Why do women have sexual fantasies of rape?

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The United Nations describes violence against women as a “pandemic in diverse forms.”[i] Thirty-five percent of women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence, often in intimate relationships. In some nations, an unimaginable seventy percent of women have suffered sexual and/or physical violence in intimate relationships.[ii] In every country in the world, the threat of sexual and physical violence is one women must adapt to, rather than overcome.

The possibility of sexual violence alters all aspects of women’s lives. It impacts how we navigate public spaces — with half of women in the United States never using public transportation after dark due to fear of rape [iii] — and how we navigate relationships — with too many haunted by memories of acquaintance rape and intimate partner violence. The threat of sexual violence also impacts how we navigate our inner lives and sexual desires, including how we fantasize about sex.

In what follows, I hypothesize about the impact of sexual violence on women’s sexuality. I consider two phenomena: 1) the large percentage of women who have sexual fantasies of rape, and 2) the fragmentation between physiologic arousal and subjective arousal thought to be common to the majority, if not all women. I want to suggest that sexual fantasies of rape are an outcome of living in societies in which sexual violence impacts a significant minority of women (and in some places, a majority), and has since at least the advent of civilization. I consider sexual violence against women as what epigenetic researchers call a legacy trauma, which is a wide-scale trauma, such as the Holocaust, the effects of which continue to impact future generations physiologically, psychologically, and culturally. But since sexual violence against women continues, often in isolation, the effects of this legacy may include unusual warnings to persistent danger for how to deal with the threat. And I believe sexual fantasies of rape may be such a warning and method for managing the fear caused by the ever-present threat of sexual violence. 

Looking At Female Sexuality Through a Trauma Lens

Sexual fantasies of rape are relatively common. One 2009 study of 355 female undergraduates that used a fantasy checklist based on criteria for the legal definition of rape in the United States discovered sixty-two percent of the study participants met the criteria for sexual fantasies of rape.[iv] Other studies of sexual fantasies showed between thirty-one and fifty-seven percent of the female participants had sexual fantasies of rape.[v]

Another commonality in women, one that seems nearly universal, is splitting between subjective arousal and physiologic arousal, which psychologist Meredith Chivers studied by assessing genital responses to sexual imagery, and then comparing this result to what women said aroused them.[vi] By measuring genital blood flow when women looked at potentially arousing imagery, Professor Chivers discovered little agreement between what women said arouses them and what their bodies registered as arousing.

Regardless of sexual orientation, or women’s subjective statements about what they found arousing, the women in her studies experienced genital arousal to almost every sexual image they were shown. Women registered physiologic arousal when looking at images of men with women, women with women, men with men, a woman exercising, and even bonobo chimps mating. This split between women’s minds and bodies has been confirmed by at least one hundred thirty other scientific studies.[vii]

Professor Chivers theorizes the prevalence of rape plays a role in the divide between subjective and physiologic arousal in women. Women who experience physiologic arousal when sexually threatened, and thus produce genital lubrication, are less likely to be physically injured by aggressive penetration. She theorizes that arousal during sexual violence likely evolved “to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration. . . . Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring.”[viii] And indeed, sexual arousal, even orgasm, is not uncommon during rape. However, surviving the threat of sexual violence involves more than ensuring the body’s integrity.

To understand the fragmentation between subjective and physiologic arousal, we need to understand how both mind and body attempt to survive the threat of sexual violence and the fragmentation it causes. In the case of the mind, fantasies can play a central role in surviving trauma. Fantasies, like dreams and nightmares, often are repositories of experiences that seek integration, if not resolution. And like the body’s lubrication, sexual fantasies of rape may serve as protection of a mind that must inhabit a world in which sexual violence is a ubiquitous threat, and denial of this threat is necessary for keeping potentially debilitating fear at bay. This point is best understood by looking at women’s sexuality through the lens of trauma.

Splitting between mind and body is a common response to traumatic experiences and chronically traumatic conditions. Often called dissociative splitting, through a complex chain of events triggered by overwhelming emotions and body sensations, the mind is able to escape what the body must endure. In extreme cases, this involves the experience of literally feeling as if one is outside one’s body.

