Why would an American professor of psychology imagine she was once nearly raped by a handsome young man? Extensive research in her own field shows such a fantasy comes with her feminist territory
Eroticised (sexually satisfying) rape by a male is the most common sexual fantasy for women (Janda 1985). Shulman & Horne (2006) show that sexually empowered and erotophilic females, a category also associated with the strongest feminist beliefs, are the most likely to experience eroticised rape fantasies or nocturnal dreams. I evaluate the hypothesis that escalation of the feminist rhetoric is an unconscious compensatory response of the female psyche to the conflict between the Enlightenment ideal of human equality irrespective of gender and the primordial domination/submission schema of sexual reproduction that pervades the animal world (Janicke 2016; Terranova 2016).
According to a survey conducted by Bivona & Critelli (2009) 62 per cent of women admitted having a rape dream or fantasy at least once in their lifetime. “Actual prevalence of rape fantasies is probably higher because women may not feel comfortable admitting them.” Ninety-one per cent of women in the survey had fantasies that were entirely or partly sexually satisfying.
In these fantasies, women typically are approached aggressively by a dominant and attractive male who is overcome with desire for her; she feels or expresses non-consent and presents minimal resistance; he overpowers her and takes her sexually. (Critelli & Bivona 2008)
Feminist intellectuals typically subscribe to sexual blame avoidance theory, according to which women fantasise about rape because it mitigates guilt when pursuing sexual fulfilment in a culture characterised by general repression of female sexuality. This theory is now in doubt; recent studies have shown that women who had rape fantasies scored lower than other women on sex guilt (Shulman & Horne 2006; Strassberg & Lockerd 1998). It was also found that women with high sex guilt have fewer sexual fantasies in general (Leitenberg & Henning 1995; Moreault & Follingstad 1978; Pelletier & Herold 1988) and women who were “brought up in a background of sexual repression … reported no fantasies at all during intercourse, and they had difficulty with orgasm and sexual arousal”. This suggests that rape fantasies are not a result of sexual repression but are positively correlated with sexual freedom and empowerment. Shulman & Horne (2006) observe that prevalence of eroticised rape fantasy is significantly higher among more empowered (low sex-guilt score) and erotophilic women, and erotophilia and empowerment are in turn strongly correlated with feminist beliefs.
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Further evidence that rape fantasy is a dominant sexual fantasy among women comes from the literary genre of “romance novels”, which accounts for 40 per cent of mass paperback sales in the United States (Salmon & Symons 2003). These erotic love stories are written almost exclusively by women for women, and 54 per cent include rape of the lead female character (Thurston 1987). Vicarious and fantasy rape culture is a predominantly female phenomenon that evidently goes deeper than cultural conventions and sociopolitical ideology of the individual.
While data relating to prevalence of eroticised rape fantasy among males is relatively scarce, 10 to 20 per cent of males in two small surveys have reported having lucid fantasies of being forcefully led into sex, and those fantasies have occurred during actual sex with a partner (Person et al. 1989; Sue 1979). Sexual orientation of males who have reported the fantasies or the gender of their imaginary assailant was not reported. Conversely, the fantasy theme of perpetrating rape on a woman is not a dominant male fantasy (Leitenberg & Henning 1995).
There is a growing body of evidence that the phenomenon of eroticised rape fantasy may have both environmental and biological causes. “In a number of species, for copulation to take place, the male must present a display of dominance, pursue, and sometimes physically subdue the female” (Fisher 1999). Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1989) explains that the reciprocal display of male dominance and female surrender is a basic pattern in the animal world, and that these predispositions originate from primitive brain regions that have evolved to ensure successful mating in reptiles, birds, and mammals. Fisher (1999) nonetheless stresses that from an evolutionary perspective females’ desire to surrender may be limited only to a selected, dominant male, and this ritual is reproduced in erotic dreams and fantasies, although it does not generally correspond to the desire for actual rape. Critelli & Bivona (2008) further suggest that “the display of male dominance may function as a way for females to assess genetic quality and the ability to protect”.
