Pleasure, Pain, and Saddam Hussein
A meditation on recreational violence.
In the Nov. 28 Washington Post, James Grimaldi reported that a member of the team assigned by the United Nations to inspect weapons sites in Iraq, a Virginian named Harvey John "Jack" McGeorge, was a founding officer of the Leather Leadership Conference, past president of an S&M club in Washington called the Black Rose, and a bondage instructor in Leather University's Dungeon 501. Four days later, the United Kingdom's foreign office released a report detailing human rights abuses committed by the government of Saddam Hussein. The juxtaposition provided a timely reminder that one man's recreation is another man's torture.
It goes without saying that adults should be allowed to engage in whatever sexual activities they desire, provided all parties consent. That's what Chatterbox wants to believe, anyway, and mostly does. But what about when the desired sexual activity is torture?
The S&M community has a simple answer: It never gets that far. In an interview with Salon's Kerry Lauerman, Jonathan Krall, founder and director of District of Columbia Sexual Minority Advocates, emphasizes that this is a world governed by strict standards. There are "dungeon monitors" to make sure nobody gets carried away. Local S&M groups standardize "what's appropriate and what's not appropriate." But when he gets down to specifics, he isn't particularly reassuring. Asked about a seminar McGeorge apparently gave on "knife play," Krall replied, "Picking up a knife and rubbing it across your lover's body to titillate them doesn't sound nearly as dangerous to me as bungee jumping." An etiquette guide provided by Black Rose weighs in on knife play solely to tell bystanders to keep their distance: "If a Domme is bending closely to the breast of her sub to do a cutting, she should not have to worry about someone bumping into her arm as she draws the blade down the skin." (The guide also chirps brightly: "Don't bogart that sling! There are never enough play stations for everyone to play at the same time.")
This is shaky ground for liberals (like Chatterbox), who on the one hand strongly advocate mandatory seat belts and steep cigarette taxes and on the other hand don't want to interfere with even the most rococo pursuit of happiness. As that pursuit drifts into the realm of actual violence, though, the whole notion of "consent" fuzzes up. What, exactly, does it mean to want pain? It doesn't help clarify matters to consider reports that Saddam and his sons commit torture partly for the sheer fun of it. It would be less awful if their victims were willing. But how much less awful? Running his finger down "Annex One" of the U.K report—"Methods of torture"—Chatterbox asks himself where S&Mers would draw the line. "Eye gouging" is surely beyond the pale, and "piercing of hands with electric drill" probably is, too. But "suspension from the ceiling" has definite possibilities, and so does falaqa, in which victims are beaten on the soles of their feet until they lose consciousness. By no means does Chatterbox mean to make light of these horrible practices. Quite the opposite: Chatterbox is trying to add a little weight to decisions about personal pleasure that shade into voluntary mutilation.
Calm down, Krall would say. This is all about fantasy and playacting. For most people, it no doubt is. But playacting is in Saddam's bag of torture tricks, too! The eighth item on Annex One's list is "mock executions," wherein "victims are told that they are to be executed by firing squad" They're hooded and shot at with blank rounds. Speaking for himself, Chatterbox would much rather be beaten into unconsciousness.
McGeorge submitted his resignation after the Post story appeared, and the U.N. was probably right to reject it. His sexual hobbies have no bearing on his fitness to hunt down anthrax in Saddam's basement. And Chatterbox doesn't particularly want the law mucking around in this. But when happiness requires misery, tolerance will only get you so far.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.