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Don’t Call Them “Rape Fantasies”

Women: Ever had exciting fantasies of being sexually “devoured” by a stranger?

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Source: vershininphoto/123RF Free Image

Study after study has revealed that one of women’s most popular erotic fantasies is being raped. Yet the fundamental dynamics of such fantasies has almost nothing to do with such a heinous act—which isn’t simply aggressive, but coercive, violent, and at times even life-threatening. After all, a woman feeling scared out of her mind is hardly conducive to sexual arousal.

Additionally, women are frequently embarrassed, or ashamed, about the fact that such lascivious imaginings can actually turn them on. So what exactly is going on here? Why is it so exciting for many women to fantasize themselves as the recipient of a male’s unbridled, out-of-control lust? This post will attempt to clarify a topic as intriguing as it’s controversial. (Not to mention, absolutely mortifying to feminists!)

Many of my ideas here relate to the findings of two contemporary female sexologists, as interviewed in a recent New York Times article (09/24/14) called “What Do Women Want?—Discovering What Ignites Female Desire” by Daniel Bergner.

Not cited in this piece is a famous quote from the conversationally gifted Madame de Staël (1766-1817), whose prescient words on the subject I regard as seminal. “The desire of the man,” she opined, “is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.” Without being overly simplistic or reductive, I think this timeless reflection goes to the heart of why women’s imagining what’s best appreciated as a “safe rape” [talk about oxymorons!] is so common a theme in their fantasies. And it’s no less common in literally thousands of romance novels, composed especially to titillate an almost mind-bogglingly large female audience.

Bergner, interviewing Marta Meana, a psychology professor at UNLV, quotes this researcher (who, by the way, explicitly deems herself a feminist) as regretfully being obliged to admit that for women “being desired is the orgasm.” Further—and in stark contrast to virtually everything that’s been written about the close tie between female sexual interest and emotional intimacy—Meana asserts that women’s desire “is not relational [but] narcissistic.” It’s mostly about externally validating, or strengthening, feelings of self-love through experiencing her physical being as the coveted object of both a man’s sexual needs and adulation. And here Meana cites the research showing that in comparison with men, women’s fantasies attend less to giving pleasure than getting it, concluding that when it comes to desire, “women may be far less relational than men.”

Meana (again, rather apologetically) portrays a scene representative of the nature of female lust—which seems not only regressive or reactionary but also distinctly anti-feminist. Here, paraphrased by Bergner, is how she describes it:

“ ... a woman pinned against an alley wall, being ravished. Here, in Meana’s vision, [is] an emblem of female heat. The ravisher is so overcome by a craving focused on this particular woman that he cannot contain himself; he transgresses societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders.”

The multiple ironies that emerge from such a depiction can hardly be missed. To Meana, “What women want is a real dilemma.” For, relationally, the female’s paramount need (and this is consonant with evolutionary biology) may be to have a strong, dominant male care for and protect her. So we end up with the eroticized image of her being thrown up against a wall yet, as imagined, not in any real danger. In short, on a very deep level that women might well wish to take exception to—though research strongly supports the idea— it may be a kind of biological imperative that, deep within their psyche, they can’t help but crave a “caring caveman” to whom they must submit.

So, what’s the problem with using the term rape to characterize a woman’s fantasies of such sexual surrender? Simply that it has a jarring, almost self-humiliating, masochistic “clang” to it. Meredith Chivers—a second person interviewed by Berger for his NYT piece and a well-regarded psychology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario—shares Meana’s discomfort in categorizing women’s most forbidden fantasies as betraying a secretly yearned-for rape. As Chivers puts it: “The word ‘rape’ comes with gargantuan amounts of baggage. I walk a fine line, politically and personally, talking frankly about this subject. I would never, never want to deliver the message to anyone that they have the right to take away a woman’s autonomy over her body. ... Arousal [and, however involuntarily, most women do lubricate in situations of actual rape] is not consent.”

What Chivers believes must be emphasized is that such politically incorrect sexual fantasies are absent any imagined negative repercussions. That without including any physical or psychological harm—but rather keying in on the abandoned thrill of being so daringly, illicitly, even roughly, “taken” by a passionate male—they reveal a core element in female eroticism. It’s a “rape” totally liberated from any serious possibility of assault (i.e., not really rape at all). As this sexologist zeroes in on its more primitive aspects: “It’s the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought ... to be all in the midbrain.” And I’d add that the reason it can be such an immense turn-on is that it essentially nullifies any pain that might be linked to such a violent trespass, instead focusing wholly on its sensually—and psychically—pleasurable aspects.

