Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is Consent A Lodestar? A Saturday Morning Musing About Football, Porn, And Responsibility

Big Boy Bloggers Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs, Noah Millman, and Conor Friedersdorf have been having a long and interesting discussion about this n +1 essay about a reporter embedded with a company that produces BDSM porn. This Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry post has most of the links. The Friedersdorf post is here

Before clicking on the article that starts the exchange, be warned; Jacobs writes, "Witt [the author of the n+1 essay] is an acute observer with no moral compass at all, and I find both her inability to orient herself ethically and her rather placid acceptance of that non-orientation disturbing. I read her essay with care but wish I had never seen it."

Many of the posts discuss the moral implications people enduring pain for gratification. Friedersdorf views the crux of the argument as being about consent:
The ethos of consent is regarded as a lodestar because its embrace is widely seen as an incredible improvement over much of human history; and because instances when the culture of consent is rejected are superlatively horrific.
With an introduction that mentions BDSM, morals, consent, and something so "disturbing" that a well-read college professor wishes he "had never seen it," I have no choice but to write about the National Football League.

Yesterday's Washington Post has a Sally Jenkins, Rick Maese and Scott Clement article about a Post survey of National Football League players. The results are rather alarming:
  • Nine in 10 former NFL players reported suffering concussions while playing, and nearly six in 10 reported three or more. Two in three who had concussions said they experience continuing symptoms from them.
  • More than nine in 10 players reported suffering at least one major injury while in the NFL. More than half reported three or more; one in five reported five or more.
  • Forty-four percent of former players said they have either had a joint replacement or have been advised they’ll need one.
The survey reports that most players played to make better life for themselves and their families. Most have no regrets:
The Post’s online survey of more than 500 retired players paints a rare portrait of the toll a career in the NFL has on the long-term health of those who competed in the bruising game. The results also present a striking paradox: Nine in 10 said they’re happy they played the sport. But fewer than half would recommend children play it today
The money doesn't seem to last as long as the pain, however.
A Washington Post survey of retired NFL players found that nearly nine in 10 report suffering from aches and pains on a daily basis, and they overwhelmingly – 91 percent – connect nearly all their pains to football.
The article continues the point about pain:
Few professions leave their work force with such lasting bruises and scars. The NFL and the league’s Player Care Foundation, an independent charitable organization, sponsored a study at the University of Michigan in 2009 that surveyed 1,063 former players. About eight in 10 reported suffering from pain that lasts most of the day. Among younger retirees, aged 30 to 49, one in three said he was unable to work or limited in work. And almost 30 percent of them rated their health as only “fair” or “poor.”
Ten percent of those under 65 in the Michigan survey needed surgery they could not afford, 16 percent needed dental care they couldn’t pay for and 8 percent could not afford prescription medicine.
With one breath these men claim to have consented to endure pain so fans watch them perform; yet in the next breath, many seem to indicate doubts about consent:
Nine in ten players surveyed by The Post reported playing while hurt during their careers, and 56 percent said they did so “frequently.” Nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) said they felt they had no choice in doing so.
“If you didn’t hurt while you were playing, then you weren’t playing,” [former linebacker Darryl] Talley said.
Forty-nine percent of the former players surveyed said they wish they’d played while hurt less often.
Dreher describes the events of the porn shoot as "torture" that the actress admits to having enjoyed. Enduring hits that causes three concussions sounds a bit like torture to me. So do the surgeries that Don Majkowski endured:
Seventeen years removed from his NFL career, ex-quarterback Don Majkowski says he can no longer hold down a job. He can’t stand for long periods, and sitting is also tough. He has undergone nearly 20 surgeries related to football, including 11 on his ankle, three on his shoulder and two on his back. He has a 12-inch scar on his stomach, and he can’t walk very far because his left foot is fused with his ankle by a pair of metal plates and 13 screws. “It’s like walking on a pirate peg leg,” he said.
There's a sexual component to BDSM that most people find far more repulsive than the gladiatorial nature of the NFL. Yet, it all seems to come back to the fact that performers in both venues consent to suffer pain and debilitating injuries to entertain others and earn a living..

I've been working with the high school young'uns a bit too long to put together a cogent philosophical conclusion. If I can get them to see The Odyssey as an illustration that being human is being troubled, I think I've done my job.

In the matter at hand, all I have is troubling questions that I'm not sure the original essay, the Post article, or the bloggers satisfactorily address: How much autonomy does one really have to consent? Further, is there a consequential moraldifference between watching an paid porn performer beaten and bruised for her own gratification and watching a paid NFL player beaten and bruised to win a football game?  More importantly, how much moral responsibility do consumers of pain for pleasure bear for the damage done to the performers?


CK MacLeod said...

