Fifty Shades of Grey Related to the Ethics of Romanticizing Abusiveness for the Sake of Fantasy

Let me start by saying that I know very little about BDSM. It’s not something I have remotely explored experientially and it’s not something I have studied either. And I only know about Fifty Shades of Grey what I keep picking up second hand. I appreciate Laci Green’s opinions quite a bit, so I pass this on so that you might have a fun resource for the Fifty Shades of Grey lover in your life who might just need some correctives for their tendencies to romanticize being treated abusively, which Fifty Shades of Grey perhaps might exacerbate.

Philosophically this raises a lot of questions for me. I have little idea how to answer them. I can just give many shades of them. So that’s what I will do and leave it to you to offer your insights.

I wonder how much a fantasy story involving BDSM can reasonably involve more actual boundary violation than a healthy real life practice of BDSM morally ever should. Since in stories we’re only dealing with characters and only engaging vicariously, can we indulge even more in fantasies of dominance and submission than we ever should when roleplaying? After roleplaying with a real life human being, it would be incumbent to reassure them emotionally that it was only play for the sake of their own well being, but do fictional characters need to give and receive the same reassurances or can they more fully be in those roles of dominant and submissive since they only exist themselves as fantasy representations and idealizations and are not real people?

By not rigorously respecting principles of consent, does such fantasy literature only contribute to a rape culture that routinely–even in “harmless” romantic comedies–idealizes courtship as structurally being a process by which men persistently ignore and eventually overcome women’s refusals, rather than one in which mutually attracted, affectionate, and horny equals enthusiastically consent to getting it on? Can fantasies of domination and rape be indulged literarily in ways that real life roleplaying morally never should? Or does doing such things only encourage people’s feelings in the ways that make them susceptible to real life abusiveness? Does it make people more likely to confuse real life abusiveness for normalcy or goodness?

Just how morally conscientious does our fantasy life, or our shared art related to fantasies, need to be? Does it need to be as scrupulous as roleplaying strategies that ethically and consensually give vent and give play to our desires to excessively dominate or submit to others?

And how much does the interaction of such art with the larger culture matter? If we lived in a culture in which we saw healthier paradigms of sex and romance flourishing, ones built far more around mutual empowerment, mutual admiration, mutual horniness, and mutual pleasure, would we be able to approve more of fantasies of degradation and sadism? Is such stuff never permissible if it means glorifying, even in pure literary fantasy, what is in effect real rape and real cruelty? Does such fantasy risk inherently corrupting our moral characters or our psychologies? Is it even just intrinsically immoral to delight in a depiction of what would be a rape in real life–regardless of whether it never affects our own behavior or our attitudes outside that fantasy? In that case, is there possibly something morally suspect even about consensually roleplaying a rape?

Or is all or some of this potentially morally neutral but nonetheless worrisomely poisonous in a culture that is already rife with attitudes towards sex that involve unhealthy antagonism, objectification, degradation, and disrespect? Or does that overestimate just how bad our culture is or how consequential dark fantasies can be in reinforcing its most negative aspects? And could there be an upside to fantasy literature and roleplaying that gives vent to the darker sides of our nature that would only be harmful outside these designated outlets? In that way do they offer a potentially greater good that morally justifies the way they let people indulge themselves?

So I ask you to offer Your Thoughts. Please, when giving them, remember to be especially sensitive to the inevitable presence of readers who have endured rape and abusive relationships in the comments sections. Please help to create as safe an atmosphere for them to express themselves freely and, generally, even to just read others’ remarks without having their memories triggered, their ordeal minimized, or their emotions disrespected.

Your Thoughts?

