"Fifty Shades of Grey" and the Caligulan thrill

But the essential dream of our age isn’t conflict; it’s a synthesis, in which the aristocratic thrills of libertinism are somehow preserved but their most exploitative elements are rendered egalitarian and safe.

The hope, in other words, is that we can eventually have the fun of Rome without all the nasty bits: Contraception and abortion will pre-empt the inconvenient infant, age-of-consent laws will make sure that young people’s initiation doesn’t start too early, and with enough carefully drawn up regulations for initiating intercourse we can all experience the courts of Tiberius and Heliogabalus without anybody getting hurt.

So our sexual egalitarians don’t want to shut down the party or end the bacchanal. They just want hookup culture to be governed by affirmative consent, for prostitutes to become empowered sex workers, for misogynistic porn to be balanced out by feminist alternatives, for dangerous patriarchal polygamy to give way to safe egalitarian polyamory, and for De Sade’s Justine to find happiness as a submissive protected by her safe words.

This is the landscape in which “Fifty Shades of Grey” has found its audience, with a story almost perfectly suited to this dream: A fantasy of being chased, seduced and whipped by an embodiment of the .001 percent, a man who’s dangerous but not too dangerous, thrillingly Caligulan but ultimately vulnerable, and who proves himself to be a caring spouse and father in the end.