During dissociation, the body releases endorphins, the body’s natural opium, which reduces suffering.[ix] This is an unconscious and automatic reaction that increases survival but also the likelihood of dissociation occurring again in traumatic conditions or when triggered by reminders of past traumatic events. And I want to suggest that, especially in women, the fragmentation between physiologic arousal and subjective arousal is related to dissociation.

Dissociation is also thought to exist on a continuum from very mild occurrences, such as spacing out while driving, to out-of-body experiences during life-threatening circumstances. On the lower end of the spectrum, the mind is also prone to fantasizing.

When The Best Defense Is Submission

There are five basic defense responses: fight, flight, freeze, submit, and attachment cry, or calling out for help. Theoretically, these defenses are available to all of us, anytime we experience a threat. However, social conditioning, along with personal temperament and personal history, will influence which defense responses are activated.

Submission and freeze in response to sexual violence have largely been the defense responses available to women, in part due to being physically overpowered, economically dependent (in the case of intimate partner violence), or because of taboos and shame surrounding experiences like childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, and rape that keep women silent — and submitting. Women also submit to gender-based violence because they have been inculcated to cultures of violence (and think violence is normal or inescapable), or fear alienation or abandonment if they resist or speak out.

Submission, as a recurring defense response, increases the likelihood of dissociation.[x] This thus leads to habitually escaping in the mind the overwhelming emotional and physiologic arousal the body cannot escape. However, both submission and freeze as defense reactions can be considered the body’s last ditch efforts — taken only when the other defense responses are not options.[xi]

Although both submission and freezing may optimize survival in certain conditions, they are activated only when the other defense responses are truncated by the overwhelming nature of the threat, or as a result of chronic exposure to threatening and overwhelming stimuli, such as ongoing childhood sexual abuse or intimate partner violence. Generally speaking, the body’s preferred defenses are fight, run, or cry out for help.

But too many women submit or freeze. And I think the same process that contributes to the fragmentation of women’s sexuality — dissociation — also contributes to submission and freeze being normative defense responses to gender-based violence. Dissociation keeps the reality of harm out of conscious awareness, at least part of the time, but it also leads to inaction. This occurs on the level of the individual, and might be witnessed through the intergenerational transmission of trauma, which I hypothesize occurs in part through sexual fantasies of rape.

Epigenetic Transmission of Dissociation?

Since the 1970s, genetic researchers have known of the existence of methyl groups — an organic element that ‘tells’ DNA which genes to transcribe as a result of environmental feedback. Referred to as epigenetic tags, the presence of methyl groups confirms to some degree Lamarckian evolutionary theory and the idea that changes an organism undergoes during its lifetime can be inherited by its offspring. Whereas DNA, as the fundamental material of life, remains unaltered across the lifespan, how genetic code is interpreted is changed by traumatic events and conditions, recalibrating basic physiologic systems in enduring ways.

Rachel Yahuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studied epigenetic change in children of Holocaust survivors.[xii] These children often showed similar signs of traumatic stress as their parents who had lived in concentration camps, despite the children’s relative safety in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. According to Dr. Yehuda’s research, the children of Holocaust survivors generally showed difficulty with separation, higher levels of vulnerability, and greater likelihood of developing posttraumatic stress disorder if exposed to a traumatic event. Thus, the children of Holocaust survivors ‘inherited’ some of their parents’ orientation towards survival in concentration camps, along with the effects of the traumas they suffered.

Epigenetics may also explain why defenses such as submission and freeze would become normative responses to sexual violence, as well as habitually dissociating in intimate encounters, thus increasing the likelihood over generations that physiologic and subjective arousal would become fragmented. Although dissociation has not been studied from the perspective of epigenetics (as far as I know), research has shown that children whose caregivers use dissociation as a defense response are more likely to dissociate in response to overwhelming stimuli themselves.[xiii]

Do Sexual Fantasies of Rape Optimize Survival?

