A response to a reader's question about "Why Gender Equality Does Not Always Work in the Bedroom":

By pointing to porn that depicts rape as evidence of men's erotic attachment to dominance and romance novels that depict rape as evidence of women's erotic attachment to being dominated, are you and Ogas implying that men want to be rapists and women want to be raped (consciously or not)?

We did not point to porn that depicts rape, we pointed to porn that depicts dominance. Nevertheless, you direct attention to one of the thorniest issues in the science of sex, one that provokes much handwringing and hyperventilating by academics and laypeople alike. You also frame the issue in the most direct—and inflammatory, of course—way possible: do men unconsciously want to rape and do women unconsciously want to be raped?

CFNM Erotica

First, let me note that sexual cues are like taste cues: though we all have them, how they manifest in each of us is highly variable. We all like sweetness. But some people like Oreo cheesecake, some people like tangerines, some people like Riesling. Dominance and submission cues are the same way. In fact, we argue in the book that because the dominance and submission cues are so fundamental (in men, only the gender cue—whether a guy is attracted to men or women—appears to be more fundamental), they are also the source of the greatest creativity and invention in erotica.

There are more ingenious variations of both dominance and submission porn for men than any other genre. A man's dominance cue might be satisfied by Mike's Apartment, a website where women (actually paid actresses) trade sex for free rent; by Hypno King, a website where women are hypnotized into performing sex acts; or by Spanked Cutie (just like it sounds). A man's submission cue might be satisfied by CFNM porn (clothed female naked male); by Strap On Power, a forced feminization site; or even the castration porn on DeviantClip (eek!). All of these are highly imaginative erotic concoctions designed to activate men's domination and submission cues. (I'll also note that since somewhere between 20 and 40% of men are aroused by submission cues, if it was the case that "women unconsciously want to be raped" then logically this fairly sizable set of submissive men would also want to be raped. But we don't believe that.) 

In women's erotica, there is similar ingenuity in the portrayal of dominance and submission--arguably even more than in men's, though it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges since men like images and women like stories. Nevertheless, even a cursory review of fan fiction, romance, erotic romance, slash, and female-authored erotica reveals a kaleidoscopic array of dom and sub tropes, from the blizzard of spanking in Anne Rice's Beauty novels to the violent rapes of romance novel Stormfire to sexual humiliation and outright sadism in darkfic. Many women have dark fantasies, indeed: one woman we interviewed prefers erotic fanfic where Johnny Depp is sexually molested and brutalized.

So the short answer is that there are as many manifestations of the dominance and submission cues in both men and women as there are variations of desserts.

However, we'll go a little further than most scientists. The usual position of academic researchers is that female coercion fantasies involve handsome, attractive strangers who aggressively seduce women in a non-violent way, rather than rape them. Some women certainly have these fantasies. But you don't have to look far on the Internet to find much darker and more violent female fantasies, involving ugly truckers, brutal sex, gang rape, even mutilation. In the Harry Potter fan fiction I read, Draco in particular always seemed to be raping girls. Tracie Egan, who we used in our epigraph, narrates how she paid a male gigalo to enact a forceful rape. During our research, we also encountered women who said they enjoyed role-playing rape—not aggressive seduction. So far, academic politics have prevented sexologists from taking an honest look at the true variety of women's fantasies.

All of this doesn't imply that women genuinely want to be raped, of course. As psychologist Meredith Chivers says, "Arousal is not consent."

We think one reason (among several) that male-male romances have become so popular among women is that it's much easier for a woman to enjoy the dom-sub relationship if there's not a woman involved. As one woman wrote, "I can read and am very fond of [dominant and submissive roles] between two male characters, whereas a male-dom-female-sub heterosexual pairing has to be very specifically written for it not to be upsetting for me. The most seemingly-innocuous things, stuff that's normal enough in such fiction not to merit a warning, will turn it in my head from consensual to rape and/or abuse of power, and the male character from a desirable lover into a threatening tormentor."

But here's something else worth considering—an interesting double standard in sex research. Researchers are in emphatic agreement that female sexual fantasies of rape do not under any circumstances imply that they actually want to be raped. (No argument from us.) On the other hand, what about male sexual fantasies of raping women? In the literature these have long been treated as signs of pathology and as leading indicators of criminal intent. There's even research on how to eliminate male sexual fantasies of rape (not much effective research, however).

Other people's fantasies often seem dangerous and immoral, while our own seem benign. Personally, we don't think women want to be raped or that men want to rape. But we do think we should allow the maximum possible latitude for others' private enjoyment of their fantasies through erotica--unless you want someone policing your own.

You can read Part 3: We are all sexually intolerant


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