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It’s time for us to have an open discussion about rape fantasies

February 16, 2015

fifty-shades-of-greyI have a small dilemma – I want to write about the 50 Shades of Grey craze, but I don’t want to spend an iota of my time either reading the book or watching the film, as I personally have less than zero interest in heteronormative narratives about aggressive and controlling men. So I will freely acknowledge my ignorance about the content of the book/film, and will try to avoid making assumptions about it – but I do have plenty to say about people’s reactions to it.

Here are the issues at hand: 50SOG is a hugely successful story that is said to glorify rape and abuse; some people think this means all straight women secretly want domineering alpha-male husbands; some people fear this is teaching impressionable youths terrible things about relationships; some people say “It’s just fiction, get over it, man”. Usually I wish to immerse the latter type of person in a roiling hell-vat of tone-deaf hippie kazoo buskers, but in this case they are kind of on to something. Kind of.

Fiction can be a type of fantasy; fiction about sex can be one way to express sexual fantasies. And here is a fact that causes very much consternation, discomfort and dismay: a lot of people, including women, do in fact have fantasies about rape. A LOT of people. Even feminist people. It is perfectly normal. (Wait, let me restate that with absolute clarity: having rape fantasies is perfectly normal and acceptable. Actual rape is not.)

This is a truth that many people find troubling to contemplate, and with good reason! It brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions, sometimes for the selfsame people having the fantasies. How can someone be pro-gender equality, pro-consent, anti-rape culture… and enjoy fantasizing about rape? How can this be okay? How can these two things be reconciled inside the same mind?

I believe the answer lies in picking apart the underlying assumption that fantasies are always something a person would want to fully experience in real life. They are not – and this is especially true of sexual fantasies, particularly for women. People fantasize about all kinds of things they would not actually do – some monogamous spouses fantasize about people outside of their marriage, some vanilla people fantasize about wild swinger orgies, some lesbians fantasize about watching gay men having sex.

But let’s consider the likelihood that some people having rape fantasies actually do wish for an element of force or ravishment in their real-life sex. This is still no reason for concern. Like BDSM (or even as an element of BDSM), most people who act out these kinds of fantasies prefer to do so under mutual consent. Since rape is by definition sex without consent, rape fantasies played out would have to be a type of roleplay. That is to say, women fantasizing about rape are not actually wishing for some random sicko to chase them down and brutalize them; in fact, they are very probably fantasizing about people they are legitimately attracted to, and desire sex from in ways that they agree to.

Furthermore, as with BDSM roles, what happens in the bedroom is not necessarily indicative of what goes on in daily life. Two people can have a very strong submissive-dominant dynamic between the sheets, but roles which are much more egalitarian, or even reversed, in their day-to-day interactions. The argument that the popularity of 50SOG proves that women want to be kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen is simple nonsense.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter. It is my opinion that 50 Shades of Grey is likely not intended as an endorsement of patriarchal stereotypes or unhealthy relationship patterns, but simply as a rape fantasy brought to screen. The popularity of rape fantasies themselves thus explains the book and the film’s success. There are lots and lots of other titillating stories out there in a similar vein – the entire genre of romance fiction, read mostly by women, contains plenty of allusions to sexual domination and coercion. 50SOG is no more a reflection of an average real-life relationship than is any other outlandish romance novel or film.

The problem is that, without the consent being explicitly shown, it is true that there are some people who will get the wrong idea; yet if the consent is shown, the fantasy is shattered. Nobody would want to watch it, for the same reason that nobody wants to watch safe sex practices in porn – it simply isn’t as exciting when the cogs and gears behind the façade are on display. Movies are all about suspending reality and maintaining the illusion. This one is no different.

I’m certainly not arguing that there is no valid reason to be concerned about how this film might affect uninformed or impressionable people. If Jian Ghomeshi had watched it, I’m sure he’d have felt even more justified in his behaviour. There is always a problem when fantasy becomes confused with reality, and there are certainly those who have a tendency to muddle or ignore the boundaries between the two.

