Can Fantasy Be Useful? Fantasy Roots, Functions, and Fifty Shades of Awesome

Monday, July 28, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Fantasy is a funny thing. Most everyone engages in it, though some won't admit it. When we do discuss it, it is in hushed whispers over wine amidst nervous giggles punctuated by the occasional, "Me too!" or "Ewww!"

But there are some fantasies that are far more taboo than others. The fantasies of rape, submission and sadomasochistic practices are among them.  

I know, I am late to the whole Fifty Shades of Grey party. 

"WAIT...THERE WAS A PARTY!?" Not that kind of party, people. Simmer down.

Since the trailer came out, I have listened to Fifty Shades being reduced to an antifeminist conspiracy, with many encouraging a boycott of the movie. I have heard things like, “It’s a glorification of rape, which increases the notion that women are asking for it.” I have heard others, male and female alike, ponder how we can stand idly by and allow a movie that depicts violence against women to become a box office hit. I assume they are just upset because sex in elevators is wrong on many levels. (Hey-O!)

At any rate, in emails and personal conversations, my opinions have been sought by those who believed that I would, in my decidedly feminist way, be pissed at anything that shows male dominance. 


I am late to this party because I am a thinker. And in my pondering, I have decided that I like this whole Fifty Shades of Grey thing. I do not believe that Fifty Shades of Grey is a disservice to women, though I do believe that those who shame women for their arousal might be contributing to more female shame responses than the movie itself. If anything, Fifty Shades gives us a platform to discuss these issues and normalize the process for those who feel ashamed of their responses. In addition, bondage is not rape, though rape fantasies are also common. And whether it's bondage, submission or wild orgy sex, our fantasies change over time due to hormones, aging, attempts to conquer subconscious fears or guilt, or in response to new insecurities. There can be healing and beauty inherent in these fantasies even if the reasons for this are not immediately obvious. And all these fantasy elements can play a positive role in the female psyche.

“Bondage and female submission is a positive thing? And you call yourself a feminist!” (I just figured I would get that over with before someone else does it for me.) 

While specific fantasies they mean something different to every women, underlying themes tend to have similarities. Fifty Shades of  Grey plays on internal dialogues that are already present. Advertising DOES NOT WORK FOR NO REASON. And if you’re going to abolish Fifty Shades, you might want to boycott Beauty and the Beast. Because that underlying theme of taming a beast with our love, whether it’s Christian Grey, Edward Cullen or the actual Beast of fairy tale is one we come by honestly. Culture is both a reflection of hidden desires as well as a contributor to them. And while some of these elements could do with a massive societal overhaul, those who do respond to Fifty Shades should not feel guilty or as if they are anti-female. 

Embracing Fifty Shades does not mean that I like the issues that made such fantasies more prevalent than not. Understanding is not absolution or acceptance. But condemning women for responding to the fantasy elements that have been created as coping skills through our treatment of them seems quite unfair. We don’t need permission to be aroused, though it seems that we are still seeking it, like Anna tied to a bedpost. 

So let me tell you, ladies: it’s okay. We are highly sexual creatures. As a shameless feminist, I respond to Fifty Shades as well. And I am shameless about that shit too. Because it’s fucking normal within the societal context where we currently find ourselves.

This is going to be a huge series because women’s fantasies are…deep (heh). But we will start with the Fifty Shades of awesome. And to figure out why it is so compelling, we need a little background on what fantasies actually do for us.  

Come with me. (That’s what she said?)  Let’s check this shit out.  

Root Causes and Functions of Fantasy

To understand why Fifty Shades of Grey is effective, we have to understand what advertisers already know: that women have a wide range of sexual fantasies and that the elements depicted in the books and movie are often among them. Not that these things actually reflect what we want in literal terms; fantasy tends to be more representative. Instead of factual depictions, fantasy is a world driven by the straightforward desire for pleasure and safety, according to Dr. Michael Bader in Arousal. And as Bader says, “Kinkiness is merely the complicated route that some people take in order to safely feel pleasure.”1 

But why would we have issues feeling pleasure? 

