Monday, January 23, 2012

On Film & Consent

There is a wonderful Dance/Art film I that I think everyone interested in the politics of dis/ability would enjoy. “The Cost Of Living” is a highly lauded exploration of many social issues through dance, dis/ability playing a prominent role. It uniquely blends dance, with acting, and even a light narrative, to provoke our thought through a mixture of approaches, some subtle, some very blunt.

One of the more disturbing points in the film comes when the character “David”, played by David Toole who has no legs, is confronted by a man with a video camera who continually follows him, blocking his way, while we hear a series of rude questions. The scene works on a number of levels.

To begin with, the questions asked such as, “Why do you have no legs?”, “Do you blame God for how you were born?” “Can you masturbate?” “Do you have an asshole or do you shit into a bag?” have a very literal context to them. It may sound striking to some, but such questions by strangers are not an uncommon part of life for the disabled.

The questions though, are asked by a narrator, and the cameraman appears to remain silent. These are questions that we all ask, though perhaps not so deliberately. The narrator may be providing the inner monologue of the cameraman, but also in some ways that of David when he is so rudely observed. The message here, and indeed a fundamental element of dance, is that we do not need to speak to make ourselves heard.

The other important point here is that while the camera obviously functions as a metaphor for how the able bodied relate to disability, and for how it feels to be stared at, it can, in the context of devoteeism be understood very literally as well.

There is a problem amongst devotees, as in society, which is as old as the camera itself, and which has grown in proportion to its use and ubiquity. Being filmed or photographed by rude strangers is, sadly, not an uncommon part of life for the disabled. There are still videos on YouTube to this day of disabled people who have been covertly filmed by devotees for purely sexual purposes. Judging by the video quality and clothing worn by people, some these were taken in early nineties or late eighties. They have traded hands enough times that they have survived the shift from analog to digital, and they are still around

As I understand it, legally there is nothing wrong with this. When you are in public you lose your right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. In fact, I've heard the same rule applies if you are sitting in your living room with the windows open. What is legal though may not always be what is right.

My premise is that suffering, in its many forms, is something “bad” and ought to be avoided whenever possible. Furthermore, humans ought to be treated with a certain set of rights some of which grant them freedom from suffering needlessly. I claim that the kind of filming in question, and the proliferation of its product harms both parties in a number of ways.

To begin, filming harms the subject.

The most obvious scenario is one wherein the subject is filmed, and becomes aware of the filming, or its intent. This can happen before, during, or after the fact, and still be damaging. It feels silly to have to explain this, but believe it or not it can be incredibly scarring to find out that you have a secret cadre of online admirers discussing in detail your every recorded move. What is missing in this interaction is a word which is important in many areas of life, but most especially in all things sexual. That word is consent.

As a word and concept, consent has a long history of being linked to sex. Webster and the OED have traced its earliest use to the thirteenth century, being derived from the Latin “consentire” which held virtually the same meaning, suggesting its use in Latin goes back even further. It is linked with ideas like “age of consent”, whose earliest use was in 1504 and refers to “the age at which one is legally competent to give consent especially to marriage or to sexual intercourse”

What is interesting is that often with these films it is obvious that the person in question is taking great care to avoid being seen or noticed. I think this is important because it points to the thought process of the person who is filming. They do not expect to gain consent for their actions.

They seek to blend in or avoid being seen filming because they know there is no consent. Assuming that the first page of Google results are correct, and we have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, we do still have some say over how our images are distributed. If you've ever been around a documentary film crew, you'll know how adamant they are about securing someone's permission (consent) to film them. I think that we ought to have an extended provision in our law which grants us security from having our image filmed, shared and traded for sexual purposes without prior consent.

Regardless, it can be argued that if the subject does not find out they are being filmed, then there is no harm. This is problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, there is no way of guaranteeing that the subject or one of their relations will never find out that they will be, are being, or have been, filmed. Again, there are videos which date, conservatively speaking, from the early nineties, which are still bouncing around the net today, sometimes with multiple copies in multiple locations, and more new ones are popping up all the time. This was once a stronger argument but as the internet becomes more and more user friendly and embraces sharing, it becomes increasingly weaker.