See below to links to more of my considerations of topics related to sex. The second two posts address rape culture issues:

Sex and “Spirituality”

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Schrödinger’s Rapist and Schrödinger’s Racist

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

Sex and Apostasy

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed In Equality Between The Sexes

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Andrew Paladino

    I have raised many of the same questions about this issue, at various times. It’s nice to see them amalgamated so coherently here. This truly is a very difficult issue. Being someone who is not into BDSM, yet having been asked to partake in such activities (and as a result, experimenting with them), it really seems to me that there are major psychological differences between those who crave BDSM activities and those who do not. I think it would be very worthwhile for psychologists to study this very intensely, focusing on whether or not people who desire BDSM have been exposed to more or less abuse in everyday life interactions than those who do not. I do believe that, much like me watching the movie Milk or Brokeback Mountain and not becoming gay afterwards, it is highly unlikely that a woman would read 50 Shades of Grey and then adopt a fascination with BDSM- without having underlying psychological issues that were just waiting for stimulation. That being said, for young girls who are just discovering sexuality, the glorification of any kind of abusive relationship seems INCREDIBLY hazardous. It seems logical that the popularity of these activities, when painted with a broad brush (as they tend to be in today’s media age), will most certainly serve to bolster the rape-culture attitude. When males are struggling to find willing female sexual partners, the tendency is for them to become animalistic in their efforts to impress. In some cases, that animalism takes the form of chivalry and politeness- look at most TV shows from the 50s, where the teen male routinely frets over how to go about calling a female’s house, speaking to her parents, and cordially asking her out on a date. However if abusive, dominant, chauvinistic behavior becomes the socially-accepted “standard” for what females are typically looking for, then you can bet your ass that’s the type of behavior we will see adopted by males.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Andrew, I’d be careful about stigmatizing those interested in BDSM. Even were there a connection between experiences of abusive relationships and interest in BDSM, the ethical ramifications are complicated. Does that make it inherently bad? What if BDSM is cathartic for such people? What if it is just pleasing regardless and independent of the abusive relationships? Are you afraid that a desire for BDSM practices might indicate lingering unhealthy psychological associations between power and love and pain? What if that’s not it and the difference between consent and lack of consent makes BDSM a qualitatively different kind of experience than the abuse they suffered?

      Personally, I am averse to BDSM styles of extreme dominance and submission relationships. Any minimal degree of dabbling I have done has been just following partners’ leads for their sake, but not from any intrinsic interest. It was not a big deal and did not go far at all. But I think I can see that my relative degrees of general dominance or general submissiveness connect to my broader philosophy and psychology of love and sex and I would personally have a hard time bringing myself sexually to indulge in psychological and ethical attitudes that didn’t closely track my overall psychological and ethical attitudes. In other ways, roleplaying does not make sense to me personally. It would involve an alienation between my values and my pleasure, whereas my pleasures feel more integrated when they’re expressive of my values. If I had repressed values and urges that couldn’t get socially respectable expression then maybe roleplaying could be liberating.

      For others though there could be a whole range of other delights. Sex and pleasure do not need to be about such a tight degree of integration of one’s whole self but as fun as dressing up as someone evil on Halloween or similarly giving vent and play to very real and inherently morally neutral sides to human nature. Maybe such people are freer to explore their full humanity when they take recourse to play ways to do it that do not morally harm others. Maybe my psychological drive for integration between my public values and my private pleasures limits me in some way if it closes off the wider sphere of exploring emotions and desires differently in different contexts.

      These are complicated issues.

    • Andrew Paladino

      I did not intend to stigmatize those who enjoy in BDSM. I see it more as the possibility that there could be a deep-seeded Stockholm Syndrome that is quenched through these types of interactions. This certainly does not make the person indulging morally wrong. Furthermore, I do not feel like I have enough insight to say whether or not this would be a healthy outlet- as you indicated might be the case. It is very likely that it varies case-by-case. I couldn’t agree more with the rest of what you said (especially since you and I seem to have had similar experiences in this arena) and it truly can’t be emphasized enough what a tricky, multi-faceted issue this is.

  • Niemand

    I think you’re worrying about the wrong aspect of the relationship. It’s not the BDSM fantasy power differential that’s the problem, but the real life (within the context of the book) power differential. Insecure, inexperienced college student and obsessed millionaire stalker? That relationship would be troubling even if their sex were strictly limited to missionary position.

