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Monday, April 20, 2015

We All Are Brian Williams: Confabulation Muddles Our Stories

NBC News anchor Brian Williams has likely lost his job forever because when reporting a story on January 30, 2015, he referred to “a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”  This was demonstrated to be false, and the next night Brian Williams himself apologized on the air, saying with amazement that his “own notes” showed he was in the chopper behind the one that was struck.  This incident caused commentators to report similar misstatements Williams had made about his coverage of the Katrina hurricane and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Since a news anchor’s veracity is at the heart of the faith viewers place in choosing which newscast to watch, Brian Williams was suspended from reporting at all for NBC, and, far from being one of the most trusted persons in the country, he is now suspected of being at the best incompetent and at worst a compulsive liar.

Poor Brian.  Sure, he was wrong about what he did in the past, but why is it that many journalists will tell you that his fall from grace terrifies them because they know they could be in his place in a flash?  The answer is that everybody has many false memories of what he/she has done, and when we relate our stories of past triumphs or disasters we get many of the facts demonstrably wrong, though we’d pass lie detector tests showing we believe every single word we say.

How does this happen?  The answer lies in understand the phenomenon called “confabulation.” 

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the term:
In psychology, confabulation (verb: confabulate) is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.  Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the person is unaware the information is false. Although individuals can present blatantly false information, confabulation can also seem to be coherent, internally consistent, and relatively normal.  Individuals who confabulate present incorrect memories ranging from "subtle alterations to bizarre fabrications", and are generally very confident about their recollections, despite contradictory evidence.

Carried too far confabulation is a mental illness, sometimes caused by brain damage.  But we all confabulate and we do it constantly.  The reason is that even by the first time we tell a story about something that’s happened to us, we are fuzzy about many of the facts, but we rarely say that even if we are aware of it.  Instead we fill in the blanks with what probably happened.  As this story is repeated the false details are finalized in our mind, and with each repetition new mis-remembrances occur, so that the story wanders even more greatly from the truth.  Someone once said that “the first time you tell a story it’s fact, and the second time you tell it it’s fiction.”  That’s all too often exactly right.

I’ve written in this blog about confabulation before as a difficulty in rape investigations, since both the victim and the perpetrator will remember what happened in ways that support their own versions of the incident.  [See]   We tend to be the heroes of our own stories even when videos of the event might cast us in less attractive roles.  As I write the stories of my life for this blog I’ve often worried about their truth.  What’s even scarier is that time and again I’m not sure of the answer.

Let me give one example.  The following is from a blog post I wrote about me, my then wife, Charleyne, and the birth of our son Clayton [see]:

The baby’s due date was two weeks before Christmas of 1972, but that holiday came and went, with both of us getting grumpier about this pregnancy which seemed to have gone on for most of our lives. On Wednesday, December 27, we went to the movies to see the “The Poseidon Adventure,” and toward the end of the picture Charleyne’s water broke (and, given that movie is about disaster on the high seas, that couldn’t have been more appropriate). She didn’t mention her new condition until the movie ended (okay, in 2010 she says she did, but, trust me, if I’d have known her water broke, I’d have destroyed whole rows of seats getting us out of there). We rushed home and called her doctor. Contractions promptly started, so we raced to the hospital, but then they mysteriously stopped, and she was sent home. Our nerves were shot. By Thursday night nothing more had occurred, but the doctor said Charleyne should come early Friday morning and he would artificially induce labor. It was time for our baby to be born.

But when I told this story at Clayton’s 20th birthday party, Charleyne said it wasn’t true.  In her telling when her water broke she promptly reported this to me and I poo-poo’d the information and insisted we continue watching the movie.  I was astounded when I heard her say this.  We’d both become so focused at that moment in 1972 on making sure nothing went wrong with the baby that I’d have taken her announcement as major important news.  Indeed, in my version of the story, I clearly remember asking her in an exasperated voice why she hadn’t told me during the movie, and she was the one who’d said it wasn’t a big deal (or something like that).

