Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Romanticizing Pirates—Normalizing Abuse and Suffering

Why do we not look at pirates and their deeds with horror?

Key points

  • Gratuitous violence desensitises us to the suffering of others.
  • Viewing pirates and their adventures as entertainment is a pervasive example.
  • Having compassion for others' pain is healing and also at the core of human relationships.
  • Looking at violence as entertainment moves us away from joy and kindness.

Each year I return to Italy to spend time with some close friends. One trip included staying on the island of Ischia, about an hour’s ferry ride from Naples. It’s remarkable how, over centuries, the local people carved out homes and hotels in the sides of the cliffs. The only way to navigate some of the “roads” is with a golf cart. One afternoon, I rented a small boat and took a trip around part of the island.

My guide was a native of Ischia and pointed out the geography along with some history. As we went past Sant'Anglelo, he pointed out the remnants of 18 towers built on the hilltop in an attempt to protect the inhabitants from pirates who frequently pillaged the town, raping the women and killing the men. Rounding a corner, we encountered a larger fishing town where the pirates raped the women so often while the men were out at sea that the physical traits of the populace were altered.

artincamera/Adobe Stock
Source: artincamera/Adobe Stock


While in medical school, I vsiited Disneyland with several friends and enjoyed one of my favorite rides, Pirates of the Caribbean. I liked the music, art, and the general excitement, including the sensation of quickly sliding down to the next level in a boat. Looking closely, I noted depictions of a captured ship with a terrified bound woman getting ready to walk the gangplank, a captured town in flames with frightened women being auctioned off, others being chased around the burning buildings attempting to escape their pirate pursuers. In the main pirate’s grotto, piles of loot were scattered everywhere, with the drunken captain lounging in the midst of it.

“Pirate’s Cove”

Many years ago, in New England on a family vacation, I played miniature golf at a “Pirate’s Cove”. It featured a cage that housed prisoners being starved to death and tales of Captain Blackbeard marriage to his 12th wife, a 16-year-old.


What is it about pirates that we admire and romanticize? What I find particularly disturbing is their terror portrayed as light fun and entertainment. We're exposed to this portrayal from childhood on.

Pirates rob at will; they don't just kill their victims, they often use perverse methods of torturing them to death. What is admirable about raping and selling women and children? The prisoner potentially being burned alive did not seem much of a concern to them. Why did a state governor attend the marriage of a brutal older man to an underage girl? Why did I need to learn about that story while enjoying an evening of miniature golf with my family?

Source: waewkid/AdobeStock

Do we admire what the Nazis did to their prisoners? Are their unspeakable deeds minimized in children’s rides or miniature golf courses?

My relative as a pirate prisoner

In the late 1700s, a distant relative was captured by pirates, I learned from my genealogist brother, who researched the story. My ancestor was one of 30 prisoners who were allowed to live but were enslaved—under conditions so harsh that only three remained alive after three years. Thomas Jefferson finally paid his ransom but the earlier imprisonment left him disabled for the rest of his life. Another entire Hanscom family was murdered in a different pirate raid.

Packaging evil deeds in fun: normalizing abuse

Horrible deeds packaged and presented in a way that minimizes the effect of the brutality have a corrosive effect on who we are as humans. We learn to ignore things around us that are unacceptable. Verbal abuse would be one of those on a long list.

And might it not be confusing for children? They are taught to treat those around them with respect, yet simultaneously exposed to piracy and pillage as fun, freedom to do whatever you want to whoever you want.

I have worked with a medical system in Alaska that provides high-quality medial care to a population of Native American Indians. They have recognized that abuse of any kind is detrimental to health and the data is clear that an abusive upbringing is associated with poor mental and physical health. They have committed to eliminating abuse in this generation and have developed a remarkable infrastructure to address the problem.

Several of the programs are focused on victims telling their stories. What I had not realized was the severity of the abuse, and it is so common that in many villages it is the norm. It’s a terrible cycle. Bringing the abuse into awareness through telling the stories has been a major step in defining the problem so that solutions can be implemented. Awareness is always the first step in solving a problem in any domain.

Awareness of suffering

It is now clear to me how violence mixed with entertainment contributed to my own inability to really appreciate the depth of others’ pain.

Chronic pain is a misery that is endless. You are trapped. Put yourself in the shoes of those poor pirate prisoners and imagine how they must have felt. Consider the suffering of other people around you who are in chronic pain. There are plenty. In the U.S. alone there are over 100 million people in chronic pain.

Africa Studio/AdobeStock
Source: Africa Studio/AdobeStock


The first step of reprogramming the nervous system is awareness. There’s nothing noble about pirates or the suffering they inflict. Become aware of how becoming desensitized affects your connection to the pain of those around you. If we are to evolve, issues such as these must be addressed both individually and as a society. Calling out the damage inflicted by packaging bad behavior under the guise of entertainment would be a significant concrete step.

More from David Hanscom MD
More from Psychology Today
More from David Hanscom MD
More from Psychology Today