    • Daniel Fincke

      But that’s my point. In BDSM one role plays and indulges in the psycho-sexual-hedonic dimensions of dominant and submissive power differential relationships. The actions undertaken would be immoral outside the role playing, but within the role play they seem morally approvable at least (and maybe even ethically encouragable for those with that kink). In this fantasy novel, instead of playing dominant and submissive, one fantasizes about a man with power socially, sexually, psychologically, and physically dominating a woman who has social and sexual disadvantages with respect to him. Is this just another version of indulging in a fantasy you shouldn’t live out outside constraints or is it actually the celebration and encouragement of real life abuse.

      That’s my point, the characters in the book sound like they had might as well not explicitly engaged in BDSM practices. The same effect of fantasizing about exploiting power differentials sexually and psychologically, using characters that represent them, is at play. But does it make it different to use characters with real world analogues and to not give those characters the moral grounding that respectful BDSM practices would have to ethically ground roleplaying.

    • anonymous

      As someone who is into BDSM roleplay, I keep running the same sorts of questions in my head. The idea of enjoying representations of rape and abuse is particularly vexing, and I don’t think I can really answer your questions definitively. Acting out a fantasy can be extremely off-putting as well (although the experience is intense, possibly even sublime)–and, interestingly, it can be fairly upsetting to me, as a dominant male, but my girlfriend, submissive female, can pretty much just shrug it off. One thing I can say, though, is that exploring this kind of thing has left me far more attuned to abuse and consent and has led me to read a lot on the subject. In practice, then, it has led me to become a better person in that respect.

  • Ariel

    Some provisional answers.

    I wonder how much a fantasy story involving BDSM can reasonably involve more actual boundary violation than a healthy real life practice of BDSM morally ever should.

    I think that the effects of applying strict moral standards to the literature will be simply (1) a lot of awful didactic literature; (2) some good literary works which are produced in a struggle against these standards. One conspicuous example is socrealism – high moral, obligatory rigors, which produced a lot of utter shit (pardon the expression).* The second example which comes to my mind were the efforts of 18th century ‘enlightened’ thinkers, who didn’t like Shakespeare because he conveyed (as we would perhaps put it nowadays) a politically incorrect message. So they tried to modify his plays in accordance with their ethical standards. I’m compassionate enough to refrain from discussing the results. Needless to say, my trust in contemporary moral zealots is similar.**

    After roleplaying with a real life human being, it would be incumbent to reassure them emotionally that it was only play for the sake of their own well being, but do fictional characters need to give and receive the same reassurances or can they more fully be in those roles of dominant and submissive since they only exist themselves as fantasy representations and idealizations and are not real people?

    I think the success of such stories is (partly) due to the fact that they are closer to real people than you suggest. More of it below.

    Just how morally conscientious does our fantasy life, or our shared art related to fantasies, need to be? Does it need to be as scrupulous as roleplaying strategies that ethically and consensually give vent and give play to our desires to excessively dominate or submit to others?

    I think that from a perspective of real life the clear cut division between consensual role play and earnest dominance/submissiveness is pure fiction. Bad literature, you could say. In fact it all comes in far more than 50 shades of grey. Of course you can postulate such a clear division as a moral standard. (Hopelessly unrealistic, I would say, but the lack of realism has never been detrimental to moralists, has it?) But the literature – a good one at least – appeals to what really happens. If the border is in fact blurred, the literature will blur it. If real people are continually oscillating between role playing and they true selves (whatever it is, another literary construct perhaps), the literature will play it out. As it only should, I would add.

    *Just in case somebody was curious: no, I don’t think that’s because the communists’ values were ill chosen.
    ** No, I’m not comparing “50 shades of grey” to Shakespeare :-) I can’t. I haven’t read it yet.

  • oolon

    I thought the Marquis De Sade explored the limits of sexual fantasy quite nicely – there are none by definition. How conscientious should we be in our fantasy life? Surely it depends on if the individuals fantasy is purely fantasy or is acted out in the real world. I cannot see any fantasy that a person might want to conduct in their head *should* be subject to any moral considerations. Unless you are of the opinion that fantasising about unpleasant (In your opinion) or illegal activities will lead to that person perpetrating them in the real world.
    Mistaking that something in fantasy can be titillating or good for a wank with what it would be like in reality seems alien to me. I’m quite happy with my fantasy world being totally separate from the real, even to the extent that things I fantasise about sexually I would absolutely not want to act out in reality due to practical issues such as the difficulty in obtaining a stick of wet celery, flying helmet and egg whisk at the local shop without getting strange looks.

