People’s sexual fantasies range from the realistic to the utterly absurd. Some people fantasize about having sex with their next-door neighbor; others dream about getting it on with Batman.
But study after study has revealed that one of the most common erotic fantasies among women is that of being raped.
Recent research reveals that 61 percent of women have had fantasies involving coerced sex. Twenty-four percent say they regularly fantasize about being forced against their will.
Women who have these fantasies are understandably embarrassed, confused, or ashamed about the fact that they find the idea of rape sexually arousing.
That explains – at least in part – why the topic continues to invite both intrigue and controversy.
Rape fantasies point to a central difficulty about sexual imaginings and actual sexual violence. That is, how do you reconcile the two?
Rape and Fantasy: An Uncomfortable Union
While doing research for a book, the noted sex researcher Justin Lehmiller found an intriguing connection between some women’s rape fantasies and a history of sexual abuse.
“Persons with a history of sexual victimization were more likely to report forced sex fantasies,” says Lehmiller.
“This finding was somewhat surprising to me because it is contradictory to previous research, which found no link between sexual history and forced sex fantasies.”
We all know that rape is a heinous, brutal crime. Why, then, should it figure in the daydreams of those who’ve endured sexual abuse?
The answer is neither straightforward nor pleasant, shedding some light as it does on the complex coping mechanism involved in surviving sexual trauma.
Some rape survivors say they surrendered to protect themselves or their loved ones. Some were intoxicated or drugged. Others were physically or mentally incapacitated, or in a position without power.
Often, too, in the middle of an act that is always a violation, rape victims experienced intense physical sensations. These sensations can, in turn, sometimes lead to a climax – an orgasm.
Some 4 to 5 percent of rape victims – including heterosexual men who are raped by other men – report experiencing an orgasm during the assault.
What this proves, quite simply, is that our bodies respond to sex. They do so often entirely without our permission or intention.
So much so that the supreme court of Georgia acknowledged in 1976 that orgasm is “legally irrelevant to the issue of consent.”
Still, that involuntary response – a forced orgasm – in a situation where one is helpless can become a powerful, dark element in some women’s sex fantasies.
Johanna’s Rape Fantasy
Perhaps among the most controversial – and discomfiting –accounts of such is contained in Nancy Friday’s book, My Secret Garden, published in 1973.
Part sociological study, part feminist manifesto, the book is a collection of women’s sexual fantasies which Friday solicited from friends and through advertisements.
From bestiality to incest, the accounts are divided by Friday’s fervent embrace of the liberating potential of sexual fantasies.
For many who have read the book, the most disturbing fantasy was that of an actual rape victim – an acquaintance of Friday’s named Johanna.
Johanna was, in fact, raped by a stranger at knife point while she was living in Mexico City.
Her sexual fantasy is the memory of the assault. “You could say that my inner sexual life still revolves around the rape,” she confesses, and then goes on to describe the incident in detail.
“I closed my eyes and tried to think of how terrified I was, how much I hated him. But I felt myself becoming more and more excited. I closed my eyes and tried to turn from side to side, as if trying to get away from his tongue, but it was also to have that tongue touch different sides of me, inside. Once I opened my eyes. All I could see was the dark top of his head, his hair, and the hand holding the knife just beside me. Then I closed my eyes again and I suddenly couldn’t help it, I pulled his head right into me, pulled his tongue right into me as high as possible, and then I came, over and over again.”
“No one,” Johanna writes, “ever made me feel so sexually in heat the way that man did when he raped me.”
The Absurd Logic of Rape-Deniers
Few will disagree that what happened to Johanna should not happen to anyone. No one in their right mind would claim otherwise. Yet her fantasy fits all too neatly into the absurd ideology of rape-deniers.
The one message that deniers push is this: “She wants it.” The rape victim, they argue, wants to be beaten. She wants to be forced and brutalized. She wants to be raped.
That simply isn’t true.
“Johanna was assaulted, and one way she deals with the violence is to make what happened to her part of her fantasy life,” says the feminist writer Noah Berlatsky in an article for The Atlantic.
In short, the rape was outside of Johanna’s control, but in her fantasy life she controls it. She can even use it – as she says – to make her sex life with her husband more satisfying.
Much of the controversy that exploded around Johanna’s fantasy in the 1970s has to do with a culture that largely suppresses female sexuality, in general.
Women are taught at a young age that they’re sweet and nice and that the word ‘kinky’ is only used to described men.
Here is a small case in point:
While rape fantasies among women might raise eyebrows, are you at all scandalized by the fact that 54 percent of men fantasize about being raped by women?
Few rational men doubt that war is a horrific experience – and fewer still ever bother to enlist in the armed services. But many men fantasize about performing acts of valor in daydreams about war.
The same is true for women and rape fantasies. Women who have coerced sex fantasies picture scenarios that unfold on their own terms, which means the sex isn’t truly forced.
“Diametrically opposed to actual rape, the fantasy really isn’t about losing control as such,” says psychologist Leon Seltzer, who runs a private practice in Del Mar, California. “It’s about willingly surrendering it.”
This is why the fantasy rapist is almost always a twin to the fantasy hero. More often than not, the imaginary rapist is fit, good-looking, desirable, and an athlete in bed. Or else he might be faceless, as was the case for Johanna’s fantasy.
“Higher Self-Esteem, More Positive Attitudes”
What rape-deniers fail to realize is that rape fantasies allow some women to explore the not-so-sweet version of sex that men freely enjoy without feeling dirty themselves. The act is done to them – not by them. But such fantasies are just that – they are fantasies.
No one asks to be raped. No one deserves to be raped, and the prevalence of forced sex fantasies in no way justifies sexual assault.
Be that as it may, sex – with all its texture and diversity in conventional and unconventional forms – is rarely a smooth, comfortable ride.
Danger and pain can be both thrilling and liberating, as Johanna’s turning real-life horror into a fantasy might demonstrate.
Together, fear, pain, and confusion can cause heightened awareness, and create a state of arousal.
That’s why experts say women who fantasize about rape show an openness to experiencing pain, though in a controlled manner and often only limited to fantasy.
“The theory that appears most viable is that forced sex fantasies are a byproduct of greater openness to sexual experience,” says Lehmiller.
“Research has found that women who have frequent rape fantasies tend to have higher self-esteem, more positive attitudes toward sex, and more sex fantasies in general- including more fantasies about consensual sex.”
Perhaps, then, this reveals one more sad, unavoidable, and befuddling fact about the far-reaching consequences of real rape.
People sometimes object to “gratuitous sex” in books and movies on the ground that the graphic depiction of these things can reduce complex relationships to carnal basics.
Often, too, that is the effect of rape fantasies on actual rape. That is, as long as there’s real rape, rape fantasies – no matter how illusory – are going to be associated with the deranged, criminal reality that is sexual assault.
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