When I first read Olivia Davis’s piece for GMP sub-blogger Gen!der!Fight! called “Sex and Snuff: What Dying Twice Taught Me About Eroticized Death“, I was deeply disturbed. For most of us, it’s hard to read about a person being cattle-prodded in the genitals without being disturbed, but even more so when the author admits to hating it so much that she cried.
Olivia Davis’ piece is the story of how, as a fetish model, she was hired to star in a particularly hard-core form of fetish porn wherein she would be clamped, bound, gagged, blindfolded and, as I said above, cattle-prodded. She also would have to pretend to die of asphyxiation with a bag over her head. For some of you reading this, your stomach turns. That’s not sex to you, that’s torture. But for others, a connection is made to porn you’ve seen, perhaps even enjoyed.
My first reaction to reading the article was that it did not belong on The Good Men Project. How does the story of a woman being cattle-prodded, bag-bound and then pretending to die an eroticized death have anything to do with the goodness of men?
But the piece sat with me. In fact, it haunted me.
What occurred to me is that what’s disturbing isn’t the fact that pornography like that exists, it’s the fact that I have never read an unflinching examination of the implications of such pornography from the perspective of someone who actually stars in these films, and actively lives a kink lifestyle. We hear a lot of conversation about what damage may be caused by pornography of varying forms, as well as talk about the benefits of pornography. But how often do we get to peer through the lens of the person who is actually being prodded, or portraying her own death?
In my own work, I advocate for the use of what I call “empowering pornography”—porn that a person uses as an erotic tool and is left feeling stronger, sexier, and more enlightened about his or her own sexuality as a result. What sort of pornography falls into that category will vary person to person, but I do not advocate for the use of faux-snuff porn. I would never say that it should be illegal or banned, but I do not think faux-snuff porn contributes to healthy images of sexuality. I realize that many will disagree with me, and I’m comfortable with that.
But my discomfort with faux-snuff porn does not stop me from advocating for the stories being told by those who participate in this form of pornography. Olivia Davis isn’t writing about a sexy day at work having a ball gag in her mouth. Olivia Davis tells us how the ball gag hurt her jaw. She tells us about her fear. About her regret. She tells us about the inherent problems of discussing consent in BDSM and that element is something we should all understand:
In retrospect, I realize that there was just no good way for Brick Hardmeat and I to talk about my limits. BDSM is vast and strange and there are things in it I’ve still probably never heard of. When Mr. Hardmeat asks me what my limits are, the understanding is that he is allowed to do everything else, even things I’ve never done before. And that, frankly, is terrifying.
Think about that for a moment. If, say, your limits are no urination or defecation and no cattle-prodding, that means that any other thing you’ve never imagined is within your limits. See, you cannot anticipate what you do not know exists. Especially when you’re wearing a blindfold.
I also spend enough time blindfolded that, if something was coming that I really didn’t want, I can’t safeword in anticipation. I can only do so afterward. My options are just two: suck it up, or safe out. I’m uncomfortable being limited to only those options.
That’s why, when we assume that all the sex we see in pornography is completely consensual, we aren’t quite being accurate. When we see a woman bound, gagged, and blindfolded, there is an element of non-consensual eroticism that is inherent to the making of the film, and we need to look that truth squarely in the eyes and have a moment of reckoning. Are we comfortable with the fear that the actor/model may have been experiencing? Are we comfortable with the risk the actor/model took to make that film? Moreso, are we comfortable with the ways in which non-consensual sexuality is erotic to us?
It’s about more than just varied degrees of kink, it’s about something bigger. Davis hits on it here:
In the land of BDSM we have this acronym (because we’re all about acronyms): YKINMK. It stands for “your kink is not my kink,” and means both that and “your kink is okay.” In general, I believe pretty strongly in YKINMK, despite how stupid it looks typed out. Just because I don’t like something, even if it grosses me out or upsets me it’s not my place to judge people doing it safely and consensually. What I felt about my death not only went against that, but called into question everything else I’d done. Why was the faux-snuff not okay, when I felt all right about aping non-consensual violence? And against a woman, no less.
And that’s why we decided to publish Olivia Davis’ story.
You know the phrase, “Nothing about us without us”? If we’re going to discuss pornography, if we’re going to discuss BDSM, if we’re going to discuss paid sex work, we have to include—in fact we have to feature—the voices of the people who are central to that industry in our discussions.
We have to read Olivia Davis’ story earnestly and take to heart her experiences. We need to understand the differences between an eroticized death and a fetishized death and decide for ourselves if we believe there is a difference, because to many, including Davis, the distinction is key to understanding what is empowering and what is dangerous.
When we fetishize something, we hold it to the light. We admire it, even if we also despise it. We find things to love in it, things to covet. When we fetishize something, we love it. It’s that moment when we see a foot and think to ourselves about how elegant and beautiful it is, and oh what we’d like to to/with that foot.
When we eroticize something, we merely smash sex into it. It’s a murder scene in a slasher movie where somebody’s breasts are out and bouncing around like nothing’s wrong. Most fetishization is also eroticization, but those streets don’t go both ways.
We fetishize a lot of objectively horrible things. Rape, torture, humiliation, incest, Nazis. And all of those things are and can be eroticized, too. We can do either to anything, but something cool happens when we fetishize rather than only eroticize: we talk. We talk about what we think is hot. We examine it. We contextualize it within our lives. We make something deliberate out of external horrors. We make it ours. We erect ways to do it, or to come as close as we can, safely. We engage with it explicitly and thoughtfully. We consider matters of consent and matters of health. And through discourse, we destroy fear. We make light of terror and pain. We rob these things of their real power.
And that is what we’re trying to do with Olivia Davis’ piece. We are trying to talk about BDSM in porn, specifically about non-consensual sex and faux-snuff. We are not advocating for what is called “breath play”. In fact, it is important for us to make very clear how dangerous putting a bag on someone’s head, and other forms of erotic asphyxiation, can be. Olivia Davis had the bag removed from her head over and over so she could breathe, and the scenes would be cut together to make it seem like the bag stayed on her head the entire time, and even she admits that this was not safe or smart. Her life was literally in Mr. Hardmeat’s hands every time he put that bag over her head, and luckily she ended up being okay. The same is not always true for the people who mimic those behaviors in real life.
Ultimately, as long as we keep talking about pornography and BDSM, we absolutely must include the voices of those involved in those forms of porn within our dialogue. Nothing about us without us. Let’s read Olivia Davis’ piece and stare it straight in the eyes and gain a deeper understanding of the humanity behind what it takes to create all forms of pornography. Only then will we be able to make truly informed decisions about what we we decide is okay for us, as individuals.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/potzuyoko