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Snuff: porn for a hopeless world

The last piece of the puzzle – actually a mere formal confirmation of what everyone already had imagined – came a few weeks ago in the form of a forensic report. Twenty-one-years old support teacher and moonlighting camgirl Hope Barden death wasn’t just an accident, but the result of the criminal behavior of one of her clients. In other words: it is time to think on a case so bizarre that, when I first heard about it, I instinctively thought it was fake news.

Hope passed away on March 15th, 2018 during an erotic breath control “game”. Unfortunately, this is not the strange part: asphyxiophilia is the absolutely most dangerous sexual practice of them all, reaping a global average of three deaths each day. Fact is, the woman was performing online for Jerome Dangar, 400 kilometers away. The man was a regular client, who spent £2,300 over three months to see her realizing live a bunch of fantasies, most of them sharing the common element of breathing – from blowing cigarette smoke toward the camera to, indeed, strangling herself. Her acquaintances claim she had got into camming partially for the thrill of it, but mostly to raise the money for a center for disabled teens.
You would think that Barden could just simulate the effects of choking and avoid unnecessary risks. The ultimate cause of the lethal accident will stay a mystery, but one element is certain: Dangar saw it all… and for over twenty minutes kept watching without raising any alarm.

What followed is a bit muddier. Police easily tracked the session back to the man and arrested him, not for failure to rescue or induction to suicide, but because a search of his mobile phone found 47 «illegal porn videos and pictures of the vilest kind», as the case judge defined them. And this requires some clarification.

Although James Dangar clearly wasn’t a nice person, British law has very ample and rather extravagant criteria to establish which sex acts can be represented. This particular case mentioned «people who are clearly alive at the beginning and seem to be dead at the end», and yet it isn’t very meaningful. Britain is the same country of the infamous Spanner Case, where sixteen persons were arrested for theoretically producing films featuring ritual homicides… including the victims, who were in pretty good health since the videos were actually simple home movies of BDSM sessions among friends.
Also, there is no record of how many files were just artworks, nor what sort of videos were involved. We should remember that it has been repeatedly proven how a market for snuff movies (meaning about people killed, possibly after being tortured) is just an urban legend. In almost every case, enthusiasts collect special effects or public domain clips, also culled from broadcast news of questionable ethics showing accidents, suicides or the gruesome bragging of terrorists. It is therefore quite probable that Dangar “only” had terrible tastes, without being a criminal in the common sense of the term.

The strongest clue about this is how, during the investigation about Barden’s death, the man was serving a relatively mild sentence of 15 months, far lighter than what anyone possessing truly upsetting material would receive. But this doesn’t really matter, since Dangar committed suicide in prison well before the recent verdict. What remains is a series of ugly questions, beginning with the most evident: how can anyone be sexually aroused by the death – real or simulated – of another person? The answers are probably as many as the number of individuals suffering from that mental disorder, but they all fit into two general categories.

The first is common with every sexual pathology based on power imbalances: a desperate need to reclaim control over one’s life. Those living in fear – justified or otherwise – of being at the mercy of events, of having no agency or under the threat of evil people adopt coping strategies in every field of their lives. Some espouse a conspiratory vision of the world, others give in to paranoia believing that every ill is caused by conveniently vulnerable groups, and others still act like cornered animals, simply attacking anyone different. In the sexual sphere, characterized by its natural lack of inhibitions, things become even more explicit. In a nutshell, people prove their power abusing and hurting their partners (pathological sadism), or willingly choosing the role of the victim, and giving them all responsibility for their pain (pathological masochism).
Having the power of life and death over someone is the most extreme form of it all, so it is unsurprising that this tragic mind theatre is common during crises: sexual abuse increase in step with social desease. Living in a world pelting us with lightning-quick changes and described by the media as surreal and alarming does also impact our perception of eroticism.

On this website we often talked about the second cause: sex education has been outsourced to the Web, and unguided people have the bad habit of mistaking the fiction of porn with reality. Yet the business model of unchecked hunting for paid clicks interests pornography as much as the information world. The latter uses polarizing fake news for clickbaiting; adult sites instead are rife with whole genres designed to arouse curiosity more than sexual excitement. In the words of Dangar himself: «It’s not all about sexual gratification, a lot of it is about intrigue». Or, more precisely, about novelty seeking, a well-known psychological factor corresponding to the compulsive search for new stimulations to compensate the addiction to narratives – not only erotic ones – that keep growing more and more spectacular, engaging, intense.
Pity that taking some extreme performances at face value caused 13% of girls under 17 to have been strangled during sex already, and that one-quarter of women in the USA are afraid for their safety every time they have a sexual encounter. The mere existence of entire erotic subcultures dedicated to Dolcettian fantasies (after the name of an artist specializing in pin-ups aspiring to be hanged, impaled or cooked) doesn’t help: their users – of every gender – inevitably end up at least partially normalizing the idea that killing people could be an exciting erotic game.

A series of interviews by the British newspaper Mirror after Hope Barden’s death noted how requests for dangerous practices and mentally unstable clients are frequent occurrences for many camgirls. The young woman’s family is understandably pleading for stricter regulations on online prostitution, but that doesn’t seem workable. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to fight unhealthy sexual drifts.

As I often repeat in my books and lectures, the difference between the pathological forms of paraphilias and their healthy expression is all in their surrounding culture. A criminal like James Dangar who keeps masturbating as he watches a person die is, above all, trapped inside a self-referential view of sex: the only thing that mattered to him was his own pleasure – no matter how twisted – without a care for the well-being of the partner, who existed just as a tool to reach orgasm, on the same level of an inanimate sex toy. This is the same approach of any sexual delinquent, from serial killers to possibly unaware molesters in the #metoo fashion.

On the other hand, sex positive culture, with all its branchings such as the BDSM one, is composed of principles – mostly of the ethical kind – and knowledge meant not only for finding more pleasure, but also to develop empathy between partners. To be exposed to concepts like consent management, SSC, negotiation, safer sex, safewords and so on inevitably redefines one’s idea of sexuality, driving home the notion it is something you do together and for everyone’s pleasure instead of using others. Besides excluding all dangerous practices, the actions stay mostly the same: what changes is the intention behind them.

It would be naive to think that one all-purpose magical solution to existing for every sexual abuse and crime, but in the long wait for the introduction of sensible sex education in schools we can take the first step ourselves. The Sexual Explorers Manifesto collects the principles of sex-positivity in a dozen of clear bullet points that are easy to implement in everyday life even without turning full-blown activists. The trick is, in the end, to learn to live well with ourselves and with our partners; from there, we must just share our world vision with others when possible. After all, this is how true revolutions are made: slowly, one person at a time, giving them something instead of taking it from them. Without ever losing the hope for a better world.

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