Still though, even in the absence of the internet I argue that it is harmful and there are two reasons for this. To begin with, by ignoring the subject's lack of consent, or rather, by working actively in opposition to it, you are not respecting them as human beings. By filming, sharing, or even viewing these, you are ignoring the person on the screen. This is literally dehumanizing.

What I have described thus far encompasses most of the common arguments I have met with regarding this pattern of behavior. I have seen the discussion go around a number of times, more often in disabled circles than devotee ones, and with rare exception does it stray beyond these basic arguments. I feel though that there is something we have yet to consider.

While engaging in any part of this process of filming is indeed disrespectful, dehumanizing, and harmful to the subject, but it also is not healthy for the person who does the filming. I think that when we treat others in such a way we are not respecting ourselves. There is more to us than some crazed and lecherous passion which ignores our victims and snaps back at them when they complain.

Outside of its own circles though devoteeism is practically linked with indignity. You'll most assuredly be trolled, flamed, stalked, and otherwise harassed for talking openly about it. Your friends, family, and anyone else in your social circle are very likely to leave you or grow distant. Merely the mention of this has been the cause for more than one divorce. Furthermore, as I understand it, there is nothing which will protect you from being fired for your feelings. It is dangerous to be a devotee.

On one hand devotees feel this, and know that it is wrong. We seek to be treated fairly and equally, on a just basis, a basis which is often informed by if not in advocacy of, human rights. Yet I have seen many with this sentiment turn a blind eye when their actions violate the rights of another. I once saw a dev board online where a man with an SCI who felt hurt by his ex, who also had an SCI, posted all of her contact information and even some pictures. We were the hounds to which the forsaken were thrown. We were a weapon. We were the worst thing that could happen to someone.

Consider for a moment the effects of this.

I have read a few books regarding the interaction between people and disability at a personal and sociological level. One interesting theory I found discussed how society can be an actively disabling agent. When we treat people like they are disabled, when we link it with concepts of frailty, dependence, and indignity, we are a source of impairment stronger than any condition they may have. We can build all the ramps we want, but that is hardly where the change must end.

So, perhaps we can understand that as we in society can be complicit in disabling, and its deleterious effects on the individual, so too can those who are not devotees understand that they are complicit in indignity, and the following undignified behavior. When we are constantly told that we are less than human, it is contradictory to at the same time expect us to act as humans.

I want to be very clear about this next point. This does not excuse the actions of someone who takes part in this process of covert filming etc. Regardless of how poorly you are treated that does not give you the right violate the rights of another. This is true if you are a devotee, or a jilted ex-boyfriend.

The solution I see involves a recognition and respect of the humanity in each of us.

The fact is that as devotees are stripped of their dignity, they are often stripped of their ability to love. It is believed that any attraction the devotee feels toward someone with a disability is only fetishistic in nature. There is a denial of the possibility of there ever being anything more.

I claim that if you really love someone, you can't help but respect them as people. To love is to respect. If, as devotees, we do love someone, be they able bodied or otherwise, we will absolutely respect their wishes.

In closing I did want to include this interesting little anecdote I found in the first edition of The Psychology of Disability by Carolyn L. Vash which I will quote at length.

Another side of human acceptance is illustrated by a story told by Marya. A bilateral, above-knee amputee, she had been married to Emory for over three years when he confessed to her once night that he had, since early adolescence, entertained fantasies of having relations with women such as herself; and that her disability had been a prepotent source of his attraction to her initially. By then they had established a solid marital relationship and were viewed as an ideal couple by many of their friends. Marya recalled,

'I wanted to die. I wanted to vomit. Actually, I wanted to kill him. But somehow, the next morning, when he begged me not to leave him, because he had grown to love me for many other reasons, I weakened. He had trusted me enough to tell me something that still bothered- no, terrified-him. He had given me love and support and now he was asking me to accept his disability-a psychological problem that he was repulsed by and didn't understand. I agreed to stay if he would go to a psychiatrist. That was a ten years ago, I don't know that he has completely resolved all of his hangups, but our marriage is a good one...and whatever crazy thing he has for my stumps, he is a lovely guy I'm glad I held onto.'”

If you really don't believe me you can find this quote on page 97 of the second edition which Google has provided.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I'm happy to see that I'm not the only devotee who is conscientious about using people's images without their consent!