Now  this is an instance where our versions of an important incident—her water breaking during a movie and what we did about it—are completely at variance.  One of us has to be wrong.  Hmm.  Is that true?  Perhaps there’s a middle ground: she told me that her water broke but I didn’t hear or perhaps didn’t understand what she meant.  But if that’s the explanation why would she sit there and wait out the end of the movie before we dealt with this issue?  Indeed, even if her version of the story is right that’s the same question.  She knew then and knows now (we are still great friends) that I would have done anything she wanted when it came to making her pregnancy as easy as possible.  

In the end all that can be said is that the truth will never be known about what we said to each other at the end of that movie.  And it doesn’t really matter in the long run of things.

But for poor Brian Williams confabulation has ruined a brilliant career, and, at age 55, his professional reputation as a journalist is fodder for comedy routines [to see what I mean Google “Brian Williams Jokes”].  If all journalists were on the air night after night and making comments about stories they were covering, which was part of Mr. Williams’s job, similar confabulation problems would likely arise, just as they would if any of us had all our stories fact checked nightly by millions of viewers.  He never meant to lie on the air—that would lead to the penalty he’s paying as I type this.  But confabulation has honest people telling unintentional lies, and the penalties for that are severe, often far beyond what this predictable human misstep calls for. Think of what happened to Brian Williams like this: he was a victim of confabulation, as are we all.  What he said on the air about his helicopter experience was a mistake, but it was not a conscious fabrication.  Now decide how much he should be punished for this mistake, but at least ask the right question.

Famous author, scientist Arthur C. Clarke had this to say about the subject in one of his books:

“What is human memory?" Manning asked. He gazed at the air as he spoke, as if lecturing an invisible audience—as perhaps he was. “It certainly is not a passive recording mechanism, like a digital disc or a tape. It is more like a story-telling machine. Sensory information is broken down into shards of perception, which are broken down again to be stored as memory fragments. And at night, as the body rests, these fragments are brought out from storage, reassembled and replayed. Each run-through etches them deeper into the brain's neural structure. And each time a memory is rehearsed or recalled it is elaborated. We may add a little, lose a little, tinker with the logic, fill in sections that have faded, perhaps even conflate disparate events.

“In extreme cases, we refer to this as confabulation. The brain creates and recreates the past, producing, in the end, a version of events that may bear little resemblance to what actually occurred. To first order, I believe it's true to say that everything I remember is false.”

A Guide to the Best of My Blog, April 29, 2013:

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act

I’m a fifth generation native Hoosier (dating back to my great-great grandfather Noah Whaley, who was born in Indiana in 1820 and fought in the Civil War), a lawyer, and a gay activist.  I’m astounded at the stupidity of my home state’s action in passing what it calls “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” just signed into law by Governor Mike Pence.  While disguised as having something to do with the free exercise of religion, it has only one true purpose: to legitimize discrimination against gay folks.

What does the statute say?  I’ve read the statutory language, and here’s my report.  First of all, the statute never mentions homosexuality.  It simply allows a “person” (defined broadly to include individuals, organizations, corporations, and businesses of all kinds) to refuse to comply with an Indiana statute, regulation, administrative order, or municipal ordinance that mandates conduct that would substantially burden that “person’s” exercise of religion.  That’s it.  What sort of existing governmental law would cause this problem?  An obvious example is an ordinance, such as one passed by the City of Indianapolis (2005), that protects LGBT citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations.  Hence, under the new statute, religious Hoosiers in Indy could fire or refuse to hire gays, or to rent to them, or to snap professional wedding photos for them or take them on as patients in a doctor’s practice [see].  Non-religious Hoosiers, however, would continue to be prohibited from doing these things in Indianapolis (“I won’t deal with you because fags disgust me even though I’m not religious” would still violate the city ordinance).  How do we tell if a person is religious or not?  We ask them.  The statute specifically states that there is no requirement of belief in a specific religion or participation therein.  Thus someone who’d never before expressed any belief in God could find Jesus seconds before refusing to rent a hotel room to a gay couple and thus escape from liability for violating Indianapolis’s ordinance.

