TRIGGER WARNING – obviously. Don’t read this post if you’re upset by analytical discussions of rape.
I’ll admit it: I’m a fan of smutty literature. Romance novels, Internet slash-fiction, even just regular old books with well-written sex scenes thrown in there. I started swiping my mom’s Harlequin romances in my early teens, keeping favourite ones hidden in between the mattress and the bedframe for late-night reading. Female friends and I would find books at the library with good sex scenes and share them, often reading the steamiest passages aloud and giggling at our own fascination with sex. As I got older and became sexually active, those books served as guides — how to touch, how to talk, what to expect. They taught me the words for what I wanted, how to ask my partners for things, and how to enjoy myself doing it. In many ways, romance novels were what taught me to be a feminist, because it was from them that I learned the sex-positive and body-positive attitudes that my adolescence would not otherwise have provided.
But there was always one thing that puzzled me. Why did so many of these books contain — and even romanticize — rape?
It’s a question that’s come up a lot in recent years, especially with the popularization of Twilight, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades. These are things marketed to women, popular among women, and yet they show women accepting, and even sometimes enjoying, being raped and abused. It’s not a new phenomenon — I can remember Game of Thrones being among those books my friends and I found at the library, and heck, even childhood fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty contain questionable ideas about consent — but it leaves a lot of us conflicted. At least 50% of women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who has experienced sexual assault and rape. And yet many of us still find something attractive, something undeniably sexy, about scenes like the ones between Danerys and Drogo in GoT. While the reality of rape is abhorrent and terrifying, there is still something about the fantasy that has the power to turn us on.
What really got me thinking about it, though, was when one of my friends called herself a “bad feminist” for enjoying that fantasy. And I immediately felt like she was wrong. But it took me some time to define exactly why I feel that rape fantasies are not, inherently, an “unfeminist” thing to have.
Why We Enjoy the Fantasy
The first thing that I had to question, of course, was where this fantasy comes from, and why we have it. In the end, I decided that there are a multitude of factors in play, here — and that’s really not surprising. Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with sex, and both sex and gender play a huge role in almost every aspect of our society. These are deeply ingrained things that we’re dealing with, here. And there are likely more reasons than just the ones that I’m listing (feel free to bring up others in the comments, if you like).
- Puritanical attitudes towards sex. If we believe that sex is bad or “dirty”, as many of us have been raised to think, then saying “yes” is an impure act. This is especially true when you’re talking about premarital sex, casual sex, or pretty much any sex that is not purely for the purposes of procreation. Women, especially, are often told that good girls don’t have (or at least, don’t enjoy) sex, and that we must always be careful to not act “slutty”. Women who do openly enjoy sex are often punished by society for doing so. As a result, saying “no” seems like a virtuous, positive thing to do. The rape fantasy then becomes, somewhat perversely, a way of indulging in a sexual fantasy wherein you don’t have to say “yes” (thus becoming a “slut” and damning yourself). In such a fantasy, you can maintain your “purity” while still engaging in the act. Of course, such a fantasy is problematic — and it doesn’t line up with reality. Victim-blaming and the idea that rape victims somehow “asked for it” means that in reality, a woman who has gone through rape is usually stigmatized as a “slut” anyhow. But a fantasy world where you can escape from such stigmatization and abuse, and enjoy sex without feeling guilt about it, is actually a pretty sex-positive thing, when you get right down to it. Especially for younger women or those from particularly sheltered, puritanical upbringings, the rape fantasy may actually be an avenue towards more sex-positive attitudes in their lives in general.
- Conventional ideals of “manliness”. The knight in shining armor. The dashing pirate/outlaw. The lone wolf, or the rebel who plays by his own rules. The millionaire playboy. The mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a vest. What do all of these “romantic ideals” have in common? Power. Whether it be money, fame, good looks, the power of the unknown, or just raw muscle and steel, men are expected by society to wield power if they want to be attractive. And that, of course, is what rape is all about: it’s about power. This is why rape occurs across all demographics, and doesn’t depend on a victim’s attractiveness or age or place within society. And so for women, having been raised being told that the best man to have is the most powerful one — well, what’s more powerful than a rapist?
