The Ethics of Exposure

As part of the forthcoming panel on blogging ethics at Blogworld Expo, Amy Gahran has asked me to consider matters of ethics as they apply to someone who blogs about this kind of subject matter – kink, sex, cultural mores and such.

Some matters of ethics are probably more like courtesy. For example, putting into a web browser will not inundate you with porn popups or even any nudity – there is the cover to my novel, admittedly, which is more modest than most bodice-rippers you see on the shelves of your local Walgreens. I warn people that they may see things that are not necessarily safe-for-work (depending, of course, on where you work). And if you are looking at this entry from the link from Amy Gahran’s site, you not only are missing the cover page but you also are not seeing any of the affiliate links to other adult-related sites which are on my main blog page.

This is courtesy – this is simply acknowledging that while you and I may want to have discourse about these adult topics of human sexuality (a topic that is absolutely universal to every living being, and, come to think of it, the subject of speculation regarding quite a few dead ones) you may not want to actually look at it. I personally have a hard time understanding that – the difference between art and porn, nudity and nakedness, and such issues have always seemed rather silly to me.

But I respect them. That is part of my code of ethics as a blogger: I will not shove my subject matter down your throat, I will in fact make it harder to find and get to than most of the pages on the internet. This means that I can be sure that people who come to my site actually wanted to get there. It’s similar to the insurance policy regarding running into people you know at fetish events. Yes, they may be surprised to see you there wearing nothing but a pair of nipple clamps and a smile…but then again, to out you they would have to explain what they were doing at such a location in the first place.

It gets a little trickier though in my role as a public performer and educator. Suddenly I am writing about, talking about, and showing pictures of people and events that were local until I put them on an international stage through my podcast or my blog. On the one hand, that’s part of my job: to let people know there are others like them, to connect them and help everyone learn from each other how to be aware of the risks involved and how to mitigate them.

On the other hand…it’s a delicate line. People can lose jobs, lose family, lose community standing if they are inadvertently outed. People are sometimes attacked for their proclivities, whether they have anything to do with the rest of their life or not. So it is my responsibility, while sharing these experiences as a citizen journalist, to ensure that as much anonymity as possible is maintained. Or, perhaps it would better be phrased, as much anonymity as the person wishes.

An example of this would be an interview I did with a couple who were willing to share their experience with some more extreme psychological role-play. The male was willing to have his voice on my podcast, because while he was a public figure, he rarely ended up speaking; the woman, on the other hand, felt that her identity needed to be concealed even more, and asked that her story be read by my girlfriend so that her voice would remain unknown to the audience as well.

I never argue with these requests. I could have gone further, mixing genders, names, even giving false trails to frustrate would-be attackers (like implying that someone was a public figure when, in fact, they were private corporation officers. Or dog trainers. Or professional ballet dancers.) In my field, the who is not as important as the what and the how, and honestly, it’s often fun to disguise the participants involved.

However, as would be expected with a subject such as rope bondage, sometimes a picture is worth…well, you know. And while you could certainly go wild with mosaics and black bars and gaussian blurs and such, I find often the easiest thing to do is say “Hey…can I put this on my site?”

More often than not, the answer is yes. And I suppose it could be argued that I’m doing them a disservice – that no one could really gauge the amount of damage that could be done to them socially by having pictures like this on the internet, that it is not worth the risk.

Ah, but risk is exactly what we play with. I would argue that it is a disrespectful gesture to tell someone how they should or should not be responsible with their image. There are naked pictures of me on the internet, as well as pictures of the things that I do with other people, and they are not hard to find. I choose to leave it that way. Could this mean that I would lose my job or my kids if such a things were publicized? Perhaps. Except that I work for myself, now, and my children are no longer young enough to have the courts decide who and where they stay. I have assessed the risk, and accepted the possible consequences. I’ve even rehearsed the conversation I’ll have with my parents if and when they decide to google “Graydancer”.

Recently I ran into a fuzzy area, though, and it highlights for me just how important it is to have a reputation for being fair and respectful of people’s identities. At a performance in Minneapolis I created a kinetic sculpture with three women, which I then took a video of using my phone. After the event, I took the video to each of the women and showed it to them and asked them if it would be ok to post it on the site (it’s here, in case you’re wondering, but remember that you chose to click on that link). Each of them agreed.

Sunday I was talking with one of them, and she said “By the way…I was kind of surprised that you posted that video on your site without asking me. It’s ok, since my face is blurred, but I wish you’d have checked with me first.”

I was, understandably, flabbergasted. “I did!” I said, and with a heart-sinking feeling realized I was about to get into a he-said/she-said kind of situation, and worse. See, there is no way to argue this – short of showing her a signed release, there was no way to prove to her that she’d agreed with it. And honestly, even with the release, my own ethics, which have at their bedrock mutual consent between parties, require that if she changes her mind, I would need to take it down. The image that is on the Blogworld Expo site is a cropped section of one of the best pictures I’ve ever had of my ropework, on a beautiful woman dressed (mostly) in a fantastic black corset. However, she went on to a professional position and asked that all pictures of her be removed from my site. I had a release from her, I could have continued to use it for publicity, especially since in that particular picture her face is not shown.

But I took them all down. I even went to other photographers who had images of this woman and asked them to take her picture down. Not due to fear of litigation, not out of some court order, but out of courtesy and respect.

Back to the video: as it happened, there were two other people there in the room who had been eye-witnesses to my friend agreeing to let me post the video. She realized that she’d simply forgotten about it, due to the endorphined-state she was in after the performance (kind of like a runner’s high). She laughed it off and agreed that she had given permission, and that it was all fine.

But it also let me know that after-the-fact is not the time to ask permission – or rather, not directly after the fact. It also let me know that I might have to change my own policy of work, having the photographers and participants of my ropework sign more explicit waivers, just so that they have reminders that they did, in fact, assent.

Lessons learned. I will say that it is a lot easier to deal with misunderstandings like this if you have a reputation, within the community, of absolute respect for the people you work with. She knew that if I posted the video without her consent it was not malicious, or through some puerile instinct – she simply informed me of her wishes, and knew that I would honor them. Perhaps this is the other side of the rude blogger coin – the fact that if I want to continue to have access to these people and tell the stories of my subculture, I need to be meticulous in my manners and my behavior.

Then again, maybe she’s just an exhibitionist and I like to show off the nekkid chicks I tie up for fun. You be the judge…

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