There are a number of reasons for this to occur and thus a number of ways for fantasy to help one cope with unwanted beliefs or emotions. And it usually starts in childhood.

Children are egocentric by nature and tend to shoulder responsibility for the pain of others because it is far less anxiety producing than the belief that something is wrong with a parent (which would have spelled death for our ancestors). That responsibility creates pathological beliefs that stem from issues like guilt or worry about others, either of which may be experienced as feeling unsafe. The way fantasy works depends on the actual belief itself. For example, if we ended up feeling guilty for being too needy as a child (which is surely the reason dad was upset all the time), we might need to combat that in order to gain pleasure (say by rendering us blameless for the pleasure because we are tied to the bed by a man too strong to be hurt by our neediness…ahem). 

Trauma, attachment issues and other less-than-ideal childhood experiences will be discussed in future posts in relation to fantasy elements. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that worry for the pleasure of others, guilt about impure thoughts, the ideal of the virginal chaste female and other social or religious prohibitions can effectively derail the capacity for pleasure. Bader believes that fantasies work to counteract these limits or undo them altogether and may function to: 

  • Ensure arousal reflects core fears and desires
  • Reduce guilt or worry
  • Combat shame, helplessness or rejection
  • Combat transference or over-identification (or the fear of getting too close) by providing space between actual experience and emotional connection 

Wendy Maltz and Suzie Boss, authors of Private Thoughts add an additional perspective2. They note that while fantasies are useful in coping with trauma or combating early childhood issues, they may also function to: 

  • Improve self esteem or personal views of attractiveness (because some days we need a safe place where we are amazingly beautiful after being bombarded with the impossible standards of the media)
  • Increase libido or sexual interest 
  • Facilitate orgasm
  • Celebrate the present moment (i.e. tantra-like practices of breathing as one, synchronizing heartbeats, or to spotlight other details of the experience)
  • Satisfy curiosity 
  • Rehearse future possibilities (if we aren’t ready to explore it in real life)
  • Relieve stress 
  • Preserve a good memory

Obviously, all of these elements may come into play in our fascination with Fifty Shades. We may be improving self esteem vicariously because Christian desires Anna so vehemently that he is willing to go all out to seduce her. We may also simply be using it as a way to satisfy curiosity about things we have not done and embrace evolutionary drives towards variety. Or perhaps we just want to orgasm and reduce our stress with all those happy chemicals. And if you believe Bader, some of us may also be striving to reduce psychological upheaval. (But if you’re someone whose safety is based on opposite elements, you may find such things repulsive. No one fantasy can work for all of us.)

Because sexual fantasies emerge automatically in childhood it should not come as a shock that most can remember their earliest ones. Mine were about the New Kids On the Block. Ohhhh Marky-Mark! (Don’t judge, people.) 

According to Maltz and Boss in Private Thoughts, there are a few additional triggers for fantasy besides the guilt and worry issues described by Bader:

  • Excitement about growing up/becoming a woman: Fantasy allows us to explore what it means to be a sexual female (in a world that often doesn't allow us this free expression)
  • Earliest sexual thoughts: Such as early crushes like the New Kids or imagining that our love can heal someone else after watching Beauty and the Beast or Shrek. We may also fantasize about one who is unavailable because it allows us to explore in a safe context (which is one reason celebrity crushes are so popular). These early fantasies may also help us define what we want, or don’t want, in a partner stemming from early experiences (i.e. being attracted to “kind eyes’ because angry eyes in a parent meant danger. )
  • Help us explore early hopes or fears about sexual activity (Because your first time might be easier if you already ran through your anxieties about it in an imagined boy band orgy. True story.)
  • Let us explore naturally emerging sexuality (What are those, breasts? What might one do with them?)
  • May emerge from feeling rushed into it, or forced sexual experiences, which may make women define their notions of sexuality by someone else’s standards. This may lead to fantasies that belonged to their attackers, or on less extreme levels, we may respond to fantasies forced on us by society at large through advertising, marketability standards and pornography.

