Torture has an ancient history and the torture of women is a long one (du Bois, 1991). Patriarchal institutions become the purveyors of violence and there are historical instances where religion, politics and medicine become torture fronts. Torture was attested to in Roman times, the church engaged in the torture of women through the witch burnings; more recent histories of the torture of women have occurred in countries in political turmoil, such as Chile and Argentina in the 1970s (with CIA assistance). Naomi Klein (2008) writes of the experiments in torture carried out under the guise of medical treatment. And the well-documented torture of individuals at Abu Ghraib have brought the subject of torture into the mainstream.
It is not only these extreme events that have given space for renewed calls for legalisation of torture; it is also the process of normalising violence through the ever-escalated desensitising effect of pornography that makes even torture ‘sexy’, giving it a kind of social cachet not only in heterosexual contexts - it has become especially de rigueur in Queer Studies.
Margot Weiss, in her article on ‘consensual BDSM and sadomasochistic torture’, begins with the following description of what she calls ‘play’ (2009, p. 180):
My copy of the monthly newsletter of a San Francisco SM organization included a scene report, a written description of a consensual BDSM play scene. The scene took place at a San Francisco dungeon in March 2004. It was an interrogation scene, involving a Colonel, a Captain, a General, and a spy. The spy was hooded, duct-taped to a chair, and slapped in the face. As she resisted, the spy was threatened with physical and sexual violence, stripped naked, cut with glass shards, vaginally penetrated with a condom-sheathed hammer, force-fed water, shocked with a cattle prod, and anally penetrated with a flashlight. The scene ended when the spy screamed out her safeword, the word that ends the scene: ‘Fucking Rumsfeld!’.
One page later, Weiss goes on to say that “[t]he photographic representation in Abu Ghraib… effectively transforms a political real - torture - into a safe sexual fantasy” (Weiss 2009, p. 181). She takes no pause to ask whose fantasy and whose pain? The real torture of Abu Ghraib is real to the prisoners, and just like the women abused in pornography, it remains the fantasy of someone who watches from the outside.
The thing about torture is that you do not know whether you will be alive at the end of the day. You do not know when it will end. It is more than just ‘powerlessness’; it is subjugation, degradation, abandonment, and dehumanisation. To defend, as Weiss (2009) does, such acts as ‘performative’ is an instance of moral neglect. Such academic acceptance of torture as a game is deeply offensive. It is appropriative of people living under totalitarian regimes who do not have the ‘luxury’ of saying ‘No’, or of saying ‘Rumsfeld’ as a parody. It misses the entire history of the intersection of the colonisation of women and the colonisation of the ‘other’. Because, while Weiss acknowledges that the torture at Abu Ghraib is a “means of imperial control” (2009, p. 191), she fails to see that BDSM in the form she describes is a means of imperial control of women. She writes as if there has never been any difference in access to and exercise of power between women and men.
Sadomasochism and pornography that promote abuse and torture are forms of ‘consumerism of experience’. In a way similar to that in which Western culture has appropriated the cultures of Indigenous and non-Western peoples, the practitioners of S/M and the producers of torture pornography are appropriating the experiences of oppressed peoples who have been tortured by dictatorial governments or who have been slaves under racist regimes, or the lesbians who are tortured by fundamentalist and militarised regimes (Hawthorne, 2006). The practitioners of S/M turn an uncontrollable experience of torture into a game that can be stopped. But people undergoing real torture do not have the option of saying no. The woman whose face is splashed by semen is paid to take it. She cannot say no either. And in pornography directed at lesbians, the woman humiliated in S/M porn is degraded. As pro-porn activist Pat Califia writes:
By reviving the notion that sex is dirty, naughty, and disgusting, you can profoundly thrill some lucky, jaded lesbian by transforming her into a public toilet or bitch in heat (Califia, 1988, p. 52).
Just as the near death experience of S/M can be read as just another consumerist game, pornography and entertainment that focus on the abasement of women are new luxury purchases for the global consumer. As the consuming of material goods is reaching its limits in the West, S/M practitioners and makers of torture pornography attempt to simulate death in the pursuit of yet another thrill. They are luxury games. It is appropriation of experience. It is ultimately full of contempt for others."