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