The Indiana statute is similar to both a federal statute and state statutes in 19 other states.  What makes it different is that these other statutes were written to make sure that religious sensitivities were to be considered when applying any legislation, a benign enough reason for their passage years ago without much controversy.  Indiana’s law expands the earlier versions so that it applies to private disputes and not just to ones in which the government is a party.  None of the other versions have been interpreted (nor intended) as allowing private discrimination against LGBT people, but that was the announced reason behind the Indiana Legislature’s version of the statute, meaning it will be almost exclusively used to allow anti-gay discrimination in the Hoosier state.  Homophobia was pushed hard as a justification for similar legislation only once before, when Arizona passed such an Act in 2014, overridden by a governor’s veto when national economic pressure and public condemnation was brought to bear; see  As I write this, however, both Arkansas and North Carolina are on the verge of passing private anti-gay “religious freedom restoration” statutes, with homophobia proudly trumpeted as their central legislative motive.

Is discrimination allowed against other minorities?  Probably not.  The statute only voids state laws and cannot void federal laws giving civil rights to minorities, and these statutes will continue to protect people from discrimination based on sex, race, religious, nationality, etc.  Interestingly atheists are entitled to such protection based on their “religion” (though, as one wag said, calling atheism a religion is akin to calling bald a hair color).  Having concluded that other minorities remain protected I should mention that in the infamous Hobby Lobby decision of last year, the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote allowed that religiously-oriented corporation to discriminate against women in refusing to fund their birth control insurance.  Would the Court now say that religious bias permit all sorts of discrimination [“I won’t serve you because you’re a Jew and your people were Christ-killers!”]?  Surely not, but then I wouldn’t have thought that Hobby Lobby would have prevailed in the Court either. The five Justices in the majority were all Catholics, something that should give us pause.

Federal Law and Gays.  There is no federal statute protecting gays from discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations, and for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere there never will be; see  Thus Indiana’s new statute is not likely to allow discrimination against most minorities, and will apply solely to discrimination against gays, which the legislative history of the statute shows was just what was intended.  The Indiana legislature was upset by cases from other states like one where a business’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple violated Oregon law and resulted in the women recovering $150,000 in emotional distress damages [see].  Indiana is having none of that.

Is the Indiana statute unconstitutional?  Maybe, maybe not, which is almost always the answer in civil rights cases where the law is murky and seems to depend not on established principles but more on who’s currently on the Court—I once got myself in trouble with my colleagues at The Ohio State Law School by casually remarking in my Commercial Law class that I couldn’t believe anyone could teach Constitutional Law with a straight face.  The main constitutional argument has to do with the 1996 case of Romers v. Evans in which the Court struck down an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would have invalidated existing Colorado municipal ordinances protecting gays from discrimination.  The Court in Romer stated that if a state was going to take away existing civil rights it had to have a “rational basis” for doing so, and, again, mere homophobia is not a rational basis.  Using that logic it can be argued that the Indiana Legislature is taking away civil rights protections from LGBT citizens in Indianapolis without a “rational basis.”  But surely the Hobby Lobby decision is a powerful argument that religious beliefs are rational (for those who believe in God), so who knows what the Court will say?  Justice Anthony Kennedy was in the majority in both the Hobby Lobby decision and Romers, and, as in those cases, he’s likely to be the swing vote should the Indiana statute or similar ones reach the Court in a year or so.

How Can the Indiana Statute Be Overcome?  This vile statute is given the innocent name “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” precisely because that sounds so uncontroversial.  Who isn’t in favor of religious freedom?  I am, and I assume you are too.  Certainly I wouldn’t argue that a religious organization, say the Catholic Church, can’t decide who gets to be employed as priests or nuns even if I disapprove of its selections (as I sometimes did when I was a young Catholic trapped in their schools).  But if someone goes into a business that deals with the public, such as making wedding cakes or treating patients in a doctor’s office, he/she is no longer allowed to discriminate based on personal revulsion against protected groups.  No baker may legally say “I won’t make cakes for your wedding because I hate black people.”