  • Elanor

    I think the problem with FSoG is that people are being introduced to BDSM fantasy without any BDSM 101. The BDSM community has a whole bunch of online resources on the importance of consent, the importance of differentiating the scene from the rest of your life, explicit communication and negotiation before sex, how to play safely, and how to tell BDSM from abuse. They know that they’re playing close to the edge, which is why they put so much effort into knowing when to stop. Only then can kinky folk indulge their authentic sexual desires in a way that is Safe, Sane and Consensual.

    To be honest, I learnt much more about healthy relationships from BDSM websites than I did from all regular magazines, rom-com’s, friends and sex-ed classes combined. If you know the difference between reality and fantasy, it shouldn’t matter how kinky your fantasies are.

  • heisenbug

    I always found it interesting how sadistic and masochistic behavior are easily interchangeable. And it does seem that physical or emotional damage during childhood (highly unlikely that it is a false stereotype based on current emperical evidence) do produce BDSM inclination in adult people. BDSM preferences are formed in childhood as the result of upbringing, it is not a genetics like with homosexuality or bisexuality. I agree that BDSM phantasies or activities do not make the person bad or morally wrong. However, I do think that BDSM behavior can be considered a deviation from a healthy one within normal bounds. People cannot be perfect anyway and small deviations from healthy behavior is inevitable.

    • Elanor QZ

      I have a few questions about your reply, heisenbug.

      “I always found it interesting how sadistic and masochistic behavior are easily interchangeable.”

      When and where have you found this? It’s true that some people in the BDSM community identify as switches (enjoying both dominant or sadistic behaviours AND submissive or masochistic). But there are many people that have strong preferences one way or the other.

      “And it does seem that physical or emotional damage during childhood (highly unlikely that it is a false stereotype based on current emperical evidence) do produce BDSM inclination in adult people.”

      Citation, please! What empirical data are you referring to? I found a summary of research here ( It’s true that there is SOME evidence in preliminary studies that people who practice BDSM have a higher rate of childhood abuse, yet these people are still a minority of BDSM practitioners. In your mind, what is the explanation for people who did not experience abuse but still enjoy BDSM?

      “BDSM preferences are formed in childhood as the result of upbringing, it is not a genetics like with homosexuality or bisexuality.”

      I think that’s likely, but unproven. If we for the moment take this statement to be true, do you think that once BDSM preferences are set, they are irreversible?If they are irreversible and intrinsic to a person’s adult sexuality, does it really matter if it got there by nature or by nurture?

      “I do think that BDSM behavior can be considered a deviation from a healthy one within normal bounds.”

      There are two words in that statement that really need to be picked apart – ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’. Let’s start with healthy. The DSM no longer classifies BDSM as inherently pathological, it’s only a problem if it causes distress or infringes on your ability to live your life. Deriving pleasure from pain isn’t unique to BDSM – just talk to marathon runners and mountain climbers, who push their physical limits and are rewarded with an endorphin rush and a sense of achievement. People are able to have kinky sex and still lead a life that is by all definitions fulfilling, successful and healthy.

      As for the word ‘normal’, get rid of it! Normal varies from age to age, from culture to culture, and always the label abnormal is used as a weapon against those in the minority. If we rounded up all the kinky people in the world and dumped them on an island with one vanilla couple, that couple would be abnormal by local standards.

      “People cannot be perfect anyway and small deviations from healthy behavior is inevitable.”

      I would instead say that variation is inevitable. Human sexuality is intensely complicated, but so long as it’s consensual I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a deviation.

