Deadly silencing

The tragic deaths in recent weeks of Gareth Williams and Kristian Digby show the tremendous human costs that are associated with the culture of shame surrounding alternative sexual practices. According to some reports, Williams had a fetishistic interest in claustrophilia (an erotic response to enclosed spaces) while Digby engaged in auto-erotic asphyxiation. Both activities are very dangerous and not to be recommended. However, there are some techniques that participants can use to mitigate the dangers of these activities. For example, one can arrange to have a friend or play partner available to stop the game (perhaps with a safe word) or provide first-aid in case anything goes wrong. There are also particular parts of the body that can be avoided during play so as to reduce the risk of a serious or fatal injury.

It is a mark of social progress if people feel capable of discussing these practical issues surrounding deeply personal desires in any forum (whether online or elsewhere). Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of progress that our politicians (and some of their moralising supporters) seem happy to snuff out. Searching for information (especially explicit demonstrations of safety) on claustrophilia or erotic asphyxiation could well turn up content that might be classed as ‘extreme’ according to law, meaning interested practitioners could be penalised for looking for safe techniques with which to fulfill their desires. Besides that, the message sent out by restrictions on extreme pornographic content is that people should feel ashamed of their desires and avoid discussing them in public. This could provoke people to take greater risks than is really necessary.

A number of feminist theorists have used the notion of “silencing” (or illocutionary disablement) to justify restrictions on pornographic expression. They argue that the distribution of pornography limits the free actions of women by, for example, preventing them from being heard when they say ‘no’ to sex. Men who view pornography, on their account, are less likely to respond to a woman’s right to refuse sex. Empirical evidence for this hypothesis is not very strong at all. Put simply, the (legal) availability of pornography does not appear to be associated, in aggregate, with less respect for women’s social and political rights. There is another possible and unintended effect of restrictions on pornographic expression however: the silencing of information about alternative sexual practices. One cannot say how many lives could be saved by taking a more mature attitude to information containing sexual content, and alternative (even if dangerous) sexual practices more generally, but it is plausible that a number could be.