Audra McDonald
There has been much outrage at what Indiana has done, and already some effective protests may be causing the state legislature and the governor second thoughts.  Indianapolis is to be the site of the March Madness Final Four games this year, but the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, have indicated this may be the last year for that.  Some national sports commentators and staff are gay or very gay-supportive and are already protesting having anything to do with a state that enacts discriminatory legislation that might cause them problems renting a room or getting a meal or taxi, etc.  [If that sounds farfetched I saw in last Saturday’s newspaper an interview with an Indianapolis restaurant owner who proudly announced he will no longer serve gays.]  A couple of conventions that usually bring their business Indiana have indicated they will now back off, and national personalities such as entertainer Audra McDonald have taken firm stands.  Here’s hers:

As others, both gay and straight, stand up for what’s right, and particularly as they threaten the state with economic sanctions, things might cause this statute to be repealed (though any legislator voting to repeal a statute in favor of religious freedom had better be ready to retire).  At the very least a strong public negative reaction might keep other states from doing similarly evil things.  The gay community has long benefited from terrific support from the straight community, and for that we are very, very grateful; see  This past Saturday Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced that he was surprised by the outrage expressed about the new statute by everyone from local gay organizations to the President of the United States, and he’s asked the legislature to pass a “clarifying” amendment, though what it might say that would lessen its original intent is a mystery.  Pence explained that the Indiana statute was never meant to discriminate against anyone (!), a remark that shows he’s either brain dead or so bad a politician that he can’t even concoct a credible lie.

Governor Pence Pontificating

When I began my career as a gay activist in the early 1980s hatred of homosexuals was everywhere and supporters of LGBT rights were few and far between.  The battles were ugly and dangerous; see One thing I learned early on was to shift the debate from whether gays were perverts to whether those who opposed our rights were bigots.  I was on many TV and radio call-in shows where the caller would start out saying things like “Homosexuals are sick!” and I’d respond by asking the caller how he/she justified being a bigot.  Of course, no one wants to be called a “bigot,” so there would be sputtering and protestations and the caller and I would get into a Socratic dialogue (the preferred way of teaching in legal classrooms) about the meaning of the word “bigot” and whether the caller was really one or not.  That was a much more satisfying discussion.  Immediately other callers would light up the phones with outraged protests of “I’m no bigot!” and we’d then explore that contention.  After one such long discussion with a caller she became quite confused and told me “I don’t believe God would create people as homosexuals and then make homosexuality a sin!”  I replied that I didn’t believe that either, and thanked her for calling as we switched to someone else.  For the first five or so years of the gay pride march in Columbus I was the final speaker of the day at the after-march rally, and at the end of my remarks I would point to the group of protesters across the way with their anti-gay signs, and tell my audience, “Pretend I’m one of those haters.  I’m going to yell ugly words at you and you’re going to yell back, ‘Bigot!’ Are you ready?”  They’d happily agree.  Then I’d sling at them words like “Faggot!” “Dyke!” “Pervert!” and “Lesbo!”, each time hearing a resounding “Bigot!” coming back, the sound bouncing off the buildings around the Statehouse.  After the last echo died I’d point at the crowd and say, “Good for you! [For videos of this see].  I’m proud that in Ohio the response to homophobia was frequently the word “bigot,” a word that stings and makes people pause to reflect on their true motivation.

Let’s stop using the pretentious title that this Indiana statute gives itself.  “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act”—really?  Let’s ask what “religious freedom” does it pretend to be restoring?  By 2015 growing acceptance of homosexuality has led to statutes and ordinances protecting gays that have real teeth in them, and this does trample on the Bible-given right to treat homosexuality as an abomination.  That millennia-old hatred is the supposed “religious freedom” being “restored.”  But, as a lawyer and a consumer, I believe in truth in labeling.  From now on let’s refer to it as what it really is: the “Religious Bigot Protection Act.”  That puts the focus exactly where it belongs.

