One of the hardest presentations I've ever given was at a conference on treating sexual assault. My presentation set the stage, inviting people to consider the broad range of sexual behaviors, which fall under the concept of normal. In the content, I explored the issue of the female rape fantasy, how it presents in therapy, and its relation to the effects of assault. During the presentation, I recall looking cautiously towards several women in the audience, who I knew were there as advocates for rape victims.
My hesitance was because I was presenting that the rape fantasy is exceedingly common among women, with as many as 25-40% of women endorsing some form of this fantasy, at least once in their lives. (Fellow PT blogger Michael Castleman has a wonderful article with further statistics and research on the prevalence of this fantasy.)
Some women who have experienced the tragedy of sexual assault go on to be tormented by tremendous psychological turmoil over sexual fantasies of rape and forceful sex. They describe being angry and upset with themselves, confused that they and their bodies are responding with sexual arousal to a fantasy similar to an event that was so traumatic and devastating.
Many women (and not a few men) I've spoken to over the years have disclosed to me their personal fantasies of being forced to have sex, usually with embarrassment, shame, and fear. They struggle over what this fantasy means, about them as a person, as a woman or a man, as a victim. Women have told me that they struggle with being a feminist, and yet still getting aroused at the idea of being taken by a man, against their will.
There is a general assumption, among people, advocates and therapists, that for a victim of sexual assault to fantasize about being violated, there must be something wrong. This fantasy must reflect some pathological process. I disagree. First, I will point out the prevalence of the fantasy of rape among women and men who have never experienced such events. The rape fantasy may very well occur independent of a traumatic event.
Does this fantasy of forced sex reflect the concept of "eroticization of fear," that people manage anxiety by unconsciously turning it into a sexual situation? Perhaps, but I don't think so. The situation was already sexual in the first place, during the rape. Though rape and sexual assault do contain much violence, there is sex there already, in the mind and body of both victim and offender. In child victims I treat, there is often a struggle as they enter adolescence and sexual development, because the "model" for sexuality that they have encountered was often one based upon assault. Perhaps, if anything, this fantasy reflects the recovery of eroticism FROM the effects of fear.
Does this fantasy by a victim represent "identification with the aggressor," and the idea that a victim is identifying with her offender in this fantasy? Again, I don't think so. In such fantasies, victims are rarely, in my experience, putting themselves in the mind or place of the aggressor. Instead, they are playing the role of the victim, but in a manner in which they are in charge - it's happening in their head, in their control, under the power of their imagination.
What does the rape fantasy mean? Lots of things. And perhaps in that, it means nothing. Our society romanticizes rape and violence, in complex and disturbing ways, from the Beast pounding on Beauty's door in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, to the contents of thousands of romance novels, where women "swoon" and "succumb" to male passions and dominance. Fantasies of forced eroticism may, in some cases, be the result of social programming. Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill argues convincingly that rape is something that has occurred throughout human history, and thus, following his argument, these fantasies may reflect evolutionary adaptations. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has proposed that the fantasy of submission reflects a desire to escape from the burden of self, from the chore of being responsible, and in charge of your own existence.
I don't believe that women in general, or sexual assault victims specifically, are retraumatizing themselves by revisiting these experiences and fantasies. For many, I believe that, like any fantasy or daydream, it is a way for a person to mentally assert control over a situation in which they were powerless. We must remember that the great majority of sexual assaults go unreported, that the majority of victims move forward in their lives, and that it is the label of "powerlessness" and "traumatized" that may actually harm more than help. People do better when they move forward after a trauma, maintaining a sense of personal autonomy and power, developing a narrative that they, not the event and situation, nor the perpetrator, are in charge of their lives and actions.
I suggest that sometimes, we as clinicians have to pull back, and give up our disease model thinking. We should not automatically characterize this fantasy as a symptom of an illness, resulting from a history of rape or sexual assault. Instead, we may need to consider the possibility that this fantasy represents a normal, even a healthy, attempt by a person to regain some control over their sexuality, and the way in which their traumatic history affects them. When such fantasies are distressing, we should help people to recognize that the more energy and attention they give this fantasy, the harder they resist it, like a Chinese finger trap, the harder it fights back and the more power it gains. Ignore such fantasies. Dismiss them. When they occur, if it is distressing to you, change your fantasy to something else, or get up and drink a glass of milk, and try again later. Take a time-out.
After my presentation, one of the women I had been cautiously watching came up to me. She had presented that day, on her own experience as a victim of rape. She hugged me, and thanked me for my presentation. She shared that she also had experienced such fantasies, and had struggled with them and her own reaction to them. She left, saying that my thoughts had helped her, and had given her permission to free her mind, her body and her sexuality, and to stop tearing herself up over her fantasies. It was nice that I was able to give her one less thing to worry about.