By C.K. Persons
The life and dignity of the human person is the foundational belief of Catholic Social Thought. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), highlights the Judeo-Christian belief in the inherent goodness of creation. God calls creation good six times and adds the superlative “very good” on the seventh time (Genesis 1:31). Seven in the Bible symbolically emphasizes complete; creation, in other words, is completely good. The divine permeates all that exists. Each human person has an immeasurable worth and dignity. This dignity serves as the starting point for all interpersonal and societal relations.
On their surface, things like bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism seem at best to disregard human dignity and at worst to destroy it. An isolated photo of a man standing over a woman whom he has hogtied is not the poster for human dignity in mainstream society. Such violence against women could (should?) stir outrage in the viewer. A video that depicts a man licking the dirty boots of a woman will not, of course, be used by the U.S. Conference of Bishops to illustrate the infinite value of human life. But does BDSM really degrade the dignity of humans?
There will be those who unequivocally answer in the affirmative because they believe that certain acts – regardless of the intentions and circumstances involved – are wrong (illegal, evil, sinful, etc.). But I argue that not only does BDSM not necessarily degrade dignity but it can, in fact, promote it. It is all about the relationships – and what those relationships cultivate in each person.
A non-consensual relationship – a woman is hogtied against her will – and unsafe practices that truly jeopardize the health and well-being of a person are clearly at the very least problematic. Unfortunately, some people and societies falsely assume that all BDSM is non-consensual, unsafe and, therefore, wrong and/or illegal. The reality is that for some people (many, many more people than is popularly acknowledged), for a whole variety of reasons, kinky sexuality is not only safe, sane, and consensual, but it actually promotes the dignity of the persons who practice such sexual behavior.
Kinky relationships can allow people to be themselves in a way never before experienced. The freedom to be kinky opens hearts, bodies, and minds to unconditional acceptance – and to feel such a welcoming embrace is as freeing and dignifying an experience as anything we humans can have. Deep thought goes into many of the sexual “scenes” between partners – with careful attention to the exact needs of the persons before, during, and after the scene. All relationships – but especially kinky ones – require excellent communication between partners, and to the extent such communication takes place, dignity is enhanced, for each person is entirely respected.
The measure of a good relationship (institution), according to Catholic Social Thought, is the extent that the relationship actually enhances human dignity. No relationship automatically promotes dignity, but the ones that increase unconditional acceptance and thorough communication sure do. And there is no shortage of BDSM relationships that confirm the complete goodness of each person. Kinky sexuality can – and does – promote human dignity.