The philosophy of play partnerships: On treating people as things

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that it is immoral to treat people only as means to an end, that is to use them to obtain something to satisfy a desire,  impulse or need 1. Having had some connections that felt like I was used as a means to an end, until recently, I’d completely have agreed with Kant. However I’m now beginning to wonder if it is possible to treat people as things and do so ethically.

When we go to the hairdressers, go to the till with our shopping or see a lawyer, we do so with a clear understanding that this is a transaction. We agree beforehand what will take place during the transaction, and exchange money for their time, goods or expertise. If one of us fails to honour our side of the arrangement, the other has the right to be annoyed and seek recompense. When terms are agreed beforehand, and value is exchanged, transactions seem simple, honest and moral.  Treating people as a means to an end seems perfectly rational, and ethical.

But when feelings, relationships, sex, play and kink come into the picture, things quickly become complicated. It’s one thing to pay a professional dominant for their time to get the precise experience you want, and naturally because you pay you expect (within reason) to get what you want.  But when you have a non platonic connection with someone, treating them like a means to an end seems absolutely immoral.  Maybe it is because few of us can genuinely separate our feelings from sex and sexual activity, or because kinky play can be so deeply emotional that we feel we need a substantial link to the other person to feel safe.

Many people have casual sex, swinging, NSA or friends with benefits arrangements and no one considers anyone’s actions to be immoral. But in the poly (and sometimes kinky) worlds, to treat people as things is generally seen as a Bad Thing. For some reason people having non-romantic sex is just a case of dealing neatly with sexual desires, but the same principle is rarely applied to kinky ones. Why isn’t it moral to have someone who you see just to tie up, beat and share a cuppa with every now and then? Why isn’t it moral to date someone just for a good spanking every so often?

I’ve experienced both sides of this issue. I’ve had connections with people that I’ve described as emotional vampires. People who suck every last drop of energy from you, and leave the moment they have got what they want from you. People who treat you like an unpaid prostitute or pro-domme, people who don’t know how to give as well as take.  I’ve also been fortunate enough to experience wonderfully satisying play relationships with friends. People I have no desire to date, fuck or introduce to my parents, but whom I have meaningful, satisfying and fun connections in play with.

In relationships of all types, there is always an element of transaction. Actions are rarely genuinely altruistic, everything goes in the book of goodwill. Whether it’s a footrub for your tired partner after a hard day, or giving someone lots of orgasms, we do things to please our partners, because we like the activity and because we’d probably like some reciprocation of things we like sometime. We use different people for different things, we might ring x if we need some sensible advice on a problem, or call z if we fancy a night out in town. The important thing is that this has to be an equal and two-way things, if one person does all the giving, and one all the taking, things can quickly crumble.

When we play, there is usually a complementary combination of two opposite sides. It could be top/bottom, submissive/dominant, sadist/masochist or rigger/rope bottom. The importance is the yin and yang, the two sides of the coin, the mirror images. Each person seeks the opposite side to their desires in order to get what they want, to have their sexual desires satiated, someone to understand and enjoy what they are into. A sadist seeks a masochist, and a masochist seeks a sadist. A sadist without someone to inflict pain on is a sorry person indeed, and a masochist without a sadist will crave and yearn for that interaction and sensation. In effect, we need our mirrors to feed into and explore our desires, without them our cravings have no outlet, no way of expression.

When my play relationships have been good, it’s because there is an equal, consensual transaction going on. Sometimes it’s not said so explicitly, but we both recognise that we use each other to get what we want. They get mean hurty rope times, I get to tie up hot masochistic ladies. Everyone seems happy, no one is sighing into their pillows at night, and no one gets possessive or jealous. In some respect, we are all treating each other as things; means to an end, objects to glean our desires from. But that’s ok, because we consent to that, and because the transaction is equal. According to Kant, this mutual use of each other to satisfy our desires and impulses is immoral.

Perhaps we need to look to the writings of utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to find a more hedonistic approach to the morality of interactions between people. Bentham argues that whatever gives greatest happiness for the greatest number is the measure of morality 3. We could therefore argue that the respective sadists and masochists of the world are much happier from having people to beat and be beaten by, and hence the actions are moral, overriding Kant.  Simply put Bentham claimed actions that promote happiness ought to be approved of, and actions which caused unhappiness should be disapproved of 3, and so we can argue that consensual transaction relationships are moral.

We may have got the go ahead from the utilitarians to pursue our desires and slake our various lusts, using other people as things and means to our kinky ends, but would we really be acting ethically? How can we ensure when we treat people as things and means that we still treat them as ends? I think we can do this in a number of ways.

The first is to make the transaction open, honest, explicit and consensual. Have the discussion about what you want from the other person, and be honest about any future possibilities you may want. Second, there has to be give and take. If you like being pinned down and spanked, and the other person likes doing that: great, enjoy yourselves. There may be something you can do for the other person as well, maybe they would love it if you wore knee socks while they spanked you, or maybe they’d like you to give them a massage after. Whatever you are ok to agreeing to, make a fair and equal bargain. Finally, once the treating people as things is done, treat them as an end too. I don’t mean that you have to gaze lovingly into their eyes, write a sonnet or step in front of a bullet for them. Give them a hug, Thank them for a great time. Share a pot of tea before you part ways til next time.

In that final step, I believe we can assure ourselves that we are ethically treating people as things, but we can also satisfy Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperitive1 meaning not only will I have removed the need for this post, but also finally managed to find something I actually agree with Kant on.