It’s a little bit frustrating when some readers complain that several posts about a bunch of BDSM freaks in San Francisco, led by a pornographer-dominatrix named Princess Donna, indicate an irrational interest on my part in the activities of a radical sexual minority. The essay that prompted my initial post, and subsequent posts from Noah Millman, Alan Jacobs, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, raises much broader questions than whether or not we think that submitting to sexual abuse for pleasure and profit is morally good, bad, or neutral. As Conor Friedersdorf’s take on the controversy shows. Friedersdorf says, of our various blog reactions:

All of them grapple, at least in part, with what our response ought to be to the explicit acts described. Put bluntly, a group of San Franciscans crowded into a basement to watch and participate as a diminutive female porn actress (who consented very specifically to all that followed) is bound with rope, gagged, slapped, mildly electrocuted, and sexually penetrated in most every way. The tenor and intensity of the event can’t be conveyed without reading the full rendering. The object of all that abuse describes it afterward as physically uncomfortable at times, but intensely pleasurable throughout. She departs extremely happy and eager to do it again.

Was the consent of all participants sufficient to make the porn shoot a morally defensible enterprise?

That’s a great question, and the one Conor takes up in his essay. To put it crudely, both Alan and I strongly believe that consent is not sufficient to make this a morally defensible enterprise. The fact that the young woman chose to be sexually abused in front of a crowd makes it more morally defensible than if she were compelled to suffer like this against her will, but her acts are not, in our judgment, rendered morally defensible because she consented to them.

Conor mostly disagrees with this, and rather than sum up his post, which defies easy summation, I’d suggest that you read it. My sense is that he posits a false choice: either between consent as the “lodestar” (his word) of defining the morality of sexual acts, or consent as inconsequential in determining the morality of sexual acts — a position I think he assigns to Alan and me. I don’t think that’s what Alan believes, and I assure you it’s not what I believe. I think we have made real advances culturally on the consent front, in the sense that for a sexual act to be morally worthy, there has to be mutual consent. You would scarcely find a Christian who would disagree with you. It’s true that in the not too distant past, society — including many Christians — believed that within a marriage, a woman was morally bound to submit to unconstricted sexual relations with her husband (therefore, “marital rape” could not exist). We by and large no longer believe that, and that, to me, is progress.

Yet it is not the case that making consent a sine qua non  — that is, an irreducible element — of moral sexual acts therefore makes consent the only meaningful factor in making that determination. Conor’s argument appears to assume this. I believe it is possible for people to voluntarily consent to things that are immoral. Conor believes this too. As he concludes in his post:

The question remains. Are some kinds of sex degrading or immoral even if they’re consensual? Unlike many conservatives, I don’t particularly trust my disgust instinct. It misled me about Brussels sprouts in childhood, and again in the days before I became a dog-owner about how awful it would be to pick up freshly defecated feces with nothing but a thin plastic bag covering my hand. It really isn’t that bad. Who knew? My strong instinct is nevertheless to say yes, some consensual sex acts are immoral. A brother and sister breaking the incest taboo diminishes the norm of presumed nonsexual contact between siblings, a norm that is of tremendous benefit to most of humanity. Or imagine a couple agreeing that it would bring unsurpassed excitement if, mid-coitus, Sally chopped off Harry’s arm with a bedside guillotine, with his consent. That certainly transgresses against my sensibilities, though I can’t articulate just why in a way that wouldn’t encompass other behavior that my instinct would be to refrain from condemning. But if a brother raped a sister? Or if Sally chopped off Harry’s arm without his consent?

That would be much worse.

See what happened there? Conor — who’s a friend, and who is someone I respect greatly, just so you know — admits that there are some things consenting adults choose to do sexually that are disgusting and wrong. But he doesn’t trust his instinct to be a reliable guide, and he doesn’t seem to have any other reliable guide other than consent. But the only defense he offers of consent as the only important factor is the prospect that the lack of consent is worse.

Well, sure, it’s much worse for Sally to chop off Harry’s arm mid-coitus without his consent than for her to do so with his consent. But it’s still pretty horrible and perverse for him to consent to such an act. Why is this so hard to say? And if you cannot say that it’s grossly immoral, even if consent is given, where do you draw the line? In Germany, prosecutors did not know how to deal with the case a decade ago of Arwin Meiwes, a cannibal who advertised for a victim willing to be slaughtered in a sexualized ritual. He found one, and slowly killed the guy, and ate him. Meiwes’ defense? His victim soberly consented to the whole thing, and he (Meiwes) could prove it by videotape. Eventually prosecutors won a conviction, but however they managed this legally, that doesn’t answer the moral question as to whether or not consent validates the gruesome act.

I am certain that Conor would condemn Meiwes’s action as evil. The question is, on what basis. The act of the cannibal and his lover is, of course, about as extreme as you can imagine, but it is often in the extremes that principles become more clear. A Christian has a strong basis for condemning this act as perverse and evil, even though (to use a common cheap rhetorical trick) Jesus never said a word about cannibals eating their victims in a sexualized ritual. Aside from Christian sexual codes, such an act — like the sadomasochistic performance Emily Witt wrote about — grotesquely violates the inherent nature of human beings, and their dignity as beings created in the image of God. This, by the way, is why, by Christian standards, torture is intrinsically evil. Torture is partly evil because it involves unwanted violence, but it is also evil because it violates at a profound level human dignity — and in so doing, defiles the sacred.

This is true even if the torture is welcomed for pleasure, as it was by the porn actress in the San Francisco video shoot.

This is the chasm between Christian and post-Christian culture, or at least the post-Christian culture in which we live. For all its many flaws, Christianity (like Islam, like Judaism) at least offers a standard by which to judge right and wrong. It was not an uncontested standard — as the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates in its paragraph on torture, the Church itself has not historically acted or taught consistently on the matter of torture — but Christianity at least holds on to the idea that Truth exists, and is knowable, however imperfectly.

This is not the world that Conor lives in. I say that not as a criticism, but as an observation. Absent any firm, clear prescriptive morality for sexual conduct, desire and consent are the only things one can know and give with certainty. And yet, as Conor concedes, there are some sex acts that his “strong instinct” tells him are immoral. But he can’t say why, other than that he feels that they are. Well, what about those who don’t share his feeling? How do you tell them they are wrong?

Ultimately, this is a far more fundamental question and difference than a matter of mere disgust, or mere sexual ethics. As I wrote in my Sex After Christianity essay, this is about a cosmological view of reality. Is morality intrinsic to the cosmos, or are things only right or wrong because we say so? In that piece, I said:

Gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order, Taylor writes. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.

To Rieff, ours is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”

Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestiges of the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours once all limits have been nullified.

Christianity as the lodestar of civilizational order is gone. In its place is Autonomous Individualism, of which consent is the guiding ethic, and personal happiness the absolute telos. You cannot have Utopia; which civilization is likely to be more humane, a Christian one, or a Therapeutic one (to use Rieff’s term)? To paraphrase Eliot, you may reject God, but you’d better be prepared to pay your respects to Princess Donna.