Let’s briefly look at two comparisons of the US government’s justifications for its torture program and the way sadomasochistic subcultural rhetoric about BDSM practices are discussed.
Comparison 1: “How far is too far?”
Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the books, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror,” as well as “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation,” provides the necessary background for the issue of government-run torture programs:
The psychologists [employed by the military] are critical, but they’re critical because psychological torture is, in effect, enshrined within U.S. law. When the United States finally ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, we did so subject to certain qualifications, known in diplomatic parlance as “reservations.” And basically, the four reservations that we introduced modified our approval, our ratification of that convention, everything in it except: We redefined the U.N. definition of what torture was—extreme pain—and we called it “prolonged mental harm,” that for an act to rise to the level of torture, it had to become, in U.S. parlance, in those reservations, prolonged mental harm.
Now, those three words are critical. First of all, “mental.” That meant that the United States was effectively splitting the U.N. convention down the middle. The convention barred both physical and psychological torture. We were saying, “We accept the ban on physical torture, but we’re exempting the ban on psychological torture. And we are qualifying that ban because in order for an act to rise to the level of torture, of psychological torture, it has to inflict prolonged mental harm upon the victim.”
Now, what is “prolonged”? How long is “prolonged”? That’s not defined. It’s a huge loophole. And what constitutes “harm”? That’s another huge loophole. And that, of course, opened the door for that notorious memo by the Office of Legal Counsel, its leader then Jay Bybee, to say that for something to rise to the level of harm, the pain must be sufficient or equivalent to organ failure. In other words, torture, psychological torture up to but not including death, is legally acceptable in U.S. law.
Meanwhile, even the most casual Google search about BDSM will reveal copious writings about “the difference between hurt and harm.” Here are just a sample.
Jay Wiseman recently published a definition of hurt vs. harm that has been kicking around local BDSM circles for many years. […] Generally, if the person who has been permanently marked actively consented to the mark, it isn’t considered harm. If the person wasn’t expecting to be permanently marked or scarred and it’s done to them anyways, it’s generally considered to be harm.
hurt and harm are different: hurt is temporary, but harm is lasting — whether it’s physical, like loss of a limb or function; psychological, like PTSD or reduced self-esteem; or spiritual, such as despair. What makes avoiding harm suitable as the master principle for BDSM (though not of all ethics) is precisely that it doesn’t prescribe what people should find pleasurable or conducive to their happiness. Whatever your turn-ons and sources of satisfaction — and everyone’s are different — harm is lasting damage that diminishes your ability to enjoy life or pursue happiness. In other words, the principle of avoiding harm helps us decide how far is too far to go with a clean conscience in BDSM play or relationships.
Does this mean that things like degradation, objectification, or dehumanization have no place in ethical BDSM? Not necessarily: making someone physically, mentally, or spiritually less than before can be okay — and may even, paradoxically, empower the “victim” — when it’s a temporary, reversible effect.
(Emphasis in original.)
In both contexts, there is a strong focus on discerning “how far is too far” with respect to damage caused. If any questions are raised, the questions in both contexts are ones arising from a legalistic foundation for consent. These questions sound like, “What counts as ‘torture,’ or ‘harm’?”, “Under what circumstances is it acceptable to torture or harm someone?”, and “In the case of a dispute, what evidence is needed to prove that damage rose to the level of torture or harm?”
In neither context do the torturers or consensual hurt-enjoyers(??) deny that there is, in fact, physical or psychological or both kinds of damage being caused. The denials only come later, once objections are raised. For now, they just want to lawyer about whether the damage was “legitimate” torture or abuse.
Comparison 2: “That is not who we are.”
Of course, for obvious reasons, there have been numerous objections raised against torture as well as BDSM from many different sources. In both contexts, I think it’s safe to say that the most convincing arguments against each practice have come from the people who have intimate knowledge of them. In the case of the torture program, this means victims who have survived being tortured, as well as government and military employees who participated in but have since spoken out against the torture program. In the case of BDSM, this means BDSM’ers themselves, and especially Submissives or bottoms, who are the practitioners most often on the receiving end of physical and psychological trauma and abuse.
How do torturers react when they are confronted by such objections? Here’s what Dick Cheney said during his interview last Sunday on NBC’s Meet The Press:
CHUCK TODD [INTERVIEWER]: Let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.
