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21.6.06

Is The Fantasy You Really You?

Laurenhat has posted a very interesting thought experiment. She writes about a hypothetical sci-fi scenario in which anyone can download an exact replica of another person (typically for sexual purposes), and asks whether you'd be squicked and/or find it morally objectionable for people to download you. The more basic question here is: is it (at least potentially) a violation of a person to fantasize about them doing something that they would be unwilling to do in real life? (My post and Laurenhat's both focus on sex, but I think the ideas involved can easily be applied, mutatis mutandis, to other activities.)

Laurenhat and I (I post as "acsumama" on Livejournal) both give the thumbs-up to people downloading us. If I don't have to actually experience the things they're fantasizing about, I'm not harmed. The fantasizer's utility is increased and mine is left unchanged.

Typosqueene makes the case for the other side:

I am not a sex object, and no one has the right to use me that way. Even if it’s just a thought of me as a masturbatory aid – it’s still making ‘me’ or some essence of ‘me’ into a masturbatory tool, which I absolutely do not give consent to. I don’t mind being aesthetically assessed; it’s unavoidable, really. So if I have a nice bottom and you think “oooh, that’s a nice bottom”, fine. If I have to squeeze past you in a corridor and you’re feeling *cough* oversensitive and get over-excited, well, ew, but fine.

But you don’t get to wank with my hand, nor do you get to do it using all the effort I’ve put in to *be* this bubbly, intelligent, attractive, fun, desirable person. Abstract as it is, it’s still some part of *me* that you’re using for a sexual purpose, and I do not have any interest in engaging in sexual activity, even at a distance, with 99.999999999% of the human race. Thus – wrong.


What I think this boils down to is conflicting intuitions about identity. To typosqueene, the fantasy version of her is her (or at least a part of her), and so things done to fantasy-typosqueene without the consent of real-typosqueene are violations of real-typosqueene. But to me, fantasy-acsumama is a separate entity that just happens to be based on real-acsumama. And being a fantasy entity, it lacks subjectivity, and hence no action done to it can be directly morally problematic. In my view, fantasies bear something of the same relationship to the originals as parodies, remixes, and fanfic bear to the original works of art (the use of stock characters -- like the generic cheerleaders that typosqueene says she's OK with fantasizing about -- might be something like public domain art). I don't know enough about philosophy of mind to argue for one of these conceptions over the other.

On a sociological level, it appears that men tend to share my perspective and women lean toward tyopsqueene's (though of course there are exceptions -- Laurenhat and several other women share my view, and I would be surprised if Hugo Schwyzer didn't favor tyopsqueene's). This seems to make sense given the genders' differing experiences of sex. Men experience relatively few unwanted sexual advances in real life. Other people rarely act as if they are entitled to get some form of sexual satisfaction from us, and we don't feel pressured into offering. We generally feel more in control of our sexual landscapes (at least with regard to avoiding bad things, if not to obtaining good things). Thus it's easy for us to imagine a strong separation between reality and fantasy -- we don't feel threatened by the thought that the fantasy may spill over into real life. We confidently accept a narrower realm of "what actually affects me" in order to establish broader bounadries on people's liberty to fantasize. And we more easily sympathize with the position and interests of the fantasizer, weighing those comparatively heavily against the position and interests of the fantasize-ee.

Women, on the other hand, would be more likely to take a precautionary approach. A life full of unwanted advances (and the fear or reality of worse) makes them less sanguine about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The thought of someone fantasizing about them hits closer to home, in a bad way. A more "extended" conception of the borders of the self seems appealing, at the very least as a way of putting a buffer zone around the critical "real" person. There's also a more relational aspect to this perspective. Fantasy versions of people aren't just objects floating around to be appropriated and used privately and without accountability. They're inextricably linked to real people. This is apparent in typosqueene's point that not knowing that someone's fantasizing about her to adds to the violation -- they're being dishonest to her by not telling her what they're doing with something that belongs to her.

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