So what should happen? It is good and important that there are critical conversations happening around this film, but I am concerned about the direction some of them are taking. Shaming people for what they like is never productive. Rather than taking the tone “THIS IS BAD AND GROSS AND YOU’RE BAD IF YOU LIKE IT”, maybe instead we could start to talk openly about rape fantasies, violence fantasies, and other taboo topics – maybe we could begin to educate each other in more healthy ways about the variety and complexity of human sexuality.

  1. dogfosfos permalink
    February 17, 2015 12:32 am

    I’m with you. I’m with a woman that never had full intercourse with anyone prior to me. When we were in college she would get openly flirted with, right in front of me, by this big dude that bounced at a rock club. Nothing came of it, but then after graduation she started working in a quasi-management position setting up creative merchandise displays at the mall and he ended up working in a non-management position in the food court across from her work. And I fantasize about her telling me how she needs to experience more, how she needs to grow as a woman, and that she needs me to accept that she’s going to go out on a date with him and see where it goes. And I agree, help her get dressed hot but not in a pandering way and help her mentally prepared – i’m rooting for it to succeed because i love her – i might hand her some condoms on the way out as a parting sign of confidence and to ensure she’s safe. and then i wait as she spends the weekend with this tall, muscular cross between a punk and jock and just lets herself go to fully explore and enjoy the limits of her femininity, getting doted on and fucked silly in the process. She comes home to me, curiosity out of her system, but she’ll never be the same – more confident, more sexual, owning her femininity and her right to enjoy and share it however she pleases. I happen to be the favorite person for her to share her pleasures with, but I’ll never be the only one.

    No way I could handle that in real life. But its a fun fantasy.

  2. February 19, 2015 12:34 am

    LOL – “I want to write about the 50 Shades of Grey craze, but I don’t want to spend an iota of my time either reading the book or watching the film…”
    Okay that an interesting start; I’ll have to read this later.

    • February 19, 2015 10:08 am

      Please do, because you will discover in the next sentence that I’m actually commenting on the public reaction to the story rather than the story itself.

      • February 21, 2015 1:25 am

        “next sentence” Yeah, I read that part too; I still thought it was a funny beginning. [I don’t plan on touching them either]
        “The popularity … explains the … success.” IDK about that… could also be trillion$ in psycho-social marketing; which may also explain the success of The Hunger Games.
        “…without the consent being explicitly shown, … if the consent is shown, the fantasy is shattered.” Yep: show the lighting, the microphones, the gaffers, and you wake up. But let’s return to that first part: “…without the consent being explicitly shown,” how many times a day does a husband/wife get explicit permission per-kiss (in writing, signed-sealed-&-dated by three-or-more judges). No; the magic is in the non-explicit permission – the trust.
        “…women fantasizing about rape…” It just seems to me that abdicating an equal position in such a way … well I’m just not sure what to say of that; might most women be somewhat used-to thinking that’s an acceptable position, given the billion-or-so t.v./commercials seen every year saying-so! “You’re a lower-class animal with no great value; so get what you can, while you can, how you must.” (Or is it just a simple way to make a physiologically-driven fantasy easier for the brain?)
        “…a problem when fantasy becomes confused with reality…” Thank-you: (two answers) A: “The neurotic’s strongest fantasy is that he has no fantasies. The real is very real to him, the unreal even more so.” ~Mignon McLaughlin &B: I doubt they’re really “fantasies” for the execs, and they shape our thoughts.
        I just wonder, “to what degree of fantasy,” bc fantasy seems to be the-most-possible pitfall ever.

      • February 23, 2015 4:06 pm

        Kissing your wife =/= roleplaying a rape fantasy. Explicit, carefully negotiated consent is absolutely necessary for the latter, otherwise it’s just plain rape.

  3. big & plastic permalink
    April 6, 2015 7:53 am

    the point of a fantasy is that it will never happen. that is why everybody has (different) fantasies. fsog. not important.

    • April 6, 2015 8:56 am

      I think this is true of a lot of fantasies, but not all. Certainly people fantasize about outlandish things because it’s a safe way to explore the outer margins of their sexuality without actually having to deal with reality. But there are also things that people fantasize about because they do actually want to try them out in real life. The point of a fantasy is to be able to explore both the limits of possibility, and the realm of impossibility. If this were not true, people would not be saying the idiotic things they are saying about 50SOG, and this discussion wouldn’t be necessary.

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