Blurring the Line

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Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus: Reports of bondage rituals (digitaljournal.com)
Kink.com CEO says fetish porn is not to blame for shocking sex cases (New York Daily News)

When I was very young, CBS’s adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, was one of the most popular shows out there. Since my father was a huge fan of M*A*S*H, which also ran on CBS, I’d see lots of promotions for the show, and for a time the sight of Bixby’s Dr. David Banner transforming into Ferrigno’s green-skinned muscular Hulk was positively terrifying for me. Compared to the superhero movies of the past decade, The Incredible Hulk is almost laughable in its special effects and such, but the show first aired the year after Star Wars came out, and for someone just barely out of diapers, the effects were convincing — and scary — enough.

Thankfully, my mother was a firm believer that young kids needed lots of PBS shows for kids growing up, including Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Two of the show’s most famous episodes came when Fred Rogers traveled to the set of The Incredible Hulk and showed his young audience “the magic of television.” He interviewed both Bixby and Ferrigno — including while he was in all that green body paint — and talked about how television shows were made, and how people don’t really turn into giant green monsters when they get angry and destroy everything in their path. While I never became a fan of The Incredible Hulk, it did help my young brain figure out the difference between what was on television and what I could expect in real life, and I no longer feared seeing Lou Ferrigno on my parents’ television. As many “behind-the-scenes” and “secrets of so-and-so revealed” shows there are on the Internet and television these days, I don’t think any of them come close to what Mister Rogers pulled off in terms of helping young people understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

Keeping the line between fantasy and reality clear isn’t always that easy, and sometimes the line can deliberately be blurred to tremendous success. When I was writing about professional wrestling in the nineties, that industry, which had operated in secrecy for so long, was facing a new kind of fan that knew of all the backstage politicking and other inside stuff going on thanks to the Internet. When the wrestling companies realized that the cat was out of the bag, never to return, they realized that they needed to cater to this new, burgeoning fanbase, and began creating storylines designed to make viewers believe that what they were seeing on screen wasn’t “in the script.” It created compelling television, and was more than a small reason for the resurgence of professional wrestling’s popularity in the nineties. Even these days, this tactic can still be effective; I haven’t followed professional wrestling for years, but I remember a few years ago when WWE wrestler C.M. Punk gave a long anti-WWE speech on Raw that was so convincing in its authenticity as an “off-the-script” moment that it got lots of mainstream press coverage and crossed my radar.

What the WWE did in the nineties certainly influenced television of all stripes; it’s no surprise that the boom in “reality television” came on the heels of professional wrestling’s renaissance, as networks and producers adapted the elements of what made professional wrestling so fresh in the nineties into their own shows and formats. It’s hardly a secret that most “reality television” these days is as scripted as a WWE broadcast, though, and it’s not like they keep it much of a secret. My mother watches a lot of Game Show Network, and they have a dating-themed game show on there called Baggage, hosted by Jerry Springer, where the “contestants” are such bad actors I find it hard to believe that anyone could find it even slightly convincing. “Reality television” still sells like wildfire, though, and as long as it sells, we’re not going to see any less of it. You’ll never see any network do they kind of down-to-earth, behind-the-scenes breakdown of the fantasy/reality barrier like Mister Rogers did with The Incredible Hulk, simply because the networks want to keep that barrier as blurry as possible, keeping its viewers as uninformed as possible because then they won’t seek out actual intelligent television shows to watch.

I bring this up in context of the Cleveland kidnappings and their aftermath because there’s a very similar dynamic at work. When I first began teaching safer kink over ten years ago, and my presentations were mainly oriented towards non-kinky people who needed to know the bare basics of kink, one of the things I made sure to stress at the start of  my classes is that kinky activities are, by their very definition, consensual. Tying someone up without their consent is not “bondage”; it is false imprisonment. Flogging someone without their consent is not “S&M”; it is assault and battery. I use the names of crimes here very deliberately, because that is precisely what they are, and if you do these things then you deserve to go to prison for them. I have known too many survivors of abuse in my life not to make a huge point of this.

It was inevitable that news reports of the Cleveland kidnappings would conflate the kidnapper’s actions with kinky activities, in part because there isn’t a broad enough distinction in mass culture between abuse and kink, but also because in a culture where 50 Shades of Grey sells millions of copies, talking about “bondage” is going to get you more viewers, more search results. It’s comical how some of the reports coming out of Cleveland say things to the effect of, “Police found bondage in the kidnapper’s home.” The proper word to use there is “restraints,” of course, but when you say “bondage” you’re guaranteed a few thousand extra hits from Google. They don’t even bother saying “bondage equipment” or “bondage gear” to at least make it grammatically correct; they just swap in “bondage” for “restraints,” and boom, thousands of people looking for kinky stuff online flock to your news article.

Similarly, the “bondage rituals” described in the first article, although similar to activities performed by kinky people, should not be described using the terms of consensual kink. That would be the equivalent of saying a parent is being kinky when they spank their children for misbehaviour, or police officers are “doing bondage” when they handcuff suspects. It is highly insulting to people who practice consensual kink to use their own vocabulary to describe activities they would never condone.

Do fetish videos depicting kidnappings and gangbangs and other such things encourage people to act them out themselves? About as much as videos of gratuitous violence, whether we’re talking Steven Seagal’s martial arts, or guys running around carrying guns as big as they are, or the new generation of superhero television shows and movies, encourage people to hurt and kill others. It happens, but only to a very small fraction of the viewing public, and mostly to people who already had lots of other untreated issues to deal with. If you’re going to target fetish videos for taking people over the edge then you’re going to have to target every movie or television showing the slightest bit of violence. As much as I think we need more shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood on the air these days, a whole cable universe of nothing but those kinds of shows would be dreadful. We need, in appropriate doses, superheroes beating up bad guys and wrestlers bodyslamming other wrestlers, because it lets us have that moment of living vicariously and allowing those darker parts of ourselves to have a little free reign in our heads as we watch.

When kinky activities delve into the roleplay of one person “kidnapping” or “torturing” another, the only real difference is that people are enacting the ritual themselves instead of watching others do it on television or the silver screen. It is not something that everyone is capable of handling — it takes a much different set of mental skills to be part of something versus just watching it — but it is the same transformation as Lou Ferrigno “becoming” the Hulk, or Dwayne Johnson “becoming” the Rock. It also takes a lot of training and practice to do kinky activities without seriously hurting yourself or the people you play with, which is part of why I started doing safer kink education, to help give people the physical, mental and emotional skills they need to do kink as safely as possible.

What can be done to ameliorate the problem of those people who might be “triggered” by videos of kidnapping, or assault, or other activities we don’t want people to do in reality? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as children’s television programming has moved from Mister Rogers to robots beating up other robots and so on (even my beloved ponies have to throw down sometimes), we’ve seen a generation of young people who aren’t as conscious of the line between fantasy and reality. The virtual disappearance of the arts from schools has also left this generation without the ability to develop their own powers of imagination, and the resulting degradation of the fantasy/reality line, and awareness of it, is just one of the many problems that has caused. Maybe that episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood won’t be relevant to today’s kids since The Incredible Hulk was off the air before their parents were born, but we need something like it to help young people understand and appreciate that distinction and how it manifests itself.

Blurring the line between non-consensual abuse and consensual kink may help move news articles, but it’s only going to worsen the problem of people who haven’t learned the ability to tell the difference. We need to do more to help people of all ages understand that difference, not just for their sake, but for everyone’s.

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