The main differences from a relatively abstract perspective - that is, setting aside concrete differences between particular incommensurate realizations of much larger phenomena, the NFL vs a few BDSMrs - is that the NFL affirms still widely held ideals of sexuality and gender roles, while the BDSM subculture contradicts them. As one might suspect, it's difficult from within the broadly speaking liberal or liberalist discourse (the position includes the so-called conservatives in the observed exchanges) to justify sexual mores at this level. The overall drift of liberalism as a discourse of rationalized individual autonomy is in this regard toward a negation of the underlying conceptions, or, put simply, a world in which all sexual mores reduce to variations on BDSM, where sex is detached from reproductive biology, and instead refers to the familiar mechanisms of the pain/pleasure cycle. In my opinion your questions aren't bad questions, but they're asked from within the same liberalist framework, amounting to an unfair home field advantage for Team BDSM.

Kal Lis said...


You must have missed the sentence that I have been with high school students not grad school students. Thanks for using some prose that makes me think a bit again

As to your first point about the NFL being a much larger phenomena, I will make another apples to oranges comparison. Both the NFL and the porn industry have an annual income of about $9 billion. I'm not sure what percentage involves BDSM.

I stopped by your blog to try to discern your definition of liberalism.

As a side note, it was refreshing to see the first post contained a description of debate speed and spread. As a high school debate coach, I appreciate the analogy.

Based on the definition of liberalism that you give on your site, I'm not sure how my questions exclusively inhabit that framework. It would seem to me that one who inhabits the virtue ethics camp would ask the same questions but wonder what a typically virtuous person would/should do.

CK MacLeod said...

First, thanks for visiting my blog and trying to get a better idea about where I'm coming from rather than just attacking some set of presumptions.

Just on the Porn vs NFL as industries question, maybe we have to compare Porn to "Sports" or to commercialized sport, or maybe erotica to commercial sports, or maybe there is no good simple comparison available to us at all.

I didn't read the entire exchange between the writers you've mentioned. Maybe you can direct me to the point where they considered the question of perversity in its social dimension.

To compress a potentially long discussion into a few observations also touching on this sports vs sex side-discussion: Not everything we call "pornography" is the same. It could be argued that the difference between erotica and pornography or obscenity is that the former seeks to address sexuality as, to use the Aristotelian language, a component of human flourishing or conducive to it, while performances such as the group sex and cruelty event do the opposite, and may even be intended to be obscene or to put the notion of obscenity "in question." Part of the pleasure derived by participants may specifically derive from the idea that they are testing or rejecting "society"'s limits: The assault on traditional sensibilities or values, on social standards, on the old morality may be either the whole point or a major part of the show or its concept. The participants intend to be "perverse" for inherited definitions of perversity, and by those same definitions, that very intention is already also perverse.

I know that some of the discussants you mention at least mentioned social standards that do not seem to resolve to questions of consent exclusively: We make social decisions - like "age of consent" - that specifically acknowledge the limitations of consent alone.
Those other concerns involve ideas about intrinsic perversity that are in turn linked to or imply common ideals. In regard to the NFL, we can acknowledge an authentic moral problem of offering men millions of dollars to risk permanent injury, involving the question of whether their consent isn't being compromised in such a way as to turn the sport into something as or more loathsome than kinky sex practices. But the discussion isn't complete unless we also consider the particular
subjects on their own terms. We'd have to consider what athletic "heroism" exemplifies generally and what classically masculine heroism of the sort celebrated in American football offers for us, not merely or even most importantly for the players themselves.

We could apply a similar approach to the question of the sex performers, but it requires us to go beyond the consent rationale. My initial comment was meant to suggest that the liberalist discourse, which already begins with a fundamental assumption that the autonomy of the individual is the origin of any authentic common good, is already biased against any particular more communitarian or organic and pre-existent ideal. The "modern liberal" - not a Democratic Party liberal, but a post-Enlightenment liberal - may not be able to understand or explain and justify a preference for a society that celebrates football, or patriotism, or military proficiency, or the "faith of our fathers," or the traditional family, and so on, and that is able to condemn sexual perversity in a similar context. From the the liberal perspective, it's all those other things that are in some way perverse.

CK MacLeod said...

Odd - I left a longish reply, but it has not shown up after around 24 hours. I can try again or post it at my own blog.

Kal Lis said...


Thanks for letting me know. It got caught in blogger's spam filter.

Kal Lis said...


I'm going to start at the bottom of your response.

When I teach Dante's Inferno or Everyman to the young'uns, I tell them that the works are Christian works written in a Christian era. We in 2013 are going to have trouble understanding why Dante's hell punishes deceit more harshly than it punishes violence.

In the same way, I'm not sure one can remove the liberalism created by Enlightenment from one's worldview. I will have to admit that the original post reflected a consequentialist view that I'm not sure I hold.

I am not unsympathetic to MacIntyre's virtue theory. I confess I don't know enough Strauss to comment, and I find the Derrida that I have read to be a bit too close to the Sophists for comfort. That said, it's unclear to me that society will be able to more than create a hybrid of liberalism and virtue or any other per-Enlightment view.

I may be misreading your comment, but it seems as if you're suggesting some combination of autonomy, preservation of dignity, the common good, and prudence are necessary to move society morally. I'm not sure I disagree. As I said earlier, teaching high school doesn't let me think through these things the way I would like.

Briefly, as to your heroism point, I remember telling students that Terrell Owens's holdout was similar to Achilles sulking in his tent over Briseis, both men equated honor with possessions/wealth.