Obviously, Anna's naivety may remind us of some of these as well, regardless of where we got our start. And from these beginnings, we tend to see themes in the fantasies of adulthood. According to Maltz and Boss, there are a few categories of fantasy that are far more common than others. And E.L. James nailed them in Fifty Shades. Because everything got nailed in that book. (wink, wink

The Most Popular Types of Scripted Fantasies (or Story-Type Fantasies) Are:

  • The Pretty Maiden: Often a result of societal pressure, this fantasy embraces the message “It’s feminine and pleasurable to be sexually submissive.” (Hello, Anna.) These fantasies tend to include elements of being “done to” as opposed to being the doer, and hinge of being the object of another’s desire. (Hello, Mr. Grey.) The Pretty Maiden also plays into our (society-fed) version of what normal arousal looks like, which makes them more appealing even when we are flabbergasted by things like Anna's naivety. (You signed a contract, you didn't think he actually wanted to spank you??) But even when she's meek and naive, she remains the embodiment of what we are taught women should be. It is not our fault for responding to this even when our logical mind is pissed the fuck off about it. We all want to be "normal" like our favorite fairy tale princess. I mean Sleeping Beauty just laid there unconscious waiting to be kissed without a whiff of consent. Whether it's seen as submission or a watered-down, child appropriate version of rape, little makes you more naive than sleeping through the story. 
  • The Victim: Focused on elements of danger or fear, often with the woman as powerless. However, in fantasy enjoyment is paramount unlike cases of actual victimization. This fantasy may come about due to early associations between sensual activity and fear, shame, guilt or physical pain, such as in cases of sexual abuse. (A link between pain and pleasure? Red Room anyone?)
  • The Wild Woman: In this role the focus is on pleasure, not power, with women often initiating the contact. This fantasy may involve casual, anonymous sex with one or multiple partners without rules, limits, guilt or commitments. The Wild Woman may be used to alleviate guilt about overwhelming a single partner, since, as we shall discuss in the next post, our sexuality is very powerful. (Anna engaging in sexual activities quickly after meeting Christian may, for some, embody this fantasy as might the element of sex without long-term commitment as the contract was supposed to be temporary. In practice and in fantasy, blindfolding elements allow one to imagine wilder scenes as they cannot see who is doing what.)  
  • The Dominatrix: Women are aroused by their own power, their sexuality and their control over another. Some engage in it as a way to bridge gaps between past hurts (or being victimized) and finding a way to claim power over their sexuality, if only in their minds. (And though not a Dominatrix, Anna does exert power in some areas over time and stands up to our powerful Mr. Grey. Though in a submissive state in the bedroom, she remains a decision maker in her life. Those who like the dominatrix role may also identify with Christian instead of Anna.)
  • The Beloved: Focus on intimacy, softness, caring, with a strong sense of partner equality and attraction to one another. Unfortunately, real life partners often have trouble keeping up with such fantasies. (We see elements of this throughout the books and end up in a beloved state by the end of the series after Anna tames Christian's sexual beast…just like we always knew she would. Damn our sexuality is powerful stuff!)
  • The Voyeur: A way to gain distance from fantasy by watching others engaging in it. This allows us to feel less responsible for the actions, and may let us test out new fantasies or attack a troubling one. It also allows us to reduce guilt by not actively participating. (Are we watching Anna and Christian or are we engaging?)

Obviously no matter which popular fantasies you happen to enjoy, all of them are present in varying levels in this series. But while these play into our Fifty Shades obsession, there are additional elements woven into the fabric of the story that makes Fifty Shades of Grey both damn sexy and damn likely to piss off a large portion of the population at the same time. You don’t want to miss the next post: Whips, Chains and Penises, OH MY! Fantasy and the Feminist Argument for Bondage.

Related Posts:


Topic-Relevant Resources

Everything you ever wanted to know about the connections between your vagina and your brain. It's worth the read.

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
Detailed descriptions of the rich fantasy lives of women, the underlying meanings behind them and how to decide if they are working for you or hurting your sexual desire.

Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century
An interesting look at improving the capacity for sexual pleasure using "outside the box" techniques. Not for the faint of heart.

Beyond the Break
What if the forbidden could heal you?