TW for graphic descriptions of extreme violence
You’ve likely heard about the ‘cannibal cop‘ by now. He was a New York police officer whose wife discovered a website open on his computer displaying a photograph of a dead girl. The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.“ There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”
The wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, said that when she later delved into her husband’s electronic chat history, she found he had been communicating with others about plans to torture and kill women, including herself.
“I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit, and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me,” she said, sobbing repeatedly through her afternoon on the witness stand.
He has now been charged with “plotting on the Internet to kidnap, rape, kill and cannibalize female victims.”
The Times article asks an interesting question, similar to one I asked back when photos were discovered of an RCMP officer who had been involved in the Pickton investigation that simulated violence against women: “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?”
Valle didn’t actually go through with his plans. While the prosecutor argued that the officer was plotting real crimes, Valle’s lawyer claimed it was all just a fantasy. The ‘fantasy’ argument didn’t provide much comfort to Mangan-Valle, who also found conversations about elaborate plots to have friends “raped in front of each other” or burned alive or about “putting women on a spit, and cooking them for 30-minute shifts, so they could be tortured longer.”
These were pretty specific plans for something that was just an innocent fantasy. There is documented negotiation of specific details and a payment upon delivery to a co-conspirator: “Valle insisted upon a price no less than $5,000 and assured CC-2 that Victim-2 would be bound, gagged, and alive when he delivered her.”
There is no doubt that violence against women is sexualized in our culture. But when Ginia Bellefonte published a piece called “Remember Misogyny” in the Times wondering why there was so little concern from feminists about this fetishization of violence against women, Jessica Wakeman responded, in The Frisky, with derision:
“Focusing on the craziness of a couple of mentally ill folks instead of larger systemic injustices seems like a poor use of time,” she argues. “Maybe….cannibals eating women isn’t really feminism’s most pressing problem?” Why so defensive? Visiting fetish sites that feature women being tortured, sometimes to the point of death, seems fairly misogynist to me.
Bellefonte quotes Jane Manning, a former sex-crimes prosecutor and currently the legislative vice president for the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, who notes:
“There’s an odd confusion in the feminist movement,” she added. “We’ve all accepted the idea that speech is protected when it’s speech. But that seems to have extended to the notion that there shouldn’t even be social condemnation attached to incredibly horrifying misogynist speech.”
Violence against women continues to be one of the most urgent and pressing issues for the feminist movement today. And I would say that sites that fetishize mudering, raping, and eating women are, in fact, a little more serious than simply “a couple of mentally ill folks” who like to surf the internet and whatever everybody just relaaaax OK? So, a man who fantasizes about hanging his wife from her feet while him and his friends “take turns sexually assaulting her before slitting her throat and cooking her” isn’t misogyny? OK. Got it.
We’re at a place in feminism where we are so desperate to either not be perceived as ‘prudish’ or to defend any and every activity as simply an individual ‘choice’ or behaviour that calling what is clearly misogyny (is there any more literal manifestation of the sexualization of violence against women than fetish sites dedicated to torturing and murdering women?) has become off-limits because it counts as ‘kink’. The desperation to individualize, legitimize, and depoliticize absolutely everything is frightening. Particularly because it seems we are most intent on doing this with relation to anything that could possibly be connected to sexuality.
I get the feeling that we’re not calling this kind of thing out because we don’t want to admit that, sometimes, misogynist ‘fetishes’ aren’t simply ‘fantasy’. They’re actually misogyny.
Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.
That said, there are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life.
William Saletan pointed out, in an article for Slate, that :
Every article about BDSM now includes the obligatory professional woman who’s secure enough in her feminism to admit she likes to be flogged. It’s great that we’ve come that far, but the message is awkward. While reformers in India battle a culture of rape, Indian BDSM advocates extol the bliss of female masochism. While human rights activists denounce caning and waterboarding, BDSM lecturers teach the joys of caning and waterboarding. Abduction, slavery, humiliation, torture—everything we condemn outside the world of kink is celebrated within it.
Awkward, indeed. The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.
The tricky part follows: “Political advocates for BDSM see themselves as successors to the gay rights movement. They cite Lawrence v. Texas. They call themselves “sexual minorities” and depict kink as a “sexual orientation,” Saletan writes. Get it? If being ‘kinky’ makes you part of some kind of minority group, anything that counts as fetish is off-limits in terms of critical discussion. It can’t be misogynist, I was born this way! It’s sex, not misogyny!
I mostly agree with Saletan’s assessment: “BDSM isn’t an orientation. It’s a lifestyle.” And, for the most part, whether or not you like to play out fantasies or wear leather or do fancy things with ropes or dress up as a sexy nun in order to rebel against your Catholic parents as part of your sex life isn’t something anyone else has a say over. But that really isn’t the point. There is misogyny and violence and abuse that happens as part of BDSM and we should be able to call it for what it is without being accused of attacking a person’s ‘sexual identity’.
The ludicrous notion that this lifestyle should qualify a person for protection under the law,on account of being a part of some kind of oppressed minority group defined by ‘kinkiness’ is an insult to actual minority groups.
This kind of hyperbolized, perverted use of identity politics as a means to stifle feminist discourse and critical thought is a serious detriment to the movement.
We are always asking ourselves “What happened to the momentum?” and “Where are all the young feminists?” Well, I think we’re finding the answer. In the final segment of the recently aired documentary, MAKERS: How Women Made America, a three-hour look at the history and evolution of the women’s movement in the United States, Letty Pogrebin said, of the “Why don’t young women care about feminism?” question: “If they lose their rights, then they will wake up.” And I don’t think she was talking about the right to be spanked.
I supposed once we’ve completely quelled our ability to discuss anything outside individual choice and identity and are forced to discuss all actions and behaviours as neutral and void of context, we’ll truly be free.