Sex

Why Are "Rape Fantasies" So Common?

New research sheds light on the psychology behind fantasies about forced sex.

Posted Mar 11, 2020

iStockphoto/adl21
Source: iStockphoto/adl21

Have you ever fantasized about being ‘forced’ to have sex? If so, you’re not alone. Fantasies about being taken against one’s will (sometimes known as ‘forced sex fantasies,’ ‘rape fantasies,’ or ‘ravishment fantasies’) are actually quite common.

But just how many people report having had them? And why?

I explored these questions in my book, Tell Me What You Want, which is based on a survey of more than 4,000 Americans’ sex fantasies. Among the many things I asked about were fantasies about being forced to have sex. Previous research has found that these fantasies are common among women; however, I found that they’re actually quite common among people of all genders. Here are the numbers:

  • 61% of self-identified women had fantasized about this before, while 24% said they fantasized about it often.
  • 54% of self-identified men had fantasized about this before, while 11.5% said they fantasized about it often.
  • 68% of non-binary participants had fantasized about this before, while 31% said they fantasized about it often.

Thus, regardless of gender, most people appear to have had a forced sex fantasy before. However, these fantasies appear to be more common among those who identify as women or as non-binary—and these individuals tend to have forced sex fantasies far more often than men do.

It’s important to note that in the way people tended to describe these fantasies, they made it clear that it was consensual, saying things such as “I secretly want it.” Thus, it is not the case that these folks are actually fantasizing about sexual assault—rather, they’re picturing a scenario that unfolds on their own terms, which means the sex isn’t truly forced

So where do these fantasies come from? And what’s the deeper psychological meaning behind them? 

I found that a number of personality and other factors were correlated with having frequent forced sex fantasies. Here’s a look at some of the patterns that emerged:

  • People with overactive imaginations and those who reported fantasizing the most often were more likely to fantasize about forced sex, which tells us that—for some people—these fantasies may be nothing more than the product of a wandering mind. These folks tend to have a wider range of fantasy content simply because they have active imaginations.  
  • People with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation had more forced sex fantasies. In other words, these fantasies are more common among those who see sex and emotion as separable. In other words, these fantasies may sometimes stem from an ability to distinguish physical sex acts from love and other emotions.
  • People with sensation-seeking personalities had more of these fantasies. In other words, forced sex fantasies seem to have more appeal to persons who have a heightened need for sexual excitement and thrills.   
  • Persons with a history of sexual victimization were more likely to report forced sex fantasies. 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. However, most studies finding no linkage were based on small college student samples, whereas my sample was larger and more diverse (age range of 18-87). Thus, sampling differences may partly explain the discrepancy. That said, it’s important to note that this association was small, which means that not everyone who has a history of sexual victimization has forced sex fantasies, and that not everyone with these fantasies has a history of victimization. That said, what I suspect is going on here is that forced sex fantasies may be a way that some people with a history of victimization try to take control of a previous experience over which they had no control because, in these fantasies, it is the fantasizer who is in control. 
  • Persons who had lower self-esteem and more attachment anxiety (i.e., fear of abandonment) were more likely to report forced sex fantasies. Again, the correlation here was small, but this suggests that, for some people, fantasies about forced sex may stem from a place of low self-worth or feelings of relationship insecurity.
  • Persons with forced sex fantasies were highly likely to report having BDSM fantasies more generally. Thus, in many cases, forced sex fantasies may signify nothing more than a broader interest in BDSM activities. 

As you can see, forced sex fantasies have a rich psychology behind them and people may have these fantasies for wildly different reasons. In many cases, these fantasies don’t have a deeper meaning beyond someone just having an active imagination, a desire for sexual thrills, or a penchant for domination and submission. However, in other cases, they may have their roots in coping with trauma.

Of course, there are other explanations for why forced sex fantasies are so common that extend well beyond personality, attachment style, and sexual history. For example, some have proposed explanations rooted in evolutionary psychology, as well as in sociocultural factors, such as avoidance of sexual blame for sexual double standards.

Sexual fantasies are thus perhaps best viewed through a biopsychosocial lens, in which a blend of biological, evolutionary, psychological, and socio-cultural factors contribute. 

So what about the flip side of forced sex fantasies—that is, what about fantasies in which people imagine themselves forcing sex on others? To learn more about that, see this article.

References

To learn more about the science of sex fantasies, check out my book Tell Me What You Want.

Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Gold, S. R., Balzano, B. F., & Stamey, R. (1991). Two studies of females’ sexual force fantasies. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 17, 15–26.

Bivona, J. M., Critelli, J. W., & Clark, M. J. (2012). Women’s rape fantasies: An empirical evaluation of the major explanations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1107-1119.