  • Michelle

    I am fairly insulted by the idea that one would only be interested in BDSM is due to a background of abuse and deviant psychology. I assume that people are particularly referring to the women involved in BDSM. As Elanor points out above, the BDSM community tends more than others to be very explicit about limits and expectations. In proper BDSM practice it is the submissive person who at all points has the power to stop the situation using a safe word. Pain is used as a way to intensify pleasure, and reach a psychological zone, to a level that is not generally achieved in other ways as it combines sexual excitement with physical stress and endorphins in a similar way to disciplined exercise (like weightlifting or running) or transcending pain (think of those yogi types who lie down on nails). This is combined with the mental challenge and exhilaration of exceeding one’s own limits and the expectations of others, as well as the thrill of being outside of the square. It is the extreme sport, and possibly even a religious nirvana, of sex. It is also intellectually challenging as participants in BDSM need to contemplate and explore their feelings about sex and power, to challenge them and devise strategies to meet them. In my experience you tend to find some highly intelligent and creative people in BDSM communities. Women who want to be abused, lack imagination and the ability to express themselves, and those who want to abdicate responsibility for their own sexuality and enjoyment are not well regarded. There is no challenge to dominating a doormat and there is no challenge to submitting to a violent bully. If BDSM is practiced by force or intimidation, then it is not BDSM – it is abuse and rape. COnsent and desire make the difference hence the huge importance of safe words, agreements and fully understanding limits (although these may be tested). These matters are usually discussed and decided in a meeting or communications before the sex event or ‘session’ so as not to disturb the mood of the event. THis is in the same way that you get the administrative details of payment and contracts and registration of a wedding completed before the actual day of the wedding. As for dressing up and role play, these are only a subset of BDSM and not everyone uses them. They certainly don’t define the practices.

  • Michelle

    My apologies, ‘insulted’ was much too strong. It seems people often think that women who express an interest in sex outside the Mills and Boone heart shaped box must be damaged or deviant, which is unfair as I don’t think we have the same assumptions about men (?). I may have jumped to conclusions.

    I recall years ago reading an article by Camille Paglia that outraged me. She was saying that women sometimes stayed with aggressive men and condoned and even desired their violence because of the high voltage sex that resulted. On the other hand Nancy Friday in her popular ‘studies’ of sexual fantasy suggests that rape fantasies stem from wanting an excuse to be more passionate and sexually wild than we want to admit. Is it ethical to hand sexual decisions to someone else and play innocent though willing ‘victim’? Especially considering that a man who plays along is likely to be seen as a bully and rapist by outsiders? Can you ethically give away your right to consent? Can you ethically consent to, nurture and encourage a taste for sexual violence? Considering that you always have the sympathetic victim role to default to and it is the man (usually) who bears all the risk? If he likes it are you training an aggressive partner for a future woman? Is it fair to make another person solely responsible for your pleasure? Perhaps we also need to consider the ethics of the ‘victim’ in these cases?

  • Greta Christina

    Here’s a short-ish answer.

    With other kinds of fiction, we seem to understand the difference between the kinds of things we like to fantasize about, and the kinds of things we like to do. We understand that people can enjoy murder mysteries without being encouraged to murder. We understand than people can enjoy spy novels without being encouraged to join the CIA. We understand that people can enjoy heist thrillers without being encouraged to knock over Fort Knox. In general, we understand that it’s sometimes fun to have fantasies about things we would never ever do in real life, even things we would find morally abhorrent in real life.

    So why don’t we understand that about sex? Why don’t we understand that we can enjoy fantasizing about fucked-up, non-consensual sex, without being encouraged to engage in it?

    Yes, some people who read and enjoy kinky fiction may want to consensually act out some of those fantasies with enthusiastic partners. Just like some people who read and enjoy murder mysteries might want to attend one of those “murder mystery dinner theater” things. When it comes to topics other than sex, we understand that *fantasies are not reality,* and that consensually acting out fantasies with enthusiastic partners is a different kind of reality than inflicting them on unwilling victims. Why is this so hard to grasp when it comes to sex?

    Some kinky porn depicts the kinds of things kinky people engage in: consensual, negotiated, enthusiastically participated-in SM scenes. And some kinky porn depicts the kinds of things some kinky people sometimes think about and fantasize about: non-consensual or borderline-consensual force and abuse of power. I don’t see why kinky porn should all be the former and not the latter… any more than crime novels should always depict law-abiding citizens legally playing games of Cops and Robber.

    If the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey” means that some people reading it don’t understand how to do safe, sane, consensual SM, surely the response should be to do better education about safe, sane, consensual SM… rather than shaming people who enjoy these fantasies.