The biological explanation of rape fantasy is not well supported by historical evidence. No practitioner or researcher reported such fantasies before the 1940s. It would be unlikely for Freud or Jung not to have come across the theme of eroticised rape among their many patients if such fantasies and dreams were common at the time. This does not necessarily mean that the biological theory is false; the absence of evidence ought not to be taken as the evidence of absence. A plausible explanation could be that the biological predisposition of females to surrender produces rape fantasies only under certain conditions, for example, if the set of biologically conditioned needs of a female are not satisfied in a given social environment.
It may be hypothesised that the high prevalence of eroticised rape fantasies is the result of cultural changes that originated in the Age of Enlightenment: the idea of the universal value of humanity and of the essential equality of sexes. The integration of Enlightenment ideals into Western social attitudes has had a huge impact on the understanding of gender and the associated expectations about gender roles, culminating in female suffrage and the feminist movement. The Age of Enlightenment has also affected male attitudes, mitigating the culture of male domination and creating a climate of greater gender tolerance. These two effects have led to profound social changes, affecting both the male and the female psyche, which could explain the phenomenon of eroticised rape fantasy in terms of subconscious compensation for partial breakdown of the primordial schema of sexual domination. The conflict between the conscious ideology of female empowerment and the unconscious libidinal predisposition to select for a dominant sexual partner may have prevented conscious realisation of the problem. On this picture, contemporary feminism could have evolved not because women were dominated but because in some critical respect they were not dominated enough.
If this is true, then how could the female psyche cause the male libido to dominate her in the right way if both the male and the female had already consciously accepted that gender domination was ethically wrong? Clearly, this could be accomplished only via unconscious libidinal provocation. The female psyche may have driven those women who are the most psychically conflicted about dominance/submission to escalate the feminist rhetoric, making increasingly bold and even unjust demands in order to elicit a corrective response from the opposite sex. Could this provoke the male libido to reconquer and dominate the female, hopefully without losing all the material gains that the feminist movement has already secured? There is no direct way to test this hypothesis, but the theory of biologically-controlled dominance/submission (Terranova 2016) in combination with the overwhelming evidence that conventional sex roles are inherent to anisogamy (Janicke 2016) does call for a sex-specific compensatory response in the case of contingent qualitative changes in the dominance hierarchy.
A possible objection to the proposed hypothesis is that rigorous study of rape fantasy is less that forty years old, limited to Western society, and virtually no data exists for women before the Enlightenment. This is a valid concern (more culturally varied data is needed) but it is not a refutation (the existing data is still compatible with the hypothesis). What counts in favour of the hypothesis is that neither Freud nor Jung reported dreams or fantasies that involved eroticised rape, suggesting that its current prevalence is a relatively new phenomenon, correlated with female empowerment, sexual tolerance and the rise of feminism. Critelli & Bivona (2008) suggest:
future research should explore the generalizability of prevalence estimates across demographic characteristics such as age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation … [and] focus on samples from cultures that are both more androcentric and more egalitarian than that of the United States, as these will provide valuable evidence as to the relative biological and cultural contributions to rape fantasies.
Another consideration is that there is a range of complementary theories of rape fantasy, the most promising of which are sympathetic activation (sexual-arousal motivation) and adversary transformation (emotional-arousal motivation). There are several other theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon (see Critelli & Bivona 2008), which are omitted here on account of conflicting evidence. It is unclear which theory best explains the phenomenon, but the schema of biologically differentiated social behaviour of the sexes is consistent with observed behaviour of other mammals and may therefore be the best explanation so far.
Finally, it may be objected that feminism is motivated just by the desire to dominate rather than being a psychic provocation to elicit reciprocal dominance. While this explanation is not implausible it does not fit well with the primordial dominance/submission schema of reproduction that pervades the animal world. Furthermore, the drive to dominance is more representative of male psychology and therefore not quite feminism but, rather, introjective masculinism. The proposed hypothesis is not easily refuted but also not easy to prove, and so the question of eroticised rape fantasy in empowered women is likely to be debated for years to come.
Michael Kowalik is a philosopher working in the field of normativity, meta-ethics, value theory and economic reasoning.
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