Okey dokey, first thing is first: this post comes with a massive trigger warning, so if you’re worried that discussing the nastiest aspects of sex might not be healthy for you, bail out now. For everyone else, buckle up because we’re going to some fairly dark places this week. Rest assured though, I’ll be keeping the language as non-graphic as possible and there’s no horrific pictures in here.
This week I’m wrapping up the series on sex in a slightly different format, by briefly covering all the various practices that DEFINITELY have ethical issues, but are a bit too straight-forward to spend an entire article on. These are the nastiest, most maligned and hated sexual practices out there – the ones you can’t even really discuss objectively with others because the reaction against the very concept is far too violent.
We’re not talking about fetishes here, like stockings, feet, ejaculating onto figurines, dressing up in children’s clothes, mummification, or even the really nasty stuff like erotic vomiting or scatophilia (do NOT google those) – for the most part these are just personal sexual preferences, much like BDSM or pseudo-rape fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey; provided they’re consensual and all health precautions are taken, they generate pleasure for the participants at very little cost. No, what we’re talking about are sexual acts that are considered inherently unethical, either because of the harm they cause or because the revulsion they create.
It might seem odd that I’m even going to discuss a lot of these; they are after all, taboo and therefore by definition considered bad, ‘evil’ and/or unethical by most everybody. But this sort of assumption also tends to mean that most of us rarely if ever spend any time thinking about why exactly these things are bad, which (as I’ve discussed before) is a problem – if you don’t understand something, then you can’t effectively combat it.
Worse, if you can’t articulate why exactly something is wrong, you leave yourself vulnerable to someone who can explain why they think their position is right. Seriously, imagine if someone argued that the earth was flat and presented you with several reasons they believe this. What are you going to say in response? We all know the earth is a sphere, but since we’ve never actually had to form articulate explanations for why we know that, we stand a scarily high chance of losing the debate. This article, along with most of the stuff on this site, is largely about helping us all to understand not just what we believe, but why.
It’s also worth noting that there might be some surprises in here for you as well – just because something is culturally unacceptable (or even unspeakable) doesn’t mean there’s actually anything wrong with it after all. Homosexuality and interracial relationships were killing offenses at different points in time, and are now considered normal by the majority of western nations.
So, without further prelude, let’s get into this:
The act of sexual intercourse without consent, often, but not necessarily, through the use of force, intimidation or other coercion.
Straight up, this one is pretty obvious – it’s a massive breach of the victim’s rights, security and bodily integrity, and the subsequent physical and/or psychological damage is serious and well documented. Obviously, this is unethical all around due to the harm inflicted purely for the attacker’s sexual pleasure.
The question has occasionally been asked whether it is possible for someone to rape a prostitute, on the basis that (since they have sex with people they don’t necessarily like quite regularly) then the psychological harm will be minimal. Yeah it’s a horrific question, but you best get over that, because people do ask it and therefor it needs an answer. And the answer is fairly obvious – If I stab someone, then I’ve stabbed them. It doesn’t matter if they are strong enough to recover quickly or if their weakness means it takes ages for them to recover; I still stabbed them. As with any crime, the degree of harm inflicted is irrelevant in determining if a crime/unethical act has been committed, it’s only relevant in sentencing and compensation, and even then the psychological trauma and physical pain inflicted by being stabbed is unlikely to vary a lot regardless of who you are. Rape is no different here.
Another interesting question about rape is why it is so often considered ‘a special evil’? Specifically, why is it that rape gets such an unequivocal reaction of horror compared to other terrible acts like murder? For example, there are literally thousands of videogames out there that encourage players to murder not only enemies, but innocent bystanders by the thousands, and these are generally accepted as legitimate entertainment. But a game about raping someone comes out and everyone loses their minds! Now obviously games are a virtual experience so that muddies the waters a bit, but in the real world the reason we often view rape as worse than murder is quite simple: there is no good reason to do it. Ever.
This is not true of murder; can you imagine a situation where the benefits of killing someone would outweigh the costs of letting them live? Of course you can.
