May 26, 2011

What’s The Deal With Rape Fantasies?

Rape fantasies seem to be a social enigma...perhaps a little information and explanation can help deconstruct this controversial issue.

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For many “rape fantasies” seem controversial and somewhat of a social enigma. On the one hand, we are talking about rape fantasies so questions come to mind like—why would someone want to fantasize about a real-life situation which is traumatic and repugnant? On the other hand, we are also talking about rape fantasies which are unconstrained by social consequences, so can’t a person fantasize about whatever they would like to? In order to help alleviate some of the conceptual challenge for people, it may be helpful to better understand rape fantasies.

Rape Fantasies 101

Sexual fantasies in general are typically defined as daydreams, patterns of thoughts or conscious mental imagery which are typically geared at creating or enhancing feelings of sexual arousal. They can be fleeting thoughts or include very detailed, intricate plot lines and many characters. Rape fantasies are a specific subset of sexual fantasies which usually contain three components: force, sex, and non-consent and are more commonly experienced by women compared to men. They are fantasies in which the self-character (i.e. the character in the fantasy who the individual fantasizing identifies with) experiences physical force, threat of force or is incapacitated (through sleep or intoxication) in order to be coerced into sexual activity against their will.

Similar to all other sexual behaviors and fantasies, there are multiple dimensions and variation to consider when talking about rape fantasies. For example, aversive rape fantasies and erotic rape fantasies are two discrete categories of rape fantasies that lie on opposite extremes of a potential continuum of rape fantasy.

Aversive v. Erotic Rape Fantasies

Aversive rape fantasies account for about 9% of all rape fantasies and usually involve the use of force to coerce sex against the will of the self-character. Women generally do not experience sexual arousal during aversive fantasies, but often the self-character experiences pain and violence. In such fantasies, the perpetrator (typically male) is usually older, less attractive and a stranger. Therefore, aversive rape fantasies are more consistent with stereotypical depictions of rape (i.e. a violent attack, with an unknown perpetrator,  even though research indicates that nearly 90% of rapes include a victim known to the perpetrator, with minimal violence). Given that aversive rape fantasies often do not include pleasurable or arousing thoughts, they typically do not fall under what most people would consider a traditional “fantasy.” Instead, aversive rape fantasies seem to be an internalized response to the question–what would occur if something bad [such as rape] happens to me?

On the contrary, erotic rape fantasies typically involve low to moderate levels of fear and lack violence and pain. They are sometimes described as aggressive seductions and are usually highly sexually charged. Erotic rape fantasies account for approximately 45% of all rape fantasies. In such fantasies the self-character is often approached by a dominant, yet attractive man, who is typically a friend or romantic partner, and who becomes so overcome with desire for the self-character that he cannot help himself but to force sex on her. The self-character may resist minimally, or her resistance may be token (i.e. saying no when she does not mean no or eventually intends to consent to sex) because on some level she may desire the sexual encounter, and the perpetrator overpowers her. Women often find erotic fantasies more arousing because the sex itself is often desired even though the self-character resists. Resistance in erotic rape fantasies usually stems from the sex being forbidden (i.e. sex outside the context of an exclusive partnership; sex with a friend’s boyfriend) and the non-consent token rather than fear and the sex actually being unwanted or undesired.

Why do we have rape fantasies?

Regardless of the type of fantasy (aversive versus erotic), rape fantasies can feel troubling. Researchers have conceptualized theories in order to provide rationales for why women may experience rape fantasies, although most of these theories lack empirical evidence to support their claim. On the one hand, some theories state that rape fantasies are expressions of women’s innate masochism or unconscious desire for suffering and pain. On the other hand, other theorists say that women engage in rape fantasies so they can avoid blame or responsibility for expressing their sexuality, especially women who have been socialized to believe that being promiscuous or overly sexual is wrong. Other theorists state that rape fantasies are a cultural response to a rape-supportive culture which glorifies and romanticizes sexual violence against women. And still other theories imply that rape fantasies are appealing to women because they depict women as being so attractive and seductive that men cannot help themselves or control their sexual aggressions when they are around women.

Perhaps all of these theories have some basis for being true. Given that there is so much sexual variation, perhaps some theories are true for some women and others apply more directly to other women. To me, understanding the types of fantasies that women experience (aversive v. erotic) helps shed light on deconstructing this issue. For example, understanding that fantasies do not necessarily imply a desired experience or a pleasurable event, which is how aversive rape fantasies have been defined, helps me see the issue more clearly. Aversive rape fantasies account for a small percentage of rape fantasies and really include those thoughts women have in which we imagine ourselves in a situation, like an attack, and think, “what would happen to me” and perhaps, “how would I react?” This is often contrary to how most people think of “fantasies,” since people tend to think of fantasies as something that they would desire in real-life or actually want to happen.

Erotic rape fantasies often account for forced sex which may be desired, but perhaps taboo or forbidden such as extra-relational sex or sex with a friend’s partner. Any time sex is forced or non-consensual, it certainly qualifies are rape, however, in a fantasy situation, I have an easier time understanding non-consensual sex when the sex itself is wanted, but the social repercussions of the sex (i.e. potentially ending an exclusive romantic relationship or potentially ending a friendship) are unwanted.

What’s my Take?

As someone who studies sexual assault and considers herself an advocate for women and ending violence against women, rape fantasies may seem like a difficult pill for me to swallow. However, I think the most important aspect of any fantasy, including rape fantasies, to keep in mind is that a fantasy is someone’s internalized thoughts or daydreams and therefore they are inherently consensual. Like many others, I have a problem with sexual acts which are not consensual. During a rape, the victim does not have control over what is happening to them. Instead, the perpetrator is making the decisions and asserting his wants onto the victim regardless of what she has agreed or consented to. However, in the case of rape fantasies, the individual who is fantasizing always remains in control and makes the decisions about how the fantasy will unfold.

So long story short, I don’t think rape fantasies are inherently pathological–I can see the appeal of fantasizing about forbidden sex that someone may not consent to (erotic rape fantasies) and I can certainly understand why women may pontificate about what would happen if they were violently attacked and rapped (aversive rape fantasies). However, I think that it is important to make a distinction between fantasy and reality. So even if someone fantasizes about being forced into sex against their will, in NO way should anyone ever be forced to do something which they do not consent to.