DICK CHENEY: –right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. […] I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.
CHUCK TODD: 25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.
DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are– […]
CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You’re okay with that margin for error?
DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.
There’s a few different threads to unpack here, but for now let’s focus simply on the repeated invocations of the “bad guys” versus “good guys” (binary/black and white, etc.) worldview, a common refrain in the tactic of political melodrama.
Following on from this are the statements by James Mitchell, one of two key psychologists who devised the torture program, in a recent VICE News interview:
To me, it seems completely insensible that slapping KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] is bad, but sending a Hellfire missile into a family’s picnic and killing all the children and, you know, killing Granny and killing everyone is OK, for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is: What about that collateral loss of life? And the other is, is that if you kill them, you can’t question them.
It’s a lot more humane, even if you are going to subject them to harsh techniques, to question them while they are still alive, than it is to kill them and their children and their neighbors with a drone.
This is a rather revealing statement, both considering that, contrary to his description of it, drone warfare is supposedly “surgically precise,” and that “slapping” is not a description of what people are upset about happening to Kalid Sheikh Mohammed. Regardless, Cheney’s themes are replicated here. But Mitchell takes Cheney’s absurd logic one step further; Mitchell asserts it’s better (“more humane”) to torture people than to kill them.
Now that’s just sadistic, isn’t it?
And how do BDSM’ers and their enablers talk about “What It Is That We Do”? It’s an endless refrain of the same: BDSM’ers are “good guys,” not like those “bad guy” abusers.
Again, a casual Google search will turn up countless articles and blog posts from BDSM’ers about the difference between “BDSM,” which is A-okay (and not-harm, remember?) versus “abuse,” which no real BDSM’er does, because then it’s not abuse, it’s BDSM (and that’s totally not a No True Scotsman argument, nope, definitely not that).
Even some professional psychologists (*cough*like Mitchell*cough*) are playing along. The Associated Press consulted Dr. Keely Kolmes, “a San Francisco-based psychologist who sees patients who practice BDSM,” for a story about Ed Bagley and his wife who “coerced a young woman to become a sex slave and sexually tortured her in their home in Lebanon Mo.”. Kolmes “said that many of the acts listed in the indictment can be part of consensual activities. But others might indicate Bagley was an abuser, such as allegations that he shot animals the woman cared about to prove he could kill her and that he refused to stop immediately when the woman used a ‘safe word.'”
So while the progressive, sex-positive, pro-BDSM feminist who assures everyone it’s all okay as long as safe words are respected may find this fact hard to stomach, in truth their position is not all that different from Dick Cheney’s. If it’s different at all, it’s different in degree, not in kind. In journalist Nicole Hemmer’s words, “We’re All Dick Cheney”:
Our comfort with torture is not a result of immediate post-attack fear, but something that goes far deeper. President Barack Obama has denounced torture many times in his presidency, saying, “That is not who we are.” But Obama is wrong. We condone torture, both overtly and in our unwillingness to bring those complicit in torture to justice. And worse, we cling to an American exceptionalism that says our nation is a force of good in the world (which it is) that is uniquely untouched by baser human impulses (which it is not) – this despite our record, in every single war, of violating civil and human rights.
That unwillingness to see ourselves as we are, that failure to recognize the American capacity not only for wrongdoing but for evil, prevents us from properly reckoning with the true costs of our wars, propelling us to go off in search of monsters to destroy without first confronting the monster within.
She may be more correct than she knows. Beyond the explicit pro-torture policies our federal government enacts, our municipal police forces have the same history. For example, in Chicago, it’s well known that police officers tortured at least 110 Black men to elicit false confessions, and in New York City, a bevy of “isolated incidents” that all share common characteristics, like the torture and rape of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station, are all examples from recent memory.
But institutions such as governments like ours or, analogously, companies like these are not entities unto themselves. They’re made of people. And those people, these torturers, don’t exist in a vacuum whose boundaries are impermeable and separate from the everyday lives of everyday citizens. The same pattern, the same cycle of abuse, the same justifications for torture, are plainly visible at every level of American society—just ask any survivor of government torture, or any survivor of BDSM abuse.
In both the “national security” and the “sex-positive (BDSM)” context, I think it’s long past time for us to start asking ourselves whether “because freedom” is a sufficient justification for torture.