It’s crucial to recognize that real-life rape is anything but erotic for a woman. Being at the mercy of someone who’s so outrageously violating your will, holding you down, threatening you with bodily harm (or even death), and physically forcing himself upon you induces arousal all right. But not that of sexuality, but of utterly petrifying anxiety and panic. Contrast this to most imagined rape scenes, which are so electrifying precisely because they’re expressly designed by their female creator to stimulate the illusion of danger—which can, in fact, be positively arousing.

So, in such idealized “pretend scenarios,” a woman can experience her rawest, most unconstrained sexuality as fully, wondrously, even miraculously expressed—in no way impeded by any viscerally felt sense of peril. Diametrically opposed to actual rape, the fantasy really isn’t about losing control as such. It’s about willingly surrendering it. And her submission is quite as much to her most profound erotic desires as to the supposed male aggressor. Indeed, in the act of creating such a fantasy, the woman isn’t relinquishing her power at all but, paradoxically, asserting it through images of “ensnaring” the male figure to her. What in reality would be absolutely terrifying can, in fantasy, be highly pleasurable—an exhilarating turn-on that awakens a woman’s senses perhaps like nothing else.

Meana couldn’t be more emphatic about the need to distinguish the reality of rape from its far more innocent, fictionalized counterpart. "I hate the term ‘rape fantasies,’" she declares, for she’s disturbingly aware of all the false implications that term connotes. For her, these bold fantasies are finally about a willing (not forced) surrender, which casts the woman in the role of sharing power with her chosen, dominant male—as opposed to being simply overpowered by him. And, of course, the fantasy itself resides totally within her control.

Chivers attempts to suggest something of this complementarity when she claims that, overall, a women’s architecture of desire seems constructed to be more reactive or receptive than aggressive. In her words: “If you have this dyad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk taking, [and] is probably more aggressive ... it wouldn’t make sense to have another [similarly strong] motivational force. You need something complementary ..."

And, sounding a similar note in a post for Psychology Today (“Why Sexual Passion Fades,” 2014), neuroscientist Ogi Ogas observes: “What the science shows is that our animal sexual brains crave an asymmetry of power in the bedroom. Women’s bodies still long to be sexually taken by a man who is capable of over-powering her with his strength, but chooses to love her. ... The exquisite dance of sexual domination and submission remains an intoxicating element of lovemaking, in spite of our desire for equality in other aspects of life.”

But, complementary or not, I think it’s time we abandon the phrase “rape fantasy” altogether, as a serious misnomer. For it’s not just that this designation isn’t politically correct but that it doesn’t begin to convey the essential nature of such imaginings. They’re really fantasies of, well, "consensual ravishment," or "agreed-to aggression."

All the same, viable options to this already well-established term are not that easy to come by. But what in each instance would be required is that they suggest something of the paradoxical essence of such imaginings. Let me—preliminarily, at least—offer a few possibilities (admitting that they’re not without their own awkwardness). That is, such fantasies might be deemed:

  • rapish, or forced, seduction (intimating that they actually fit somewhere between seduction and rape);
  • controlled, or even consensual, rape; or
  • willing, or empowered, submission or surrender.

My own personal favorite would be "fantasies of being ravished," which also totally eliminates the disturbing term rape. But finally, whatever we call such imaginings, I think it can be said (even more paradoxically) that such fantasies symbolize a healthy affirmation of a woman’s interest in experiencing her own uniquely feminine power in sexually intimate relationships. Somewhere deeply buried in the female psyche may be the idea that to freely allow herself to be “conquered” by a man eventuates in her conquering him. And this may be somewhat akin to feeling a male’s organ inside her as actually enabling her to “take charge of” it: Even in submission, to feel her dominance or affirm her erotic will, rather than simply being subjugated to another’s. For, ultimately, choosing to forfeit control may not be to lose it ... but to powerfully assert it.

Note: I’ve written three other articles on the erotic desires of women, which I think add both depth and breadth to the present discussion. Here are the links: “The Paradox of Seduction,” “Dominant or Submissive: The Paradox of Power in Sexual Relationships,” and “The Triggers of Sexual Desire, Part 2: What’s Erotic for Women?”

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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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