On a podcast to which I listened recently, a caller asked the host a question about whether she had a moral duty to disclose her circumstances to a man with whom she was planning to have a one-time extramarital affair. Her circumstances were that the purpose of the affair was to be able to report it back in detail to her partner and thereby satisfy the latter’s desire to be “cuckolded.” To illustrate why she had no such obligation to disclose anything beyond the “one-time” nature of the affair, the host gave what he believed was an illustrative analogy.
The host asked us to imagine that a foot fetishist (someone who is sexually aroused by people’s feet) decided to work in a shoe store. Would he have a duty to tell customers of his plans to later fantasize about having looked at and touched their feet? The podcast host answered the question “no,” so long as the fetishist did not “act creepy” or otherwise make his customers feel uncomfortable.
I was not sure, upon considering the issue, that the host was correct about the answer to his hypothetical moral question. In this column, I will explore this and related moral quandaries in an effort to determine the boundaries of moral permission to be the object of someone’s fantasies.
The Original Question and the Foot Question
The original question posed on the podcast was whether the woman who would be cuckolding her partner had an obligation to the man with whom she would be doing the cuckolding to tell him about his planned role in her partner’s fantasy life. This struck me as a relatively easy question. When people have a one-time sexual liaison with each other (and I agree that the woman has an obligation to disclose to her chosen “cuckolder” that she is interested in only a one-time engagement), it is foreseeable that one or both of the participants will use memories of the experience in their respective fantasy lives. Agreeing to have sex with someone seems necessarily to imply permission to use what happens as fantasy material.
When one goes to the shoe store, by contrast, one does not generally foresee that the experience will become material for a foot fetishist’s fantasy. To make the point more strongly, I suspect that if a person knew in advance that a particular shoe salesman would later be masturbating to visual and tactile memories of her feet, she might seek to avoid that salesman and work with one of the (presumably numerous) shoe salespeople who have no sexualized response to feet. If one indicator of a duty to disclose, then, is “would you want to know this information before embarking on this experience, and would the information likely alter your choice of experience?”, then the foot fetishist working in a shoe store would have at least this one basis for a duty to disclose: the fact that many people would consider the information “material” to their decision to bare their feet for this salesperson.
However, if the shoe salesman does not act in a “creepy” way or otherwise let on that his customers’ feet arouse him sexually, then arguably, the customers have no right to know what is going on in the salesman’s mind at the time or what visual or tactile memories will be retained for later fantasy. In other words, regardless of what people might like to know (and the knowledge of which might alter their behavior), honoring this preference would come at the cost of depriving the foot fetishist of his privacy. And we might imagine that the other employees at a shoe store might dislike the idea of working alongside someone with a foot fetish, but that preference would seem entitled to little respect, no more than other employees’ homophobia should be respected or honored in hiring decisions.
People are entitled to live their private lives without having to give up their jobs due to prejudice. So one important question is whether a customer’s potential objection to the salesman’s fantasy use of foot memories falls into a category that is distinct from the category of simple prejudice. And perhaps it can be said here that what the customer does not know cannot harm her.
To further explore our instincts on this matter, assume that instead of a shoe salesman, the person who plans to use his “customers” for fantasy material is a gynecologist, a proctologist, or a urologist. Would this change our intuitions at all? I would suspect that if we asked an audience (and an informal poll of colleagues at lunch in the faculty lounge suggests I am right about this), more people—perhaps significantly more people—would be disturbed by one of these medical professionals using memories of patients’ private parts as fantasy material than would be upset by the foot fetishist salesman. If I am right, then people’s reactions are less about prejudice against sexual minorities than they are about the desire for privacy and freedom from exploitation when one exposes parts of one’s body to someone with whom one is not engaged in a (consensual) sexual relationship.
My own intuition is that rather than having a duty to disclose (which disclosure could itself be very disturbing to the patient), the medical doctor may have a duty simply to avoid, if possible, using her patients as masturbation material. In addition to seemingly violating patients’ privacy, it is easy to imagine that the fantasy use of memories of patients would have an impact on the professional relationship of the doctor to her patients. After all, she is no longer thinking of her patients just as patients. Compartmentalizing would seem like a best practice in this situation.
Now consider an even more troubling case. Assume that we have a pedophile (someone who is sexually attracted to children) who confines his pedophilia to fantasy and does not act out his desires on real children. This pedophile chooses to work as a pediatrician or as a school teacher. Would we consider it abusive for the pediatrician or school teacher to masturbate to remembered images of the children for whom he serves as a doctor or educator? Since children are involved and they are arguably being exploited (like the adults in the earlier scenarios), many people’s inclination will likely be to want to prohibit the pedophile from getting anywhere near the children, most especially if he intends to use what he sees as fantasy material. And we might doubt, due to the pathological nature of pedophilia, the pedophile’s capacity to compartmentalize and avoid using memories of the children he sees (or their body parts, in the case of the pediatrician) as fantasy material.
The Sliver Problem
In all of these cases, including that of the pedophile, there may be a deeply held intuition that if one person fantasizes about another person without permission, the object of the fantasy is in no way harmed if he never learns about the fantasy. And maybe we should not be passing judgment on people who are inflicting no harm. Yet perhaps the movie Sliver calls this intuition into question.
In Sliver, a man who owns a luxury apartment building has secretly wired all of the apartments with secret cameras and watches what goes on inside them. At least for a time, none of the tenants in the building knows that he or she is being photographed and watched by the building’s owner. Therefore, one could argue that the building owner inflicts no harm on the tenants, who experience no embarrassment or shame, since they are unaware of the surveillance. Yet I have a strong intuition (that many with whom I have spoken share) that even if his victims do not know about it, the building owner has inflicted the harm of privacy invasion against each tenant who is photographed and viewed by him.
The scenario in Sliver is somewhat different from the shoe salesman, gynecologist, and other scenarios described above. In these scenarios, there was at least consent to be viewed, if not consent to become the later objects of the viewer’s fantasies. But in both sets of cases, the main privacy harm—if there is a harm—is both unknown to the “victim” and resides in the mind of the “perpetrator.” Indeed, we would probably be even more critical of the person doing the recording if he were a gynecologist secretly recording what his patients had consensually exposed to him. And arguably, memorizing body parts for later fantasy is at least analogous to recording. Yet with no camera involved, the theorized offense may feel more like a “thought crime.” Similarly, secretly recording a phone conversation seems more invasive to the other party than just memorizing it.
My Own Conclusions
Having said all of this, I think I have come to the view that foot fetishists have no obligation to disclose, that gynecologists, proctologists, and urologists have a duty to try to avoid using their patients as fantasy material (rather than a duty to disclose), and that pedophiles should generally avoid working with children altogether, on the assumption that they will have the most difficult time avoiding what would seem to amount in some ways to the exploitation of children.
Yet there is still a residual sense, for me, that maybe there should be neither duties to disclose nor duties to avoid fantasy exploitation, in any of these situations, because fantasy is the private prerogative of the fantasizer that should not be subject to either legal or moral regulation. In reality, it would be difficult to regulate fantasy life legally (because of the literally private nature of fantasy), but I am not even sure we should burden people with moral obligations not to fantasize about particular people, even people to whom they have a kind of privileged access that other workers and professionals do not have. Maybe I am more comfortable living in a world where fantasy is considered morally benign (unless affirmatively shown to lead to tangibly harmful behavior) than in a world where we heap moral condemnation on people with an exploitative fantasy life.