of BDSM seem to be a problem for the “open-minded” reviewer. Presumably, fumbling experiments by a curious husband and a clueless wife would be “fun” and “sexy,” especially if these characters had no reliable mentors, fellow-travelers or sources of information. The reviewer wants the reading public to know that this novel goes beyond the light-blue phase of BDSM, and the author’s warnings about its contents are no excuse.

Self-defined members of the BDSM Old Guard who remember when all such activity was below the radar of the cultural mainstream would probably be amused by a novel about a legally-married couple who are defined as leatherfolk in any sense, especially if they both have careers and live in a middle-class neighborhood. Leslie and Phillip are likely to be on the wrong side of the line for a variety of righteous readers.

The safe, sensible middle ground really doesn’t exist. The green oasis of neutrality between subjective positions is a mirage.

Just as it isn’t really possible to take a “neutral” position between slavery and freedom, it isn’t possible to be liberal and tolerant and yet opposed to every consensual activity that falls outside one’s personal comfort zone. Do you believe that masturbation leads to insanity? Or that too much (any) thinking diverts vital energy away from women’s reproductive organs? At one time, the most respected medical doctors insisted on these “facts.”

There is a paradox at the heart of all conceptions of social harmony: the defense of tolerance requires that intolerance not be tolerated. By definition, sexual abuse which violates anyone’s will can’t be part of a vision of sexual freedom for all. (As the saying goes, the freedom of my fist ends at someone else’s nose.) Aside from the difference between consensual pleasure and abuse, every sexual choice is simply a matter of taste.

However, if I need to draw the line between good and bad sexual expression to maintain whatever credibility I may still have as a decent person, let’s try this: I think the titles of all sexually-explicit films should be in purple font. There should be no exceptions, since other colors would just mislead impressionable viewers. After all, they aren’t purple. This rule should be enforced by law, and a petition about this needs to be sent to all levels of government. Now, you look like a sensible type. Won’t you join my campaign?

Jean Roberta
July 2009

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2009 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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