Slapping, pulling hair, spitting on or choking someone, being insulting, demeaning or threatening, tying someone up or just hurting them are behaviours many of us would not consider towards our worst enemy. We live in a culture that abhors physical violence, regarding it as instantly delegitimising. Yet in the last 20 years we have seen these types of behaviours infiltrate bedrooms in Britain and the West and be praised as evidence of a sexually liberated culture.
While once considered a niche and taboo pursuit, when Men’s Health produces a guide to “Punishing your partner” and Teen Vogue wants to teach you the finer points of using a riding crop during sex we can say that BDSM has hit the mainstream.
The effect of this has been that the idea that sex might include pain, control and restriction has become normalised among many young people.
I do not intend to criticise BDSM as a whole. Practitioners of BDSM have reported levels of satisfaction slightly above that of the rest of the population as a whole and the suggestion that it either encourages or stems from a deviant or criminal inclination should be dismissed as baseless pearl clutching.
However, it is important to distinguish between BDSM and what is being practiced and experimented with by young people. While BDSM practitioners take great care to ensure the safety of all involved, contemporary teenagers are simply aping what they have seen online. Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in the practice of choking.
Choking is dangerous. Even if there are no visible signs of injury, potential consequences include stroke, cardiac arrest, miscarriage, incontinence, seizures, paralysis, speech disorders, other forms of long term brain injury and death, with onset of symptoms sometimes delayed by days or weeks.Put another way, there are plenty of easier ways to get yourself off. Despite this, it has become incredibly common.
Precise figures are hard to come by but at least 2 in 3 women under 40 in the UK have experienced slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during sex while another put the figure at 58%. Most shockingly, the same study reports that 1 in 8 sexually active girls between 14 and 18 have also experienced choking. A study on undergraduates in the US found and reported that 26.5% of women and 6.6% of men reported having been choked during their most recent sexual event, while only 5.7% of women and 24.8% of men had choked their partner during recent intercourse.
The usual response to concerns such as those posed in this article is that all’s fair in love, war and consensual sex. However, what is extraordinarily clear is that these encounters are often not consensual. The Guardian has reported on the prevalence of women on first dates being choked without any prior discussion. Even more concerning is the rise of the ‘rough sex’ defence. We Can’t Consent To This (WCCTT) is an organisation that records and categorises the claims by men that their partner died as a result of a ‘sex game gone wrong’ or that she had both enjoyed and asked to be violently strangled. The absurdity of these claims, given the degree of brutality inflicted, is balanced out by the tragedy that there is no one left alive to counter them, forcing loved ones to pore over the deceased’s sexual history to prove she had not asked to have her neck bones snapped.
Before 2000, there were 12 records of such defences in the UK. However, since the turn of the millennium this number has risen markedly with 48 men making this claim. While these numbers are small, they represent the extreme end of a cultural shift that has normalised sexual aggression against women and allows it to hide behind names such as ‘breath-play’. For every single increase in the number of rough sex defences, we must imagine there are thousands more women being choked out of the blue as the sexual Overton window shifts.
The obvious culprit here is online pornography that has become increasingly hardcore. Teenagers that might have learnt eroticism from a period pants catalogue are now able to access an infinite amount of violent porn. A 2010 study found that 88.2% of the most popular pornographic scenes involved abuse of women with the vast majority of aggressors being male while their (usually) female targets reacted neutrally or pleasurably to the abuse. A number of studies have shown the strong link between porn use and gender violence with one meta study saying that there was “little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”
Men, who make up the vast majority of porn users, are watching violent scenes and recreating them on their partners with 16% of women in the UK saying they had been coerced into recreating an act their partner had seen in porn. The true number is likely to be higher as men sometimes fail to admit the origins of their desires.
When 3 in 4 men watch pornography that is largely of the abusive kind, and 1 in 4 men regularly choke their partners it is reasonable to ask whether a large proportion of men are really turned on by violence against women.
Luckily, male attitudes are not fixed and can be changed by altering the context in which they exist. I believe our current culture’s simultaneous permissiveness and furtiveness surrounding sex should bear the blame for our current situation. While sex is plastered on our screens and more available than ever, there has not been the necessary conversation about what types of sex we as a culture approve and disapprove of and the limits on permissiveness.
In recent years we have all been extorted not to ‘kink-shame’, that is to disapprove of someone’s sexual desire. However, as has been pointed out by Helen Lewis in her Atlantic article “The Problem With Being Cool About Sex” very often, what we say we want, and what we actually want are very different things. Having been brought up in an age where people “saw a digital gang bang before having their first real-life kiss” it can be incredibly difficult for many to free themselves from the sex narratives they have internalised.
In addition, many films and television series have taken advantage of the new permissiveness to broadcast despicable scenes of violence against women. An updated Bechdel test might consider if a film manages to advance the plot without resorting to cheap gender violence.
The present attitude that ‘taboos are to be broken’ stems from the 60’s and the counter-cultural philosopher Michel Foucault who associated sexual liberation with political emancipation. However, our sexual freedom has not brought about the socialist paradise he envisaged. Instead, it might be worth considering whether a taboo against sexual violence of any sort might not be the sort of taboo we would all benefit from?
In her book “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again”, Katherine Angel explores how relying merely on a “consent-rubric” can encourage a ‘battle of the sexes’ in which men cajole, pressure and force women into saying yes, or at least not saying no to more and more extreme forms of sex. It places the role of gatekeeper on women while men are encouraged to simply seek out someone else who might put up less resistance. Crimes of rape become privatised without any meaningful examination of why they have occurred. Rather, Angel says, than women being expected to know, at all times what they want and to loudly vocalise that fact, men must learn vulnerability, and the ability to empathise with their partners. When a man can sense what would be acceptable and enjoyable to a partner and is confident enough to ask if he doesn’t know, we will have moved past the need for simplistic consent first sexuality. This learning would be a major task for many men, who have never been properly taught how to be empathetic or to open themselves up to hurt. However, Angel insists that only by allowing themselves to be vulnerable to pain and rejection could men open themselves up to learning, truly, about desire and connection.
An obvious rebuttal to my point is that I am a prude and that many people genuinely enjoy the types of sex I am describing. However, I ask you; should they? Should people be aroused by being violent to one another? As a society we have already made the decision that attraction to animals and to children can’t be tolerated, even in theory, so why do we not make the same distinction for violence against women? If we ever want to live in a society free of gender and sexual violence, it might be necessary to have a national conversation about how people can and should have sex with each other.
The answer, as always, is more conversations that invite men to talk about what they have learnt sex to be and how they feel someone on the receiving end of violence might feel. Empathy is the root of trust, intimacy and belonging and has been shown to be cultivatable through exercises. Yet I am already hopeful. Many men have independently realised just how important empathy is and are beginning to talk about it. In the end, that might be enough just on its own. As Alexander McCall Smith wrote “it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”
More of Calums work can be found on: lovingmen.co