The Fetishization of Female Fantasies Goes Mainstream

I read Newsweek's much-discussed Katie Roiphe article, "Spanking Goes Mainstream," so you don't have to.

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I read Newsweek's much-discussed Katie Roiphe article, "Spanking Goes Mainstream," so you don't have to. It made me cranky and gave me a massive headache, made worse by the fact that when I went to save my well-thought, articulate argument (there's no proof to the contrary, now) against not only the article but also the Newsweek cover image, Tina Brown's hiring of Katie Roiphe for the task of writing the piece, and the blatant fetishization of a "fetish" for page views, the computer ate my blog post.

I blame Katie Roiphe for this. But in some ways, it's for the best. Because, you see, you don't actually want to read Roiphe's article. You don't need to know that her argument in support of sexual domination as a new "in vogue" trend, you know, spanking is so mainstream, is based on Fifty Shades of Grey, a poorly-written book series that began as Twilight fan-fiction and went BDSM. And Girls, of course, it's supported by Girls, too, because there's "sexual domination" there: Lena Dunham's character Hannah allowing a guy to hit her once or twice! She said no to anal sex. Wait, where is the so-called "rape fantasy" Roiphe's going on and on and on about?

As for that, here's why Roiphe says a fantasy is worrisome anti-feminist behavior:

Even though fantasies are something that, by definition, one can’t control, they seem to be saying something about modern women that nearly everyone wishes wasn’t said. One of the researchers he interviewed preferred to call them “fantasies of submission”; another said, “It’s the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought.”

But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense? Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering? It may be that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it; it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring....

It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities; it doesn’t care about The End of Men or peruse feminist blogs in its spare time; it doesn’t remember the hard work and dedication of the suffragettes and assorted other picket-sign wavers. The incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work, and may in fact gain in intensity and take new, inventive—or in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, not so inventive—forms.

Groan. You also don't need to read the many, many words that Roiphe uses to conflate fantasies and actualities, to preach about supposed anti-feminist behavior, because those words don't actually serve to make the point she wants them to. You don't need to read them to know that acting out a consensual sexual fantasy is not and never has been the same thing as "rape." And you don't need to read the piece to know that it's possible for feminists to have sexual fantasies in which they might behave passively. These are fantasies, you can do whatever the hell you want in them. In fact, that's what defines them as fantasies.

Despite what Roiphe wants us to get all worked up about, these issues feel distinctly orchestrated, Brown- and-Roiphe-made to stoke controversy. It feels like a flashback, some sort of '80s-era generalization about sex and feminism, paired with mouth-gaping and extrapolating and poorly chosen examples. You don't need to read Roiphe's article because the takeaway is, essentially, this: This was a way for Newsweek to get a lot of pageviews by writing about sex, feminism, spanking, and Fifty Shades of Grey. It was a way to put some really compelling words on the cover of a magazine—"The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender Is a Feminist Dream," paired with a sexy/titillating image, even if we get very little about these "working women" in the actual story. No matter! It was a way for people to get really worked up about the phrase "rape fantasies." It was a way for Katie Roiphe to get a paycheck, for Tina Brown to pat herself on the back for a job (selling magazines) well done, and for all of us to take home a big dose of outrage (or possibly laughter at how ridiculous this all is).

So, for that, maybe Roiphe did us a favor. She played the role of Internet troll for a day. Though had her computer eaten her article, we working women might all be a little less headachey this Monday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.