The Ethics of Fantasy

Chris's picture

Fetish Diva Midori, who's long been one of the smartest perverts on the scene, started a particularly interesting conversation on her Yahoo discussion group recently: are there fantasies that are, in themselves, unethical? Are there things that are such inherent breaches of morality that even if you never intend to act on them, that it's immoral even to fantasize about them?

From a sex-positive viewpoint, the immediate impulse is to say unambiguously, "NO!" The opposite answer has always been the hallmark of the puritans who police desire, and has destroyed more lives than can be counted. The idea that we have a right to our own desires as long as they either stay in our own heads or are acted out with consenting adults is the very core of the struggles for queer rights, for the acknowledgment of transgenderism, for the legitimacy of BDSM, and for the free manufacture and sale of pornography and sex toys of all kinds. It defines the difference between the people who see sexuality as normal and natural and those who see it as a dark, animal part of ourselves that we must transcend.

But I think that for most of us, no matter how expertly pervy and kinky and open-minded we are, the answer becomes more ambiguous once you start delving into particulars. For instance:

  • Racism: Race play is one of those issues that even hardcore kinksters have trouble agreeing on. What would your reaction be if, for instance, a white man told you that he wanted to get a black woman to be his "nigger bitch"? If a white woman wanted to get a black man to play "Mandingo" with her? (Alternet article on race play here.)
  • Pedophilia: There are acceptable versions of underage fantasies, such as dressing up in schoolgirl/boy outfits, cheerleader uniforms, etc. These variations on the theme are so common as to be seen as harmless and playfully naughty. But what if you knew that someone was fantasizing about having sex with actual children? Is the fantasy still okay? Is it different if they're fantasizing about imaginary children as opposed to specific, real-life children? Does the fantasy become less acceptable according to the degree of violence that it includes? Because of the very real vulnerability of children to exploitation, this is probably the area where people have the most intense reaction to fantasies, whether they're acted on or not. Earlier this year, Karen Fletcher pleaded guilty to obscenity charges based on the content of her website, "Red Rose Stories," which featured erotic stories about the rape and torture of children. She was prosecuted entirely on the basis of the text of the stories, which described imaginary acts and people.
  • Rape: What if someone tells you that they fantasize about rape? Do you feel different if their fantasy is to be raped rather than to rape? Is there a difference if the person is a man or a woman? Is it different if the fantasy takes place in an imaginary setting, such as a princess kidnapped by an evil prince, as opposed to a fantasy that re-enacts modern realities? Blogger Tess Danesi wrote a piece for Time Out New York's 2007 Sex Issue about acting out a rape fantasy with a partner called, bluntly enough, "I Want to... Be Raped." The description was raw, and violent, and I know Tess well enough to know that she does not, in the literal sense, want to be raped. I know that she's an intelligent woman with a solid grasp of her own sexuality and of the difference between fantasy and reality. But as angry as I was at the people who self-righteously condemned her piece, I have to admit that reading it made me squirm uncomfortably.
  • Snuff: The bête noir of all anti-porn arguments. The urban legend of "snuff films," which purportedly show actual people being murdered onscreen, persists even though it has been repeatedly and definitively debunked. The most important thing to say before exploring this particular fantasy is that snuff films DO NOT EXIST. They're a myth, and rank on the crazy scale with eyewitness reports of the Loch Ness Monster, theories of the Jew/Liberal Media, little green men who are beaming messages into your skull, and Ayn Rand. With that in mind, the fantasy does exist. The most socially acceptable version of snuff fantasies is the vampire myth. Since the publication of Dracula in 1896, the vampire has become one of the most persistently powerful icons that braids both our sexual fears and desires into one. We're comfortable with the vampire's fusion of sex and death because it's an inherently fantastic, unreal being, and in most incarnations, pretty corny. But what about more realistic fantasies that incorporate sex and murder? How comfortable do you feel with someone who tells you that they fantasize about slitting a partner's throat at climax, or having it done to them? What if someone's fantasies include torturing someone to death, or cannibalizing a partner?

I doubt many people can read through all of those potential fantasies without flinching, and I'm sure that people can expand the list. What do you think? What fantasies cause your moral sense to rebel, and what factors would make your response change? For instance, is your response to a pedophilia scene different depending on whether it's merely shared among friends, written as a story, put on video, electronically simulated in Second Life, or played out in a dungeon? Does it matter whether the participants are male or female? Does it matter whether it's same-sex or different?