Andrea Scrima: Saskia, you’ve written a book that invites us into the BDSM community to explore the complicated emotional landscape lying at the heart of its negotiations over consent and—as the title you chose for your book underscores—permission. When the book begins, Echo, the young narrator, is submerged in a fog of emotional blunting following her father’s accidental death; she trusts bodies and the language they engage in more than emotional intimacy. We’re in southern California: the milieu is wealth and privilege, Hollywood beckons, and the narrative is full of gleaming surfaces. Can aspects of Permission be read as a social commentary?
Saskia Vogel: Thank you for that introduction, Andrea! The book certainly came from questions I had about the society I encountered when I moved back to LA after spending most of high school in Sweden and university in London. LA, where I was born and raised, was suddenly new to me. I could legally drink, which meant access to new spaces, and I finally had a driver’s license. I was also carrying years of distance and encounters with new cultures with me. Nothing about LA life was a given anymore. I thought it would feel like free space. However, when I arrived in LA as an adult, in my early twenties, I became aware of a strong current that asked me to conform to certain norms as a woman, for instance in how I presented myself. Dating culture was oddly formal, like we were supposed to demonstrate our skill in performing a script rather than make a connection. Looking back, I might suggest that the kind of abuse of power that was happening in the upper echelons of Hollywood, and I’m thinking of Weinstein here, trickled down into parts of society, creating a dishonest economy of sex and power. Very soon I found a group of friends who were deeply involved in the kink community. Half of myself, shall we say, was in that community, and the other was trying to navigate life outside of that community. There was quite a stark contrast between the BDSM community I knew—informed by mutual respect and consent, articulated boundaries, and an awareness of power dynamics—and my life outside it, which I experienced as far more patriarchal and conventional than my imagination of life in LA had been. Those two worlds left me with questions about the roles available to women in society, about who benefits from the existing power structures, and if there was a way out. I dropped my main character Echo right into the middle of these questions. Read more »
When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.
When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?
These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'. Read more »