What Part of “Fantasy” Don’t They Understand?

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The success of “50 Shades of Grey” and news about Pornhub’s most popular search terms has too many people buzzing about the alleged dangers of each.

Both traditional conservatives and some self-identified feminists are condemning 50 Shades as encouraging violence against women. Clearly, these people know nothing about S/M, and not nearly enough about violence against women. Similarly, groups like xxxChurch and other anti-porn crusaders are dismayed that “teens” was the most popular porn search term last year, fearing this means we’re about to see a rash of adults trying to have sex with teens.

The panic about both of these things is founded on the persistent myth that enjoying a fantasy is the same thing as desiring it in real life. If that were true, millions of our neighbors would be punching their bosses, sleeping with their brothers-in-law, selling their homes to start over in Boise, or urinating on the very next TSA guard that hassles them.

Most grownups know that fantasy doesn’t equal desire and that it doesn’t predict behavior. One of the ways we cope with the pressures and complicated decision-making of adulthood is fantasy. We watch Star Wars and Star Trek, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and James Bond (and yes, Wonder Woman and the Million Dollar Baby) and we think “If only that were me…if only I had the chance…”

And we make damn sure we never have the chance. That mayhem stuff is dangerous. Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Which explains the appeal of 50 Shades of Grey: Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with. And the appeal of porn featuring 18 and 19 year olds (the only teen porn you can find on the overwhelming majority of porn sites): fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Yes, there are people who coerce women sexually. And adults who romance college kids, even some high school kids. But 50 Shades isn’t making that happen, and neither is porn. According to the federal Justice Department, the incidence of each has gone down in the last decade.
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Anyone who looks at 50 Shades and thinks that women like to get roughed up is (a) not really watching the movie, and (b) thinking that before they watch the film. The idea that women like to fall in love with guys who rough them up was popular before E.L. James was born. Jimmy Cagney and Jane Austen come to mind. 50 Shades isn’t the problem. Given economic options, most women don’t stay with someone who roughs them up. And, of course, 50 Shades isn’t about roughing someone up, it’s about two people collaborating on an experiment.

The concern about porn and teens is amusing, and as completely ignorant of history as only Americans can be. Teens have been the center of human erotic attraction since the beginning of time. Evolutionarily, they’re perfect for mating. And their bodies are as close to perfect as human bodies get. Of course they’re attractive to us today—they were attractive in Shakespeare’s time, in the Middle Ages, in Jesus’ time, and in the Greek heyday before that. Nothing novel about it.

Interestingly, Pornhub’s number two search term was lesbian, and numbers 3 and 4 were MILF and stepmom. Where is the outcry about everyone watching porn at risk for turning into, or desiring, lesbians? Or all the porn watchers suddenly turning toward older women, thereby depriving younger women of the relationships they deserve? Don’t forget granny porn—does its popularity predict an abandonment of all women under 50?

The accusation that 50 Shades is not a “feminist” book is telling. One hundred million women buy the book and it’s not feminist? That many women are not to be trusted to express their own eroticism? 50 Shades is not great literature (nor a great S/M manual), but it has flushed pro-censorship, anti-sexual diversity, fascist-style feminism out of the bushes.

Assuming they’re not obsessive, unwanted, and intrusive, fantasies are not dangerous (even then, the fantasies themselves are not the problem). What is dangerous are shame, guilt, and fearing that we’re not normal. And the forced secrecy that results from these. They’re more constraining and dehumanizing than Mr. Grey could ever be.

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