Related Posts:
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010:;
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010:;
“Gay Marriage, the Sixth Circuit, Jeffrey Sutton, and the Supreme Court,” November 13, 2014:;
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013;

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Shame of the Republicans in Congress

It’s no fun to think about budgets, but because it’s important let’s do so for a moment.  The new budgets proposed by the Republicans in both the House and Senate would be a disaster for the United States if enacted (which won’t happen), because those budgets, while pretending to be about paying down the deficit would actually add to it immensely while cutting both taxes and all federal programs that much of the country depends on, such as Medicare, Social Security, while completely eliminating Obamacare and the taxes that fund it.  The tax cuts would—surprise!—make the obscenely wealthy one percent of Americans even more obscenely wealthy, while making the rest of us poorer and bereft of governmental protection.  This is irresponsibility at its highest, and, interestingly, it’s fairly new to American politics to be this blatant about the goal.  For a terrifying New York Times article on point, see Paul Krugman’s “Trillion Dollar Fraudsters” (published last Friday) [].

The proposed budgets do increase spending in one category: the military.  All the studies show that our defense spending is hugely wasteful, much padded by projects even the Pentagon does not want but dear to the hearts of politicians whose constituents live off of them.  Do we really need more?

[Click To Enlarge]

When the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Citizens United case (2010) ruling unconstitutional federal laws that limited how much corporations could contribute to political campaigns (one of the most shameful decisions the Court has produced in decades), the floodgates opened and Big Money took over our elections, and by extension, our lawmakers.  The superrich Koch brothers will spend more on the 2016 election than the Republican and Democratic parties combined!  Yikes!  And they’re just two of the richest men in the country.  As to how obscenely rich the rich are watch this YouTube video explanation, which is startling:

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When the wealthy are as wealthy as the wealthy are today they now can actually buy a majority in Congress.  Democrats are not immune to the sway of the fumes coming off the money waived under their noses, but the Republicans have been shameless in selling out for the moola.   Most Democrats are beholden to ideals that include making sure the government protects the people, but the Republicans now in office mostly stand for whatever will make the rich richer—the rest of the people be damned.  This means cutting taxes on the rich while eviscerating federal spending on everything else: social programs, infrastructure, the environment, education, regulating banking practices, you name it. 

The Republicans oppose big government.  That’s fine, and there’s a respectable argument for that philosophy.  But when that opposition grows to mean no federal regulations on what businesses can do, well, there goes the quality of our air and water, the health of our people, the influence of science on decision-making, and the safety net that keeps much of the population from starving on the streets.  Policy protecting the interest of the people is deemed irrelevant; policy protecting the interests of the rich is not.

The comic strip

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Another justification for giving it all to the wealthy is that the rich will invest in America and that investment will “trickle down” to the rest of us.  If that ever worked—and most economists agree it never did—in recent decades the wealthy have shut off the spigot and kept all the goodies for themselves.

It wasn’t always thus.  The Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, formed to combat slavery.  When I grew up there were (gasp!) liberal Republicans, and many moderate ones.  But no more.  Moderate Republicans, like the wonderful Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, have been taken down by the Tea Party; see  It’s very sad to watch this decline, and it gets harder and harder for me to find a Republican politician I can admire.  At this second none come to mind.  I suspect that if truth were told most Republican politicians really do believe in evolution, think gay people should be treated like everyone else, accept that scientific facts are indisputable as to most things, but finding a Republican politician who will say these things aloud is rare.

The far right has captured a good sized chunk of the Republican Party, and in that ugly portion the social gains of the past decades are untouched: women are inferior to men, blacks to whites, gays to straights, nonbelievers to the religious, and the list goes on and on.  The Tea Party has so much influence that Republican leaders can’t get their own party to do anything, even though Republicans control both houses of Congress, unless Democrats jump in and help cancel the Tea Party naysayers. 

In this post I’m very hard on Republican politicians, but I’m not saying that Republican voters agree with what those politicians are doing once they get into office.  I certainly hope not.  But what voters want and what the politicians do once elected are often far apart.  This is true of both political parties, but the messiness of the Democratic Party consists largely of inefficient confusion over protecting the people and how to do it.  

