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

Marcus Aurelius's Stoic Stand Up
Video of Dan Fincke Defending Objective Morality On Atheist Analysis
Before and After I Deconverted: The Development of My Sexual Imagination
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
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.


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