Sexual fantasy is dangerous.
Or so you’d think if you look around at the way this common human indulgence is handled in the media. My first realization of the way sexual thoughts were treated as incendiary was the uproar over Jimmy Carter’s confession in Playboy:
“I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”
In retrospect, I’m not sure if the hubbub was just about Carter’s mental adultery or his rather chummy understanding with God to give the lustings a pass, but even as a freshman in high school, I sure remember the buzz. This was way back in 1976, but our attitude towards sex in the mind has hardly changed. We’ve all read how internet porn is highly addictive, destroys real-life relationships and has created an upsurge in pedophilia (fears not born out by statistics), but even a happily married woman, as reported in Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? can be faithless enough to fantasize about baseball star Derek Jeter while in bed with her spouse—proof indeed that all women are naturally polyamorous.
In her recent Kinkly column, “Fifty Shades of Abuse?” Rachel Kramer Bussel discusses a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, “’Double Crap!’: Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the authors studied the mega-bestseller for evidence of intimate partner violence and concluded that the novel “adds to a growing body of literature noting dangerous violence standards being perpetuated in popular culture.” Even friendly sexual self-help books, which nominally accept the healthy existence of sexual fantasy, abound with advice to cleanse the mind of any self-indulgent imaginings and be with your partner in the moment. It’s as if having sexual thoughts that aren’t explicitly about how much you spiritually love and honor your partner somehow taints the encounter with, well, something dirty like eroticism.
I’m willing to admit that an actual sex act could have serious consequences. Infidelity can stress or destroy a relationship. Power is often abused in human relationships whether sex is involved or not. And totally erasing your partner’s existence in bed probably indicates some intimacy problems that would best be addressed. But let’s remember that other kinds of fantasy itself can have negative consequences. The lottery, the diet industry, and pretty much every advertising campaign out there feed our fantasies about being effortlessly rich, thin and lovable while they slip their hot hands into our wallets.
But what’s so scary about merely thinking about sex?
The assumption seems to be that fantasies represent something we actually want to do and would in the blink of an eye if given the opportunity. Once we imagine, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, being intimately massaged by eight nubile members of the opposite sex all dressed in matching loincloths, we’ll jump up and start recruiting a merry band for the weekend’s pleasure. Maybe you’ve heard the story that all of the feed stores in Iowa sold out of rope after Fifty Shades hit the bestseller list–clear evidence of monkey read, monkey do.
Let’s just say I won’t believe it until I see the inventory statements.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that not all fantasies are treated so literally. If we experience an urge to eat a whole pan of brownies, but don’t, the guilt stops there.
In pondering the reasons why sexual fantasy is regarded as so dangerous to our souls, I remembered an observation in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, volume 1 concerning the evolution of confession in Catholic Europe. (As an ex-Catholic, this passage made an impression— the book is dense, but I do recommend the book for anyone interested in the topic of sex, language and power). By the 17th century, priests were urged to use indirect language when questioning the penitents about sex, even as the scope of the confession increased.
“According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told. A twofold evolution tended to make the flesh into the root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings—so difficult to perceive and formulate—of desire.” (History of Sexuality: 1, 19-20).
All the major religions have figured out this trick—make a natural human experience sinful, and the believers will always be sinning and on their knees in need of forgiveness. And no doubt, the confessions of their more articulate congregation members provided a forbidden pleasure of its own to celibate priests. But where does that leave erotica writers, who create sexual fantasy for shameless public consumption? Are we hazardous to the mental and moral health of decent citizens everywhere?
My answer? Nah.
In fact, I’d argue that fantasy offers a healthy outlet of expression for desires and dilemmas that are otherwise repressed from ordinary discourse. Too many ostensibly responsible, educated people read fantasy like a road map when it’s usually more like a fable, a fiction that offers us a coded story of our deepest desires. And here I’m talking especially about the weird stuff that embarrasses us, the dark and “dangerous” fantasies. I’d also argue that the erotic appeal in Fifty Shades and Derek Jeter fantasies is the power more than the sex. While sexual attraction doubtless informs many of our interactions throughout the day, as human beings, power informs all of them. In the highly indirect language of fantasy, the pleasure in being ravaged by a powerful man is less about rape than the desired object’s own power of attraction in trumping his worldly might. Imagine—a pretty, naive college student can captivate one of the richest men in the world and make him focus all of his billionaire attention on the humblest details of her life. Fantasy of every kind delights in overturning certainties, violating taboos, weaving images of absurd abundance, relieving us of all obligations and restrictions. As much as we might wish, rarely does it come “true.” For most of us, the pleasure lies in watching the transgressions unfold in our heads.
I find it interesting that as the legal and social restrictions placed on sex acts are loosened, the attempts to control sexual thought seem to be increasing. Fifty Shades of Grey, whatever its flaws, opened up the world of erotica to millions of readers. In response we have an apparently serious scientific study that tells us a fantastical novel promotes delusions about the romance of BDSM that could harm female identity. Surely there are more effective ways to improve female self-esteem on a societal level. Studies showing the benefits of equal pay? More status for female-dominated professions? The benefits of treatment for both partners in actual cases of abuse?
And last but not least, don’t we all have enough trouble switching from the stresses of daily life to passion in bed with our partners without having to worry that a fleeting hankering for a sweaty baseball star is the equivalent of a full-fledged affair? Attention sex journalists and self-help gurus: leave my imagination alone!
On the other hand, if sexual fantasies are so powerful, well, my fellow ERWA writers, that means we can and are changing the world with our stories. That’s a power play we can all enjoy.