In his article I mentioned at the start about the proposed Republican budgets, Paul Krugman laments that the Republicans haven’t offered up a budget in a long time that does anything other than reward the wealthy and screw the rest of us.  Here’s his closing paragraph:

"Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry."

Related Posts:
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;
“Ohio To Put Guns in Baby Strollers,” June 17, 2012;   

Monday, February 23, 2015

Terminology: When a Man Has a “Husband” and a Woman Has a “Wife”

In this new world where gay people are legally married, as David Vargo and I were in 2013, there’s a terminology issue that has its own new battlefield: what is the spouse to be called?  Surely the correct answer is “husband” or “wife,” depending on the gender, but that sounds so historically foreign, often even to gay couples themselves, that it seems awkward.  The problem is that gay marriage is so very new—so startling a change—that it’s difficult for society to catch up with reality.
Some couples avoid the issue by simply using “spouse,” particularly when desiring not to “come out” in situations where it is irrelevant or unwise (talking to one’s homophobic employer, for example).  But most married gay couples do use “husband” or “wife,” with the hope that repeated usage will make it seem ordinary even if sometimes surprising to listeners expecting a different gender reference.

I have a couple of friends who know I’m married to David but who, when referring to him or us do not use marriage terms.  They say things like, “We’d love to meet you and your partner” or “Bring your significant other over for dinner.”  Why do they balk at “husband”?  These good people do not think of themselves as homophobic and are indeed friends of mine, comfortable with the fact that I’m gay.  I’m afraid the answer is, alas, that they are involved in a mild form of homophobia, and if they thought it through they’d realize it.  Failure to call David my “husband” is a tactic reservation of that term for the spouse of a woman, and reflects an underlying belief that David and my marriage is not “real” the way straight marriages are.  I suspect it’s part of an unstated conclusion many straights (and even some gays) have that gay marriages aren’t truly the equivalent of straight marriages and never will be anything other than a tolerated pretense, understandable but wrong.

Particularly in a state like Ohio where gay marriages are not as I write this currently valid (even though the federal government must recognize them and the marriage was legal in New York where it occurred) some people might contends ours is not a marriage in anything other than our dreams.  So far no one has said this to me out loud, but if some bigot were to do so (“You’re not married here in Columbus, Ohio, bub!”) I’d reply, “We will be by July when the Supreme Court speaks.”  [As to that see]

Not long ago David and I were going some place where our marriage might or might not come up and I mentioned to him that if it did I’d refer to him as my “husband.”  He lifted his eyebrows at this.  As a boy David was much bullied in both grade and high school for his supposed gayness, so he pointed out to me that if I did this there would likely be employee jokes and laughter about us after we’d left the scene.  I agreed that was a possibility but then pointed out that we were part of a learning curve for these people.  The first time it’s funny, the second time it’s a case of “hey, we had another guy refer to his ‘husband.’”  The third time there’s a shrug, and thereafter they stop noticing.  Thus it is with all civil rights battles, a lesson I learned in the 80s when we first were carrying signs on the streets of Columbus and being called “fag” was routinely yelled from passing cars; see

Interestingly, companies that deal with huge numbers of customers in telephone conversations are not thrown at all when I say things like “Please add my husband to the account.”  They’ve now heard that sort of statement so often that it’s lost its surprise value, and the company doesn’t want to offend its customers, gay or not.  Progress is being made.  Consider the following pie chart.

In the early 1900s one of the earliest homosexual advocates (and, alas, I can’t remember which one) commented that homosexuals would someday be tolerated the same way frogs, slowing heated up in water, don’t notice the change: “They’ll just have to get used to it.”  When it comes to this gay marriage terminology issue that is exactly what’s happening.  Five years from now no one will give it a thought that men can have “husbands” and women can have “wives.”

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013,

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Demeaning to Women?


