Sexual ethics are about more than consent

Vlogger posting a video of her naked three-year-old self demonstrates the limits of this approach

The business model of sites such as OnlyFans, which is essentially young women making and selling videos for men to masturbate to, is creepy and wrong. Photograph: iStock

The business model of sites such as OnlyFans, which is essentially young women making and selling videos for men to masturbate to, is creepy and wrong. Photograph: iStock

 

A YouTube vlogger with 10 million subscribers called Gabi DeMartino has been banned from OnlyFans, the subscription-based site which mostly publishes “individualised” pornography. For $3, fans could access a video called, “Won’t put my panties on”. It showed DeMartino when she was about three years old, lifting her skirt to show that she has no underwear.

The internet went into meltdown. After initially defending the video as an innocent clip that her family find endearing, DeMartino was forced to back down and apologise.

DeMartino provides an interesting case study on the limitations of a sexual ethics based only on consent, with a strong ban on child pornography or sexual exploitation because a child can never give consent. 

Presumably, DeMartino believed that because it was her body, her three-year-old self, she could choose to market the video even though her child self could never have given consent to the video being published.

DeMartino is normalising selling sexualised imagery of children even if it is her own child self that she is selling

If we take her at her word, the original video was taken with innocent intentions: there would not have been an ethical problem with DeMartino herself viewing it. If she freely chose to publish it, whose consent was being violated? 

I do not think that people’s visceral reaction of disgust at the publication and sale of the clip, or the uses to which it would likely be put to by the buyers, is wrong. Far from it. DeMartino is normalising selling sexualised imagery of children even if it is her own child self that she is selling.  But a consent-based principle is not expansive enough to encompass the ethical intuition that this is creepy and exploitative, even if the person is exploiting herself. Nor can it account for the truth that buyers of the clip are doing something vile to their own psyches.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt carried out research later published in The Righteous Mind. The researchers came up with various scenarios designed to disgust people, such as eating the family dog after it dies instead of burying it, or a man having sex with a dead chicken and then cooking and eating it. 

One of the scenarios concerns Julie and Mark, a brother and sister alone in an isolated location. They decide to have sex using two forms of contraception. Although a pleasant experience, they decide not to repeat it but to just keep it as a little additional secret that bonds them.

Haidt and the researchers deliberately framed the scenario so that obvious objections, such genetically-risky pregnancy, were almost certainly ruled out. No one else knew. It was a free, mutual choice. The study’s participants were then pushed to explain why it was wrong. When people could not, and resorted to saying things such as, “It is just wrong”, Haidt seized on this as proof that morality is not primarily rational but intuitive and disgust-based. People make decisions and then rationalise them.

Violating a taboo

However, as pointed out by lawyer Frank Dudley Berry Jr, if Haidt had framed it differently so that a person was asked to imagine that they were, say, the brother in the scenario, contemplating whether to have sex with his sister or not, people would come up with valid reasons not to do it. 

Our culture has done its damndest to reduce sexual relationships to a recreational activity, with no constraints other than consent and age-appropriateness

As Berry says, violating a taboo as deeply-rooted as this would change his conception of himself and his sister in unimaginable ways. They would never be able to return to a conventional relationship of a brother and sister. It would be fraught with peril and potential for devastation. Therefore, the brother should choose not to do this.

Very few people would consider this to be irrational but instead, responsible common sense. So people’s intuition that the brother-sister scenario even with consent is just wrong, turns out to be right. They found Haidt’s benign scenario implausible.

This is not to say that every ethical intuition is right or that all ethics should be based on intuition. But we should not be so quick to assume that our ethical intuitions are not tracking truths that we struggle to consciously articulate. In the DeMartino case too, our intuitions point to some ethical reality which the consent-only model doesn’t capture.

Our culture has done its damndest to reduce sexual relationships to a recreational activity, with no constraints other than consent and age-appropriateness. But sex with a sibling does not have the same ethical significance as an energetic bout of arm-wrestling.

The current cultural sexual norms have the same failings as Haidt’s hypothetical brother and sister scenario. They exclude any notion of harm if consent is present, even in the case of consensual incest. They are framed to make strictly optional any idea that sex should happen in a context of caring and wanting what will help each other to flourish. 

These cultural norms are utterly inadequate. Consent is an absolutely necessary ethical minimum, but it is not the whole of sexual ethics. The business model of sites such as OnlyFans, which is essentially young women making and selling videos for men to masturbate to, is creepy and wrong, too. It is a shame that it takes a video of a naked three-year-old before people feel free to object.

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