Murder can sometimes be justified, and even when it’s not, we can sometimes empathise with the person doing it; crimes of passion and so forth. But rape? Can you imagine a situation where the benefits of raping someone would outweigh the costs of not? Of course not, that’s ludicrous. There is literally no justification to rape someone ever – hence it is a ‘special kind of evil’.
I touched on this two weeks ago, but I think it’s worth covering again here; can a sexual relationship between family members ever be ethically ok? The overwhelming response to this is generally ‘no’, because of the massive power imbalance between participant, and the opportunity for that power to be abused – given a parent has almost complete control over their children for most of their lives, and that it’s extremely questionable whether children can make an informed decision about any sexual relationship, incest is an extremely dangerous situation to say the least.
But I received an excellent question after that article; what about brothers and sisters?
The Lannisters send their regards
The power relationship between siblings of a similar age (and cousins for that matter) is substantially smaller, provided one isn’t far more intelligent and manipulative than the other. As such the potential for abuse is significantly lower, the whole issue of informed consent isn’t really relevant given both are likely to be just as informed as each other. As such, a lot of the practical problems with incest don’t apply here and it’s completely conceivable that positive loving relationships are possible, provided everyone takes the proper precautions.
Not fair, really.
Ok, now we’re getting into the good stuff! And I guarantee that none of you are going to be comfortable with where this goes.
Necrophilia is the sexual attraction to, or intercourse with, a dead body. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with this…
…in principle. Remember that lovely article I wrote at the start of the year about a court ordering that a pregnant brain-dead woman be kept alive, so that her child could be delivered? And remember where I argued that this wasn’t a women’s rights issue because, to put it bluntly, it wasn’t a woman anymore? Because she’s dead, and therefore has no interests to protect? Well, same goes here. A corpse is a corpse is a corpse – it has no life, therefore it has no interests or rights to protect. You can set it on fire. You can stuff it and use it to scam the car pooling lane. And you can fuck it all you want, and the corpse won’t give a shit because it’s a corpse.
Would I want my dead body given up to strange people to have sex with? Of course not! But that’s because it’s extremely hard to imagine your body without you in it, and someone having sex with me against my wishes is rape. But once I’m no longer in said body, the body is no longer me any more than any other inanimate object in the room. And while it might be kinda weird to have sex with your car (depending on who you ask) it’s not an ethical issue – just a personal preference.
Yeah the potential health issue with necrophilia are as abundant as they are disgusting, but every sexual act is positively teeming with health hazards if you do it wrong, so it’s just another simple practical problem to be managed. At least there’s zero chance of getting anyone pregnant here.
What IS a serious ethical issue on the other hand, is the impact necrophilia is going to have on the relations of the person who used to inhabit the corpse in question. Grief is not a terribly rational process, and even if you agreed that necrophilia is fine in principle, it’s a long step between that and finding someone humping the corpse of dearly departed Uncle Angus. The psychological trauma is pretty much unavoidable and very clearly outweighs anyone getting their jollies – that’s what the internet is for.
Speaking of what the internet is for…
To put it concisely; sex with animals. Go get the dry heaving out of the way and come back when you’re ready.
I was going to put up something from Eye Bleach here, but since that’s like 99% cats and dogs, I figured it would just make things worse. So enjoy this ficus. I’m 95% sure no one has had sex with it.
This is a surprisingly tricky one. Yes it’s incredibly gross for the vast VAST majority of us, but since grossness is often just a matter of preference and doesn’t really tell us anything. So, is there anything actually wrong about bestiality? Health concerns (for human and animal) are practical concerns that can generally be managed the same as any sex, and once again pregnancy isn’t an issue here thank all that is holy.
Consent is often raised as a factor here; animals cannot explicitly consent after all, and since that’s basically the foundation of justifiable sex, the entire practice strays into rape very very quickly. But explicit verbal consent is also often absent in conventional sex – non-verbal actions can often do the job if they’re clear enough.
God damn, I just traumatised MYSELF.