Not in my opinion.  Sure, the bestselling novel and the movie both concern the story of a woman who erotically submits to total domination by a man, and who then experiences some of the possibilities of the BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) world.  But for me to type the words “submits to total domination by a man” is to demonstrate the problem.  It certainly sounds demeaning, and many commentators cannot get beyond that.  For them the issue is over, and the book/movie is to be condemned for that fact alone (and not, for example, its artistic merit or even its portrayal of BDSM, which has been criticized).   I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, but to the extent that the criticism is that women should never be portrayed as submissives in a BDSM relationship, I disagree with that.

When I was writing my most recent novel, “Corbin Milk,” one of the large segments of the plot involved my hero’s need to penetrate the BDSM world and learn its rules, methodology, and theory.  That led to some fascinating research into a subject usually considered taboo.  But I learned that more of the planet’s humans are interested in participating in that experience than is commonly thought (witness the phenomenal success of the book and movie).  My prior post on this subject contains many of the same thoughts as this one; if interested see “Fifty Shade of Leather: Corbin Milk in the BDSM World,” 

When most people bother to think at all about the BDSM lifestyle they picture innocent people being either forced or tricked into horrors they would never voluntarily choose.  There are certainly sick people out there who do commit criminal acts of a sadistic nature, and no one condones that.  But experienced BDSM players adhere to an agreed-upon code about what is allowed and what not, and their overriding motto is “safe, sane, consensual. Encounters in this world typically start with a negotiation between the parties (as is true of “Fifty Shades”) on the rules of play and the firm understanding that either party is free to end the game at any point.  Typically during play the parties have “safe words” that the submissive player can use to indicate that he/she wants to limit or stop what is currently going on.  For example, safe words often chosen are the colors of a traffic signal so that if the submissive says “red” the activity must stop, while “yellow” means caution, and “green” is a request for more. 

BDSM players are engaged in a sexual/sensual game.  Their play sessions are called “scenes” and the implements (whips, clamps, restraints, etc.) are “toys.”  This is consensual fun involving whatever activity the players think is worth exploring.  A famous BDSM expert once said that the leather world is like a smorgasbord: take from the table what you want and ignore the rest.  Some players want only bondage and nothing more, others only domination/submission, while yet others want to explore the line between pleasure and pain and see what it’s like to keep the bottom suspended in that moment for as long as possible.

Why would anyone want to submit to the complete control of another in a sexual situation, even if for a limited time?  For many people the answer is a complete refusal to contemplate such a step—sex should be between equals.  But for others the BDSM games are very attractive as a possibility.  Some people tire of the constant struggle to control their lives and find great relief in letting it all go, leave decisions and sexual creativity to another.  This is particularly true of those who in their usual activities are themselves the boss and constantly in charge.  One dominatrix I know told me that at one of her dungeon parties two of the submissives were airline pilots and another submissive was vice president of a major soft drink company.  She lined them up and got out her paddles.  A good time was had by all.

There may easily be a genetic component to this urge to submit.  In cave societies there was a leader and everyone did what the leader said.  Those who were able to submit without hassle had a better chance for survival.  Consider a pack of gorillas (close cousins of ours) and the silverback who leads them.  What the silverback wants he gets and the others kowtow or else.

Now let’s return to the question at issue: is BDSM deeming to women?  Well, where the woman is the dominant (the “Top” in BDSM lingo), obviously not.  But where, as in “Fifty Shades of Grey” she is the submissive (“bottom”), what then? 

The answer is that such a woman has chosen to play a game, one she can stop at anytime.  That’s her right as a human being.  To say she’s wrong to make this choice is to choose for her, to rule that she has to restrict her fantasies because others don’t like how it looks.  When it comes to sexual play we’re all individuals, and restricting what consenting adults can do to only one approved model is a failure of imagination.  Political correctness has no place in the bedroom (or the dungeon).  In their private fun men and women should be free to romp as they please, and the choices they make then are their own.

So “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be bad art, or it may not follow all the rules the BDSM community suggests, and it’s certainly not on any recommended feminist lists, but its very popularity demonstrates that large numbers of women find it fascinating to contemplate the possibilities it suggests.  The right of all women to control their own private lives demands they be left to their fun.

Related Posts:
"Rape, Biology, and Tricks of the Mind," January 8, 2015,
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013,