Along with developing dissociation as a response to threatening stimuli, I also wonder if sexual fantasies of rape are a way the traumatic effects of sexual violence are transmitted across generations.

Rather than expressing desire, perhaps sexual fantasies of rape optimize survival, much as dreams are thought to function. Irrespective of culture, people experience dreams in four general categories, all related to survival. These categories include: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fornication. As Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens put it, “[dreams] enable the animal to respond appropriately to food, threat, attack, and sexual encounters even before the gustatory, threatening, erotic stimuli are encountered.”[xiv]  

Dreams are thus ways we learn how to react to encounters that have been crucial to the survival of our species. Fantasies may also function like dreams, especially when they are entertained by a significant portion of the population, such as sexual fantasies of rape. Like dreams, they may be a way to rehearse confronting threats that have overwhelmed past generations and still lurk in the shadows of our own lives.

There are also parallels between how dreams optimize survival and the way the body attempts to overcome a traumatic event. As in dreams, the body orients towards optimizing best outcomes. When a traumatic event happens, the body registers the sensations and muscle movements that happened during the traumatic event as well as what the body wanted to do — the movements that would have led to fighting off the attacker, running away, or crying out for help. These are the actions that would have optimized survival. Pierre Janet, a pioneer of trauma-focused psychology, called the movements and actions the body wanted to take “acts of triumph” — what would have led to a different history, one that involved facing down or escaping the threat. Janet wrote, “patients affected by traumatic memory have not been able to perform any of the actions characteristic of the stage of triumph.” [xv] These “acts of triumph” that would have led to escape or defense are split from awareness, or dissociated, along with the unintegrated thoughts, sensations, emotions, and images associated with the actual traumatic event.

As a trauma-focused psychotherapist I assisted women in identifying acts of triumph that would have led to their preferred outcome — such as fighting off rape, escaping childhood sexual abuse, and leaving a batterer. By integrating the split off defense responses within a state of emotional regulation, they gained a sense of mastery over fear and decreased dependency on dissociation. However, for some survivors of sexual violence, the inability to express the desired act of triumph correlates with an increased fantasy life, as well as nightmares. The imaginal space becomes overrun, as it were, with memories, perceptions, and imagined scenarios seeking integration.

Perhaps sexual fantasies of rape are also efforts to optimize survival and manage dissociated fear. And like dreams, they are suggestive of what led to our ancestors’ survival of sexual violence. Usually they submitted, because submission has likely led to the survival of more women across history than fighting, calling out, or even running from sexual violence. Perhaps this is the nature of legacy traumas: having to endure the unimaginable.

Yet sexual fantasies of rape are in the woman’s control. In her mind, she can determine the nature of the threat, decide who is the perpetrator, and how she responds and feels — even replacing fear with desire. Perhaps this is how sexual fantasies of rape optimize survival of the subjective sense of self, setting the foundation for habituating the mind to threats the body cannot escape.

I don’t think sexual fantasies of rape are empowering, and more likely keep women inculcated to cultures of violence. Active self-defense and cultures of equality are better solutions. As Iris Young wrote, “We have to learn to feel entitled to occupy space, to defend ourselves.”[xvi] And I believe when we habitually do so, and in a world where gender-based violence is an aberration rather than a norm, women will experience the joy of individual and collective acts of triumph, and we’ll see a lot less women aroused by sexual fantasies of rape.

References

[i] UN Women: Facts and Figures: Ending Violence against Women. Retrieved August 31, 2015. http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.

[ii] World Health Organization, Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women,http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/85239/1/9789241564625_eng.pdf, p. 2. For individual country information, see full compilation of data in UN Women, 2012, Violence against Women Prevalence Data: Surveys by Country. Retrieved August 31, 2015.

[iii] Brison, Susan J. (1998). Surviving Sexual Violence: A Philosophical Perspective. In S. G. French, W. Teays & L. M. Purdy (Eds.), Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 24.

[iv] Critelli, J. and Bivona, J. (2009). The Nature of Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Analysis of Prevalence, Frequency, and Contents. Journal of Sex Research. Jan-Feb;46(1):33-45. doi: 10.1080/00224490802624406.

