On violence

People use the word “violence” in a myriad of confusing and contradictory ways when they talk about kink, so I figure I might as well get this out of the way.  But for anyone with any kind of interest in ethics, especially any kind of interest in how to class anti-asexuality, this discussion might still be relevant.

[cw: mostly abstract theorizing around violence and abuse, with some personal narrative in the mix]

To begin with, I’m contrasting my current stance on what to categorize as “violence” with the usage common to anti-kink radfems and even some kinksters themselves.  It’s hard to make generalizations about the latter, because I’ve seen some kinksters balk at the word “violent” as negative and derogatory (as here), while others embrace it as a value-neutral or even ideal description.  In one memorable instance, a kink group description happily celebrated “sexual violence,” intending it to mean, presumably, sexy impact play or something, and not… you know, rape and sexual assault and all of that.  I can understand not having encountered that umbrella term before, but it was still… yikes.

Radfems, meanwhile, seem relatively more consistent in applying “violence” to kink (while, presumably, again, thinking of impact play specifically).  Their defining criteria, as used by them and also my culture in general, would be something like physical force or physical damage (where “damage” can mean temporary things like bruises).

It’s, in some respects, a neat and tidy definition.

It also has two main implications:

One, that physical force cannot be nonviolent (the idea that some factions of kinksters get worked up about), and two, that violence cannot be nonphysical.

And frankly, that lens fails for even physical violence.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself here.  The times that I’ve been struck and beaten before, you know what was bad about it?  What, the fact that it hurts?  Listen.  I’m not someone who likes pain in any capacity.  And still, just speaking for myself, the pain is not the bad part.  Pain is bad, but pain is fleeting.  It’s not the defining part of the experience.  You know what’s the defining part of being cornered and swung at?  The psychological experience of being panicked and trapped — the way it feels to brace yourself, the “anticipation” that manifests as a constrictor boa of dread, the way it feels to know you can’t affect the outcome, can’t stop it, can’t anything, can’t anything but suffer through it while it lasts, and the tide of shame that rises from the belief that you deserved it, and the way it feels to steel yourself enough to remember and describe this to people who need it spelled out for them.

And someone thinks the ingredient that matters in that mix was the physical shape it took?  What body parts hit where?  Whether or not it left a mark visible to a third party observer?

And just what is that supposed to do for me, exactly?  A lens that leans on the “objective” elements — the narcissistic view that the facts that matter are the facts accessible to your outside perception, not the perception of the survivor — is indifferent to the impact on and the needs of the targeted, hurting people themselves.  So if you fancy yourself on the side of abusive victims, that’s no useful way to go about it.  Not for me.

Physical force matters and physical force is a big deal, but if you focus on that as what violence is, as what makes violence violent, we already have diverging priorities.  The hitting part of hitting isn’t what begets the suffering.

Even radfems seem to get this, at times, in their own way.  A familiar example cited by folks trying to defend pain play, in these kinds of arguments, is that getting a shot from a doctor involves pain, too, yet isn’t evil.  Radfem responses to that, as far as I’ve seen, either go in the direction of creating thresholds for physical force/damage to be abusive (something that’s patronizing enough to imply a lot of my experiences would fall squarely in the “not that bad” category), or, amusingly enough, go for qualifications of intent.  This can have overtones of healthism when it’s stated as “that’s different because it’s for your health” (which is a terrible metric, fyi — the notion of “for your health” can and does get used to exploit and abuse people).  In general, though, falling back on intent and context does highlight the insufficiency of “there’s physical pain involved” as a determinant criteria.

In its place, what I would suggest, and what some others already use, is a lens that has incidental utility to some kinksters but extends that utility to survivors of emotional, psychological, and verbal attacks — which is where I bring anti-asexuality into this.

“Violence” isn’t about what you can or can’t picture being acted out on a screen, what leaves a mark, or what stimulates your pain receptors.  Violence describes violation.

It’s not violent for a friend to punch me in the arm after I make a pun.  I don’t mind that.

What’s violent is a cesspool of messages telling me that asexual people who don’t have sex with non-aces they’re dating are categorically selfish, are deceptive and unfair, are callous and unempathetic, are “bloodsucking vampires.”  What’s violent is the then-time friend who molded me into a state of emotional fragility with repeated slights and boundary violations until I broke.  What’s violent is that someone, somewhere, is going to read this, dismiss the vulnerability in the difficult decision to even link that post, and decide for me that my perceptions are wrong and that only my experiences with the easiest-observable behaviors and impacts are allowed to matter and count as real “violence,” because my experiences and my efforts to handle the wounds I’m still nursing come second to their personal convenience.  That’s what I experience as violating.  Maybe someone will sneer that they find this post violating.  Have at it.

From here, demarcating how to define what counts as “violating” may not be easy, but my point is that it is a profoundly experiential, psychological, relational thing, that can and does exist independent of physical interaction, and focusing on the observable-physical is a slight to any abuse survivor with experiences remotely similar to mine.

