Psyched!

The science of psych

Why Do Women Have Erotic Rape Fantasies?

Several potential explanations for rape fantasies

A recent analysis of 20 studies over the last 30 years indicates that between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies, and these fantasies are frequent or preferred in 9% to 17% of women. Considering that many people are ashamed to report rape fantasies, these stats are most likely lowball figures.

In my personal experience, most women really appreciate subtle to moderate domination in the bedroom—a little forceful restraint, a little pain—as long as they feel safe. I had one girlfriend who wanted me to call her a slut, but that was pushing my boundaries. Though I didn't mind calling her naughty, etc., for expressing pleasure at whatever I was doing to her. The whole "you shouldn't like this but I know you do" routine. She explained that sexuality was taboo in her household growing up. So pretending that she was being corrupted by someone else freed her to go along with the illicit activities and indulge in her repressed desires. Not all of our play followed this narrative, but when it did, the temperature rose.

Research into rape fantasies hasn't been particularly well publicized. Many people don't want to acknowledge that women have them, for fear that the news will incite or excuse real rape: "See? Women want it after all!" But I follow the Kinsey line that it's better to study the disturbing parts of human sexuality than to keep them in the dark.

So do Joseph Critella and Jenny Bivona, the researchers at the University of North Texas who published the meta-analysis mentioned above in the Journal of Sex Research in January. They combined 20 studies and a whole field of theory to evaluate eight potential explanations for women's rape fantasies. Some of the explanations overlap with each other, and others mutually contradict. Here's a summary:

 

•Masochism - The idea that women desire suffering. Women who engage in masochistic sex are more likely to have rape fantasies, but the great majority of women with rape fantasies do not want real rape. Accordingly, masochism may apply to only a small group of women.

•Sexual Blame Avoidance - (See my ex, above.) Women are socialized to not seek out sex lest they be considered tramps, but if they're having sex against their will they can avoid guilt. Studies comparing sexual repression to rape fantasies are mixed and overall don't support the explanation, but they may have been using wrong metrics; sexually repressed women have fewer fantasies overall but they might have a higher ratio of rape fantasies. In any case, this theory would apply to only some women.

•Openness to Sexual Experience - In some ways this is the opposite of the last one, and it doesn't explain rape fantasies so much as it describes the type of person who has them. If you're sexually open, you entertain a greater variety of fantasies. As one study described rape fantasy among these women, it's "just one more expression of a generally open, positive, unrestrictive, and relatively guilt-free expression of one's sexuality."

•Desirabilty - Many women like to believe that they're so attractive that men cannot resist the urge to overtake them. The evidence for this theory is suggestive but not yet conclusive. I did cover a study in Psychology Today last year indicating that women with attachment anxiety (neediness) have more sexual fantasies featuring submission.

•Male Rape Culture - Some have argued that women have been conditioned to buy into men's fantasies of domination. But the prevalence of rape fantasies has not changed much in recent decades, even as gender roles have.

•Biological Predisposition to Surrender - In many mammalian species, the male must pursue and subdue the female in order to mate. Women may be programmed to surrender to the successful dominant male. Just like many other theories in evolutionary psychology, this one makes sense but has not been tested empirically. 

•Sympathetic Activation - The sympathetic nervous system becomes engaged in times of stress or danger, activating a fight or flight response marked by increased heart rate, respiration, pupil dilation, and genital arousal. Just like on a roller coaster, fear and excitement go hand in hand.

•Adversary Transformation - In one survey of romance novels (which tend to be written by and for women), the lead female character was raped in 54%. The male heroes are usually rugged warrior types and these books may illustrate a desire to "conquer the heart of the rapist" and tame him for marriage.

•Reaction to Trauma - This one is not mentioned in the paper, but Brett Kahr, a psychoanalyst who has conducted the largest survey of sexual fantasies ever, argues that most masturbatory fantasies are attempts to transform early difficult experiences into pleasure. So those who have been sexually abused may try to master their trauma by taming those experiences.

•Laziness - Also not mentioned in the paper. The writer Tracie Egan hints at this explanation in her essay entitled "One Rape Please (To Go)" about hiring a male prostitute to play-rape her (which I recently saw her read live): "...as a girl, my equipment can be trickier to manage, therefore I need to be a boss in the bedroom to ensure I get worked the right way. [But] it gets really tiresome always being the one in charge..."

 

I asked Kahr whether it's unhealthy to entertain rape fantasies. "At one level, they pose little problem because they represent a highly normative part of female sexual fantasy," he said; many women have them, and most of these woman easily distinguish between reality and fantasy. But in some cases it may recapitulate forgotten abuse that hasn't been processed properly, or it may reflect masochistic tendencies. A woman should see a professional if she's troubled by her fantasies. Julie Shulman, a clinical psychology professor at Alliant International University who has studied rape fantasies [pdf] told me, "the sexual and emotional health of such engagement can differ greatly," and would like to see more research on the topic.

Should women share their rape fantasies with their partners? "Obviously, a loving, committed, sympathetic man would respond delicately and sensitively to such news," Kahr said, "but a more sadistic partner (with conscious or unconscious sadism towards a woman)" might use the information more destructively. "One must proceed cautiously."

I asked my friend Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor at Penthouse who has written about rape fantasies for the Village Voice, whether she thought it was unhealthy to act them out with men. She said it's not unhealthy per se: "At the end of the day, the woman has control over it, and it can be hot to give yourself over completely to someone within that context knowing that you can trust them."

Rachel added that "it's probably a tricky fantasy for men, as that is something that's inculcated into them not to do." I covered a study supporting such inhibition in the April issue of Psychology Today; it showed that men are slower to recognize words associated with dominance (coerce, fierce, etc.) if they've been primed with sex-related words (climax, oral, etc.). Pretending to rape someone, Rachel says, is "a lot of responsibility to assume, and if you're dealing with a woman who does have a history of sexual abuse in her past, it's extra thorny."

 

UPDATE 6/13/08:
Paul Joannides, author of the wonderful Guide To Getting It On, raises a couple of good points in a post on his own blog. First, in most rape fantasies, the guy is a hunk, and the woman isn't terrified or disgusted. If the rape in these fantasies is nothing like real rape, is it still rape? The authors of the paper I reviewed address this issue. They note the difference between erotic and aversive rape fantasies, the second type involving ugly, violent rapists and not much arousal. Most rape fantasies, as Joannides correctly notes, fit the first category. But there are constants. The authors write: "rape fantasies contain three key elements: force, sex, and nonconsent." They go on: "Certainly, in actual rapes minimal resistance and female sexual arousal do sometimes occur... and their occurrence would not render the encounter a seduction rather than a rape."

Second, Joannides writes that the woman with the fantasy is in control "because she's the one scripting the scenario," so consent is implied by definition. Here's how the authors address this apparent contradiction: "individuals exert control over the contents of their own fantasies, [but] these activities are against the will of her self-character in the fantasy." So whether, as Joannides argues, "'erotic rape fantasy' is a contradiction in terms" depends on how one conceives of the relationship between one's self and one's fantasy-self. As you may recall, Kurt Cobain addressed this prickly epistemological paradox in the 1990s with one of his songs: "Rape Me."

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

more...

Subscribe to Psyched!

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.