[v] Critelli, J. W. and Bivona, J. M. (2008). Women’s Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research. Journal of Sex Research. Jan-Mar;45(1):57-70. doi: 10.1080/00224490701808191.

[vi] Bergner, Daniel. (2009, January 22). What Do Women Want? New York Times Magazine. Retrieved August 17, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[vii] Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C. Lalumiere, M. L., Laan, E., and Grimbos, T. (2010). Agreement of Self-Reported and Genital Measures of Sexual Arousal in Men and Women: A Meta-Analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2010 Feb; 39(1): 5–56. Published online 2010 Jan 5. doi:  10.1007/s10508-009-9556-9

[viii] Quoted in Bergner, 2009.

[ix] Levine, Peter. 2008. Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program For Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Inc.

[x] Ogden, Pat, Minton, Kekuni, & Pain, Clare. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

[xi] Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundatons of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

[xii] Yehuda, Rachel (2015, July 30). “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations [Transcripts]. On Being With Krista Tippett. Retrieved September 2, 2015. http://www.onbeing.org/program/rachel-yehuda-how-trauma-and-resilience-cross-generations/transcript/7791.

[xiii] Lyons-Ruth, K., Dutra, L., Schuder, M., & Bianchi, I. (2006). From infant attachment disorganization to adult dissociation: Relational adaptations or traumatic experiences? Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 29(1), 63-86.

[xiv] Stevens, Anthony. (1993). The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

[xv] Quoted in Ogden, Pat, Minton, Kekuni, & Pain, Clare. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

[xvi] Young, I. M. (1980, April). “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies. Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 137-156.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Biennial Conference at Leeds University, UK on September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

  • Laura, This article is fantastic and I cant wait for your book to come out!

  • I agree with your conclusion, but believe there is more to consider. You detail a woman whose rape fantasy is custom tailored to her subjective desires; she is a woman who can determine the perpetrator and the conditions and the setting where the rape takes place. I wonder, then, how such a woman with latent rape fantasies would react to the trauma of rape in her waking life, should her specific fantasy become reality – even considering all her subjective terms are met. Would this be considered traumatic by her, or considered the blissful fulfillment of her desire? That is to say – is this a desire the desirer truly wants fulfilled? Or is the nature of this desire that it is only sexually fulfilling if it never happens, and would it then become a trauma should it happen in waking life? Does the person truly want to be raped? Or does she never want to be raped, and is fabricating this alleged fantasy as a failsafe in case she is raped (because statistics show she might be)? And finally, is there another sort of person who does not make her rape fantasy subjective, but merely constructs it of the negative aspects we associate with rape, for want of self-harm. And would she find trauma should she accomplish self-harm by these means, regardless of perpetrator, circumstance, etc? And are these fantasies related or a part from one another? Is the bearer of the custom-tailored rape fantasy hopeful of self-harm in the least?

    I am not commenting for want of answers to these questions, but merely that you can explore this very important idea even further. Though, you may not wish to do so, and that would be quite understandable. I hope I’ve written with clarity. Thanks for the intriguing article.

    • Thank you for taking time to think about the implications of what I wrote. I’ll try to respond to your questions the best I can. My perspective on the subject of sexual fantasies of rape are heavily influenced by the experiences of survivors of rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence. I apologize if I’m writing about things you already know, or miss the
      point of your questions.

      Following rape or sexual assault, many women (and men) have sexual fantasies of the rape, which can be triggered by sex or masturbation. Many are deeply troubled by these fantasies, because they seem to suggest that they “wanted it,” or somehow “deserved” to be raped or sexually assaulted.

      Sometimes there are also high levels of promiscuity following rape, as well as increased likelihood of re-victimization. I think Pierre Janet’s notion of “acts of triumph” that I shared can be helpful to understand why this might be the case.

