Why two thirds of American women get off to rape fantasies
"I'm walking alone at night and I feel eyes on me. I turn to see if I'm being followed, but no one's there. Suddenly, a hand slips over my mouth, concealing my scream. I feel a strong body drag me into the darkness of an alley. It's warm and humid out and my skin is soft and bruises easily. He slips a bag over my head so I can't see him. Then he fucks me up against the alley wall, forcing me to come.
I get off like that at least once a week. And I mean like, I really get off."
That's Chloe*, and that little mental excerpt would be Chloe's rape fantasy.
And while it may be difficult and disturbing to imagine that someone could auto-orgasm to such flagrant images of assault, Chloe is not alone. Far from it, actually.
The 26-year-old Los Angeles bartender is just one of the millions of American women who regularly fantasize about being raped. In fact, rape fantasies are so common that a joint study conducted by the University of Texas and Notre Dame found that a whopping two thirds of American women get off on the idea. According to an Askmen.com survey, this makes rape the third most common fantasy for women (although we admit we're not sure if their results are entirely reliable).
Of those with this flavor of fantasy, 52 percent imagine they're being forced by a man, and 17 percent picture being raped by a woman. Nearly 25 percent of people's rape fantasies involve them being incapacitated in some way — drunk, drugged, unconscious, tied up, or in some other position of extreme vulnerability.
Yet, for being relatively extreme, these fantasies are also relatively frequent — 1 in 10 people fantasize about rape between 1-4 times per week (although the majority — 33 percent — of women only admit to one sexual assault wet dream annually.)
The high prevalence of rape fantasies suggests a few important things.
First, that they play a significant role in the fantasy lives of women, whose sexuality is constantly being discovered to be more complex than it's given credit for. Second, that rape fantasies are ... pretty normal. There is nothing wrong with a fantasy — any type of fantasy for that matter — as long as you're not hurting yourself or anyone else in real life. The fact that so many people have these sorts of thoughts is a testament to their ironically benign nature.
But still, the question remains: what's behind women's ability to find sexual pleasure in something so flagrantly awful, illegal and unwanted in real life?
A common misconception is that women who have rape fantasies are all sexual assault survivors; people who use their erotic imaginations to cope with a highly traumatic experience. That's not it, though — only 15 percent of women with rape fantasies are sexual assault survivors, a figure which is actually less than the national average. That explains why researchers have found no relationship, either direct or inverse, between real-life rape and sexual fantasies about it.
In fact, most women with rape fantasies — like Chloe — have had perfectly happy and healthy experiences with sex.
A much better explanation? The theories of sexual openness and perceived desirability.
Sexual openness describes women who enjoy sex in its many forms and accept that enjoyment without anxiety, guilt, or shame. They feel free and comfortable to play with erotic scenarios beyond the boundaries of what they’d ever want to experience in real life. "It’s fantasy," they think. "I’m free to make up and get off to anything."
Statistically speaking, this group of open, self-accepting women actually has the highest amount of rape fantasies, but ... they also had the most fantasies of consensual sex, and they reported the most arousal from their erotic fantasies. So, one could easily say that most women who fantasize about rape just fantasize more in general. It might not specifically be rape they're fixed on; rather, it could be exploring the many facets of sexual expression and getting off on them as they do. Active imaginations. That's it.
The other theory, sexual desirability, has more of an evolutionary biology bend. Psychologists posit that some women are drawn to rape fantasies for the same reason they are to romance fiction narratives — in both cases, a big, powerful, dangerous man is so seduced by a woman that he can't control his sexuality and succumbs to lust. He must have her, even if his pursuit of her is assaultative. Eventually, she tames his rapey ways, they get married, have kids, and die of heart disease in their mid 80s.
This is an attractive idea precisely because the feeling of being desired to the point of assault confirms one's desirability — in other words, "I'm so hot, men will break the law and wreck my life just to have me."
"Women's desire is not relational [but] narcissistic," Marta Meana, a psychology professor at UNLV told sex writer and researcher Daniel Begner in the book "What Do Women Want?" "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 although that statement is a bit reductive, and being made to feel unsafe due to one's appearance or personality is hardly a condition of arousal for most women, it's a pretty good stab at explaining the rationale between female rape fantasies.
Looking at this from an evolutionary perspective, things start to come into focus a bit better. It makes sense, doesn't it? Women should "want" to be that attractive in order to ensure their chances of reproduction and genetic proliferation. The more ferociously a man wants her, the better her chances are of succeeding at that.
Of course, that more-biological view of rape fantasies vastly oversimplifies the modern contexts in which women have them. Today, most women have sex for pleasure, not reproduction, so it no longer makes biological sense for a woman to have her desireability confirmed in that way. In fact, since sex is primarily a source of pleasure these days, we shouldn't logically be interested in sex that threatens pleasure. But still ... our reptilian brains pervade. Just like we're biologically programmed to go to sleep at 8 p.m. when the sun sets, we also bear the evolutionary Reproduction 1.0 hard drive that tells us rapey desire is primal, aggressive and necessary for our survival. Typically, we're able to silence that evolutionary remnant, but in fantasy, it's safe for it to come out and play.
Something that's incredibly important to note right about now though, is that women who have rape fantasies don’t want to be sexually assaulted.
In any way. Ever.
They see a clear and crucial boundary between fantasy and reality, and are acutely aware that these particular erotic desires have no place in the real world.
Think of it this way — you might get off to lesbian porn, but that doesn't make you a lesbian in real life. You might imagine yourself able to fly, but we're pretty sure the only way you're doing that is in a middle seat on United sandwiched between snoring priest and a toddler who just shit their pants while staring at you. It's just fantasy. That's it. As Leon Seltzer writes in Psychology Today, it's the illusion of danger, not the actual danger, that hold so much erotic potential.
That's exactly the reason why sexual roleplay can be hot — you're not actually fucking your married geology professor — doing so would be ethically, morally and legally dangerous. Rather, you're just pretending you are, and therefore giving yourself the space to fulfill your desires in a safe and adaptive way, something that multiple studies have shown to be physically and mentally healthy. In fact, many people use roleplay to act out their rape fantasies in a practice called consensual non-consent, which is a mutual agreement to act as if consent has been waived. The sex is still consensual even though it may not seem that way, because consent was explicitly given in advance. Ever so, the real life actualization of the rape fantasy through consensual non-consent in does not, in any way, indicate a desire to be raped for real.
"My life would be over if I was actually raped in real life," Chloe clarifies. "It would be horrific. That's precisely why I fantasize about rape. I can control the action, and there are no repercussions or harm. It stops when I want it to. It's an idea, not an action ... and not all ideas should happen just because you imagine them happening."
That's the beauty of fantasy — that you're in control.
So, perhaps instead of seeing women with rape fantasies as damaged or "asking for it," we should see them as what they are — more sexually open and comfortable people who can clearly and shamelessly walk the line of fantasy and reality in order to explore a taboo sexual act on their own terms.
Chloe puts it best: "My fantasy is pretty normal. And I'm going to keep having it. I need to get off somehow, so, until you show me something fuzzy and wholesome and nice and sweet that makes me come, I'm going to replay this scene in my head. Thanks!"