- The other side of power and control. Jumping off from #2, we come to the other side of power: being powerless. A lack of control. It’s something that many of us seek out quite actively, as a form of escape from our daily lives and the demands of mature adulthood. We enjoy getting “swept up in the moment” and being able to just go along with things, no decision-making required. We escape into books and media, into drunken nights with friends, into cruise vacations where the biggest choice you have to make is “chicken or fish?”. Sex can be a terrifying thing to be in control of, especially if you’re inexperienced or not confident in your abilities. The rape fantasy takes away the need to be “good” at what you’re doing. It takes away the responsibility of pleasing your partner. It allows you to simply receive, without having to give anything back. For the neophyte, this sort of fantasy can take away some of the anxieties surrounding sex, actually encouraging more sex-positive attitudes because it frees them up to simply enjoy, without worrying about their skill level.
- A female sort of power. There is another way to interpret the power relationship in rape fantasies: in the concept of the male as a stupid, insatiable animal, unable to resist a woman’s sexy wiles. This particular fantasy stems from right-wing, conservative attitudes towards rape, which are unfortunately quite pervasive in our society. When victims are blamed for being raped because they were “acting slutty” or “dressed inappropriately”, and when rapists are excused because “boys will be boys”, it’s an incredibly sexist and sex-negative thing. But if you take that particular fantasy, and examine it purely as fantasy, it becomes the victim who holds the power. For women, raised in a society where power tends to be tied to male privilege, the idea of being able to drive a man to unspeakable acts just by looking really, really good? That’s a pretty cool power fantasy right there. And it’s also a body-positive sort of fantasy, too, because it requires that the victim be not just desirable, but VERY desirable. It lets you feel wanted, and in a world where the media regularly tells us that our body is not good enough just as it is? That can be a very positive feeling.
- Exposure. Like me, many women had some of their first encounters with the concept of enjoyable sex through romance novels. And a lot of romance novels contain depictions of rape — maybe as many as half of them. Most such depictions aren’t terribly realistic (usually the men involved are ridiculously good looking and are experienced sexual gods capable of giving multiple, mind-blowing orgasms, and the sex itself isn’t in any way violent or taboo — just non-consensual, because the woman is protesting even as she enjoys it). We also see depictions of rape in plenty of other media — mainstream TV, movies, books, and porn all contain it with some frequency. With such fuel for our imaginations, it’s not surprising that our fantasy lives also contain depictions of rape.
- Fear. There’s a fine line between fear and excitement. It’s why we enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, and skydiving. Fear gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline rushing. It does, in some sense, turn you on. The fear associated with the idea of rape can do exactly the same thing — especially when, just like with a roller coaster or a horror movie, we know we’re in no real danger. When it’s all a fantasy, you can experience that fear in a controlled and safe fashion. This is also a common theory as to why some victims of actual rape may afterwards enjoy rape fantasies, while still hating and fearing what truly happened to them: it’s a way of controlling and “taking back” the power of the experience.
- Exploring the taboo. This one links back to #1 in many ways, because we live in a society with a lot of taboos — especially when it comes to sex and sexuality. A part of figuring out your own sexuality is in exploring those various taboos, and finding out which ones are fun and which are scary. Rape is a taboo that most people would never want to explore outside of the realm of pure fantasy, but considering it as fantasy can definitely be a part of healthy sexual exploration, because doing so can help you to define your limits and your desires.
Why it’s Not “Unfeminist” to Like It
I touched on a few of the reasons in my list up there — depending on the context of your particular fantasy, rape fantasies may include aspects that are decidedly sex-positive and body-positive, and they can certainly be a part of a healthy fantasy life.
More important, though, is the fact that rape fantasies are just that: fantasies. And fantasies, by their very nature, really can’t be non-consensual. The one doing the fantasizing is always in control, and can stop things whenever they want to. This is why in BDSM, “rape play” or “consensual non-consent” can be enjoyed: because the “victim” in this case has a safe-word and can stop things at any time if it becomes too frightening or painful. They are completely in control, even if it seems to be otherwise. And of course, taking back control of traumatizing, terrifying things like rape is a part of what feminism is all about. It’s about taking and enjoying your individual power as a human being.
Of course, finding an actual partner to engage in such fantasies with is a problematic thing in and of itself. Fantasizing about being raped is a very different thing from fantasizing about being a rapist. So taking this kind of a fantasy from your mind into the bedroom is something to be done with a lot of caution, and only with a partner who you very deeply trust. Someone who’s immediately eager to try it probably isn’t the safest person to play with (better to choose someone who’s uncomfortable, but willing to do it because it’s something you want), and while it may be a very private and intimate fantasy, it’s something perhaps better kept to a public dungeon or play space, where there will be others around to ensure that your safe words are heeded if they must be used. It wouldn’t be fun for “play rape” to turn into the actual thing.