      But there is also a social factor. Women typically feel degraded during rape – and are often deliberately degraded – and historically, are further degraded by their communities when they learn about the rape. In some societies, being raped still leads to a woman’s death. As I am sure you know, victim blaming is very much entrenched in society. Furthermore, to be branded a “whore” has profound implications for a woman, and can greatly circumvent the opportunities that are available to her, as well as lead to further maltreatment.

      Consequently, following rape or sexual assault, there is often a profound loss of self-worth. Victims frequently do blame themselves, and treat themselves accordingly. Sometimes this might look like an attempt at self-harm, but it’s very complex. ( I write about the effects of sexual assault here: https://www.laurakkerr.com/2014/11/23/recover-rape-and-sexual-abuse/)

      Rape has a very long legacy in a person’s life, one that lasts much longer than the event. Following rape, people begin to devalue themselves much as they were devalued or degraded by the person (or persons) who raped them. They can lose touch with who they were before the assault.

      I think because of the way modernity has prioritized mind over body there is a tendency to treat fantasies as subjectively similar to being embodied. But they are distinct. Furthermore, Western societies downplay the body, preferring to measure life in terms of thoughts, memories, and ideas. Even fantasies are relegated to a lesser realm of human experience. Trauma, however, is one situation in particular in which the body’s reactions play a significant and life-altering role that cannot be extracted. Therefore, fantasies of rape can never be the same as actual rape.

      Thank you again for your questions.

      • Appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond in detail! I understand your point of view much more clearly now. Make no mistake about it – this is no easy subject to discuss. Not only because of the uncomfortable content, but because 10 psychologists in a room might all disagree on the “whys” and “hows”. I thank you for exploring it in greater depth with me. Full disclosure: I do not share your extensive educational background in psychology, so I hope my command of language cuts through any industry-specific terms I’m lacking.

        In my questions, however, I was considering a person who had not experienced the trauma of rape or sexual assault previously in their life. My thoughts are considering those who fantasize about rape PRIOR to trauma (or without the experience of trauma at all). I wonder if social factors are not compelling fantasies of this nature?
        For example, could it be that in societies which enable the diminishment of self-worth [perhaps, sadly, our American society] for rape/assault victims, women’s unconscious minds generate sexual rape fantasies in order to get the “preemptive strike” on a threat which they find very real and immediate? You spoke on the statistics of women who fear taking public transportation at night in your article, so I think we are in agreement that the fear of rape is significant in both previous victims and in women who have not been assaulted.

        I consider there may be a population of women (within the societal spheres you alluded to above) who have never been assaulted/raped, but of whom the fear of rape is so significant, that they generate rape fantasies in order to lay down a preventative barrier against the subsequent neuroses caused by a potential rape experience. In this case, the unconscious mind would be attempting to counter the societal notions that rape is a force of self-diminishment, but perhaps taking it a step too far – completely reversing the fear into fantasy. This is purely speculative, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

        • Thank you for continuing the dialogue.

          As you are pointing out with reference to avoiding buses at night, there’s a culture of fear, and yet a need to not only go on with life, but also a desire to have relationships and sexual intimacy. So something has to be done about the fear.

          There also appears to be an inherent drive in the psyche-soma towards integration, especially with regards to emotions. We sometimes talk in psychotherapy about emotions that aren’t directed straightforwardly tend to come out sideways. And the imaginal (including dreams and fantasies) are ways for complicated or dissociated emotions to seek some sort of resolution. Rather than preemptive, it’s more of an unconscious working through the dissociated fear, which I think can be both an inherited response as well as a reaction to a person’s unique conditions. And yet, I think such fantasies may optimize at least psychological survival.

          I have read narratives by women who talk about their sexual fantasies of rape and have never been raped. In two of them, the women had been in situations in which violence had been perpetrated against other people (sexual in one case, physical in the other). And those experiences impacted their fantasies, leading to sexual fantasies of rape. Both talked about the immense fear they felt at the time but couldn’t express.

          Thanks again, Dane.

          • The dialogue was very much to my benefit. You’ve improved my understanding with this response. I look forward to reading more of your work, soon.

            Glad you found my questions worth exploring.

          • It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.