When it comes to bestiality, clear non-verbal enthusiasm is very easily established by the animal in question not going absolutely ape-shit when someone tried to have sex with them. Yes it is totally possible that certain animals could be forced to have sex against their will and this falls clearly in the category of rape, but if restraints are not involved then trying to have sex with an unwilling animal is going to end in carnage and an extremely embarrassing visit to the doctor, assuming everyone survives.
Bear in mind these are animals we are discussing here; issues of power differentials and informed consent aren’t nearly as big a factor as they are for humans. If an animal doesn’t like what you’re doing to it, it will seek to either escape or attack and they’re generally better at both these things than humans are. Especially naked, very very vulnerable humans. And even if you do manage to force yourself on an animal, that animal is absolutely NOT going to let you near it again if it has anything to do with it.
Naturally there is one hell of a grey area here, but this is in part because the practice is so taboo that it’s impossible for there to be decent standards put in place – the very act of shunning the practice forces it further into the dark and makes it harder to regulate. Compare this against BDSM, which often involves acts with a very high risk of harm, but which manages these risks through a clear and comprehensive guidelines for participants; try encouraging this sort of code for bestiality and you’ll be howled down faster than a neo-nazi parade through a concentration camp.
All in all, bestiality is fine in principle, but the unavoidable uncertainty of consent is a massive looming grey area that makes it extremely hard to navigate in practice.
…what the hell is this even doing on the list? I hear you ask (yes, I even heard the horrified pause). Well turns out there a bit more depth to the topic of ‘why paedophilia is wrong’ than you’d expect. Consider the following:
If paedophilia is wrong because of the harm it causes to victims, then is it still wrong if that harm is not caused?
If a paedophilic relationship legitimately did not involve any physical or psychological harm to the child involved, would it still be wrong?
If you remove all the bad things from rape, aren’t you just left with sex? And isn’t sex a good thing in-and-of itself?
Ok, calm down. Obviously I’m yanking your chain a bit here, because the likelihood of a paedophilic relationship avoiding all the negative impacts is EXTREMELY unlikely, if not flat out impossible. But remember, depending on country, we could be talking about any age between a baby (obviously 100% heinous) and a 16 year old (substantially more understandable, and actually legal in several countries).
Fortunately there’s actually different words for this sort of distinction:
- Hebephilia: adult sexual interest in pubescent individuals approximately 11–14 years old, and;
- Ephebophilia: adult sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19.
Both of these, but Ephebophilia in particular, are FAAAAAAAAAAAAR more understandable (and potentially justifiable) than straight-up paedophilia – an attraction to pre-pubescent children who are quite obviously not ready for sex on a physical level, let alone psychologically.
This makes the whole ethical distinction a bit easier to manage: paedophilia is obviously never justified given its impossible to prevent physical or psychological harm to the child. Same likely goes for Hebephilia, though suggesting that a 13-14 year old is completely incapable of giving informed consent is getting a bit iffy, what with the internet and extreme level of hormones in the works. And Ephebophilia? Easily justifiably provided clear and informed consent is given, and no coercive factors like power imbalances in in play.
The fact that paedophilia isn’t the lowest thing on this list is really quite depressing, isn’t it. But as horrific as it is, there are acts even lower than that. Snuff pornography is the act of torturing and eventually killing a person or animal for erotic satisfaction. Yes, this is a thing.
This is obviously unethical behaviour. To put it lightly, murder may be justifiable in certain circumstances and even torture might be passable if the stakes are high enough, but you know what’s never going to be enough to justify either of these practices? Someone getting their rocks off.
This is not to say that the sexual arousal it may cause isn’t legitimate – as with any fetish or preference, it’s false to argue that people don’t find this sort of thing sexually appealing, and redundant to say that they shouldn’t because it’s simply a fact. But what is clear is that no amount of sexual arousal justifies these practices, ever, under any circumstances.
An interesting question that arises out of this is whether people viewing snuff films should be held as responsible as those who make said films. Does the act of viewing something that you didn’t perpetrate or ask for make you responsible for the things it shows? If we watch someone slip and fall over on YouTube, are we responsible for the pain they feel? Can a person ever be held accountable for something they didn’t do?
That, dear traumatised reader, is a topic for another post.