[edit: related is what I wrote here about violation as a form of humor & the difference between humor experienced as fun and humor experienced as violating]

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13 responses to “On violence

  • luvtheheaven

    I think this is a really important conversation to be having.

    It’s interesting to consider when English-speakers call something violent, and when they don’t.

    The dictionary attempts to describe the various ways people typically use the word “violent” http://tfd.com/violent and it seems like the definition of that adjective is more about intensity/anger/ability to cause harm (like describing a car crash that occurred as having been violent, i.e. “a violent car crash”, is more like describing a thunderstorm or earthquake as violent – it’s not really about the intent of the driver(s) or anything). Then there’s describing completely non-physical things, like colors, arguments (even over the internet/text-based language), words themselves (“violent language”), how to describe someone’s emotions.

    Note: none of these things seem to me as really counting as violence, just as “violent”. We stick to a much stricter set of scenarios when we can call something the noun “violence”. Well, at least in most typical speech I hear. It seems (outside of poetry) like “violence” itself is usually reserved for when you’re actually talking about physical things happening, and this includes now sexual assault and rape in circles where the phrase “sexual violence” is well known – but even then we generally use other words for the non-physical forms of violation. Using “Violence” for something like, say, sexual harassment is not very typical? Or even as terms like emotional abuse/psychological abuse take off, people don’t talk about “emotional violence” in the same way, sticking to calling it the more nebulous term “abuse”? Or are my perceptions off there.

    I mean the other conversation isn’t about describing how people do talk, but rather discussing how we SHOULD use the word, and also when we shouldn’t. Are certain types of kink simulating violence and that’s what makes it exciting, but other ones that focus on impact or pain not violent at all, since pain is not always violent? I don’t know, and I’m sure I’m not rambling, it’s just… I would love to see more people’s opinions and thoughts on this matter.

    • Coyote

      “but even then we generally use other words for the non-physical forms of violation. Using ‘Violence’ for something like, say, sexual harassment is not very typical? Or even as terms like emotional abuse/psychological abuse take off, people don’t talk about ’emotional violence’ in the same way, sticking to calling it the more nebulous term ‘abuse’? Or are my perceptions off there.”

      I’ve seen people use “emotional violence” before and apply the word “violence” to nonphysical things — but very infrequently. So… not unheard of, but it seems to be a niche thing.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Can’t comment from a kink-related perspective, but this has also long been a problem in more general discussions of social justice and pacifism.

    If one conceptualises violence as something defined by the presence vs absence of physical contact, one can end up justifying some very strange stances in the name of pacifism. One can end up supporting an oppressive regime over the revolutionaries who start riots in the process of resisting the regime, because the riots technically involved more human-vs-human physical contact than the daily, faceless dehumanisation and drive towards desperation perpetrated by the regime. One can also end up supporting imperialistic notions because, while an Empire inevitably oppresses and harms its colonies in a myriad of ways that primarily involve little physical contact, the presence of imperial oppression DOES tend to reduce physically-violent infighting among the groups which are now oppressed (hence Pax Romana and Pax Britannia, neither of which could actually be counted as ‘peaceful’ if one counts literally any form of non-contact violence as at odds with peace).

    It’s why some circles have taken to avoiding the word ‘peace’ where possible in favour of the more specific loanwords ‘pax’ and ‘shalom’ – the former being the mere absence of physical fighting and the latter being the absence of violence/violation and the presence of safety and dignity. Or, as I’ve also heard it said, the latter being peace and the former being quiet.

    To my knowledge, however, no-one has suggested any kind of equivalent more-specific replacements for the flip-side of the different ways people use “violence”.

  • epochryphal

    hm hm hm. yeah i would mega avoid “sexual violence” as a phrase, but i alsooo hm i don’t like the words like “primal” and stuff, and sometimes the goal scene is about, like, the aura of bad-intimidating-threatening violence, and. words.

    • Coyote

      Yeah I’ve also been thinking about that, maybe as something I might write with this post as background. In some scenes/viewpoints, the association with violation is incidental or maybe even an obstacle, and in others… that connection is what people are reveling in. Each of those deserves slightly different approaches, I think. On the one hand, I don’t necessarily mind playing with the idea of (see: what I wrote about violation humor) but there’s also reason to be wary of… edgier-than-thou types.

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  • LTF

    Without commenting on the rest, I find the following part to be particularly interesting: “What’s violent is that someone, somewhere, is going to read this, dismiss the vulnerability in the difficult decision to even link that post, and decide for me that my perceptions are wrong and that only my experiences with the easiest-observable behaviors and impacts are allowed to matter and count as real “violence,” because my experiences and my efforts to handle the wounds I’m still nursing come second to their personal convenience.” What you are basically saying is that you find diverging opinions to be violent.

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