Bdsm and human rights, calling on Jeremy “Weird” Bentham

Bentham argued that rights do exist, but that they have to be enforceable before they have real meaning. At the time he said this he was ridiculing the language about rights used by the French parliamentarians after the French Revolution, as if you could just make something a right just by declaring it was. For that reason, Bentham sometimes gets claimed by conservatives, but that’s only because they’ve only read the one sentence from the one essay, this one:  

“Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.”

Nonsense on stilts.

That’s a cool phrase, “nonsense on stilts”, isn’t it? At the same time, Bentham actually did recognise that there are rights, in a political sense, that are not yet backed by any sort of law. So, he was one of the first people to write that men and women should have equal rights, and that animals have rights. You can argue about whether Bentham was contradicting himself,  when he asserted rights that were not protected by the laws at the time he wrote.

But his approach is useful anyway. When we want to improve the rights of people who do bdsm, doing the gestural and rhetorical stuff may help, a bit, but it’s not the point.

They're probably safe from censors, so long as this doesn't get sexual.

A street march where people chant, “We’re here, the submissives’ arses are bare, get used to it”, might be fun, but it isn’t much use to a couple getting arrested because one of them gave the other a burn with a hot spoon, or at risk of losing custody of their children because they own a dvd showing a spanking and fucking scene between adults. (Both of those examples based on recent cases.) 

So we come back to Bentham and his advocacy of women’s rights and animal rights. He did that because he knew that the law isn’t changeless. Push to introduce new rights into the legal system, and eventually, the law will change, and a new right will have been created, which was once just an idea. Like Bentham we have to be hard realists and idealists at the same time.

Rights are socially created, so if you persuade enough people then you change the social climate, then the political climate and finally the law. Discussion about tactics is likely to come up in this blog, from time to time.  

But tomorrow I want to talk about Bentham’s weirdness, and then I can tell more stories about buying my first tawse and its first excursion. 


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