In “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir grapples with the legacy of the Marquis de Sade, an erotic writer who stands out to this day as one of the most grotesque pornographers of the West.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Beauvoir’s essay explains that “‘Must we Burn Sade?” identifies the Marquis’s decision to write as an existential project, an authentic ethics and a politics of rebellion. Beauvoir credits Sade with uncovering the secrets of the patriarchal political machine. She is sympathetic to his utopian appeal to freedom. Beauvoir finds, however, that Sade perverted the meaning of freedom and therefore identifies Sade as a great moralist who endorsed an unsatisfactory ethics.”
I am no existentialist, but I wish to ask the same question of Pup Amp, the kink activist brought to campus for “Sex Positive Week.” Must we burn Pup Amp? To answer this question, I argue that Amp is the inverse of the Marquis de Sade: a bad moralist with an all-too satisfactory ethics.
Amp is an activist on behalf of the kink community. A kink is often an unconventional sexual practice, but is really something that gets you excited sexually. Amp has worked in adult entertainment and as a sex educator. His explicit goal as an activist, as I interpreted it, is to destigmatize kinkiness and promote sex positivity.
“Freud is an asshole,” Amp said to light chuckles from the crowd. He was commenting on Freud’s conclusion that sadomasochism is a developmental disorder: something that must be cured through analysis and psychiatry. Amp views this reading of Freud as having a harmful legacy that is felt by the kink community today.
Internally, I rolled my eyes.
It’s all too common to hear a critique of Freud from someone who has not read his works and is not familiar with psychoanalysis after him. I’m no Freudian, but you need to read and engage with a discursive figure before you take easy pot shots at them.
Imagine my surprise, though, when only a few beats later Amp invoked the terms “repression” and “sex drive” to contrast vanilla people (who don’t have kinky sex) as less open and healthy than kinky people are.
Q: Who theorized repression and sex drive first?
On the one hand, Amp would have us condemn psychiatry and psychoanalysis as oppressive because they make kinks out to be a mental disorder. On the other hand, he wanted those us of in the audience to think of vanilla sex as repressed and unhealthy.
This stance is problematic for a number of a reasons. First, it is plain hypocrisy. Second, it excludes people who identify as asexual or who have a low sex drive by pathologizing a disinterest in sex. In simple terms, this presentation lacked a positive attitude for sex, which is troubling given the event was a component of Westminster’s “Sex Positive Week.” This slip (Freudian pun intended) in Pup Amp’s activism exposes a question for Westminster’s culture: How does one resist exclusion without excluding others in turn?
My goal isn’t to show that Amp misread Freud and is therefore a bad activist. My aim is, more broadly, to demonstrate how we far too easily rail against the mistreatment of historically marginalized people on this campus while adopting methods of exclusionary power ourselves. If we say we want a sex positive campus, then let’s do more than appear transgressive.
I will admit that I am not familiar with the kink community. I’ve read about kink and I attended the Kink 101 Class Amp led, but my knowledge remains shallow. However, I’m aware enough to know that the Kink 101 class was inadequate—not bad, but not sufficient.
Indeed, attendees brought this issue to light both during and after the presentation. For example, Amp made several references to boners as signifiers for consent within kink situations where verbal consent cannot be continuously given. Even more, many of the images in the slideshow and the kinks he fleshed out were centered on bodies with phalluses. Someone (Thank you to them!) asked if the presentation would be getting less phallocentric after the break.
This person was met with some tact from Amp himself but received pushback from other attendees. Another person responded (I paraphrase), “I think what he is doing is coming from his own experience and he can only speak to that. I also think it’s important to get these things out in the air.” Let us consider these two claims: that Amp was and could only speak from his own experience and that getting “those things” out in the air is important.
Now, Amp did eventually apologize for anything he might have said that unintentionally excluded or offended anyone, but I don’t think he recognized the issue, which was precisely that he was doing something without intention. Amp seemed to come onto our little campus with a great deal of bravado, but what I heard was an unexamined philosophy twisted into an activism that lacked a discerning self-awareness.
Exclusion is the consequence of trying to make a “new normal” with your activism. Perhaps Amp’s presentation would have avoided this if he had simply acknowledged his arguments as rooted in his own experience and identified the references to phalluses and gay culture as parts of the kink community at-large and in no way meant to render invisible the bodies and cultures of other kinky people. Perhaps it would have been enough for Amp to admit as much—but perhaps not.
Now, is it important to get kink out in the air? Certainly. But if that’s all you do, then you’re doing worse than nothing. Throwing out ideas and ethics with no reflection is irresponsible and the people who do that are usually paid no attention. It is in this way that Amp is a bad moralist: he condemns marginalization and then adopts the same method of marginalization for his own projects.
However, when the unexamined philosophy someone speaks smacks of rebellion and transgression, it appears progressive and desirable by those who wish for change. We should be suspicious of a sex positivity that grants its holder too much certainty. The overturning of the old regime of sex will not come without careful consideration and thoughtfulness. Truthfully, I don’t believe that this sex positive paradise will ever come—but that’s a different conversation.
In any case, Amp’s Kink 101 class presented a seemingly all-too satisfactory ethics for people who desire the appearance of transgression and not its enactment. This is a paradox, though: I say his ethics are all-too satisfactory, but I am obviously unsatisfied. I want to emphasize the appearance of satisfaction and resistance to resolve this paradox. Amp’s ethics only appear to be satisfactory and sufficient, which obligates us to excoriate and criticize his bad moralism.
Sade’s ethics are contemptible; calling for the domination of the weak by a sexual sovereign does not stand up to scrutiny. However, Beauvoir is right in claiming that his grotesque writing does uncover the despotic nature of patriarchal power. Inversely, Amp’s ethics seem all-too satisfactory by presenting us with a ready-made transgression. In the end, this all-too satisfactory ethics ends up normalizing some sexual practices, vilifying other practices, and glossing over the existence of a multiplicity of bodies.
So, do we burn Pup Amp?
We do not, if only because we need examples of bad activism to learn from. Hopefully, we’ll see a change in content and tone from Amp and others who preach “sex positivity.” For now, I would find it sufficient to have started a campus cultural reflection on what it means to be sex positive without recourse to methods of exclusion, i.e. pathologization, normalization, naturalization and so on.