Fantasies of forced sex are common. Do they enable rape culture?


The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (c1618) by Peter Paul Rubens IMAGE/Alte Pinakothek/Wikimedia

‘Rape fantasies,’ says M, an American kink educator, ‘are one of the most common fantasies for women.’ Studies attempting to quantify just how common yield wildly different results, likely thanks to their limited sample sizes, varied methodologies, and the risk of response bias when answering questions about taboo subjects such as sex and desire. But the research suggests that up to 62 per cent of women experience fantasies about some sort of non-consensual sexual encounter at least once in their lives, 14 per cent of them have these fantasies at least weekly, and 9 to 14 per cent consider them their most frequent or favourite fantasies. Some women, such as M, play out these fantasies with their partners; part of M’s work is teaching people how to do so in negotiated, safe and comfortable scenarios. 

Justin Lehmiller is an American social psychologist and sex researcher who has studied these fantasies, most recently for his book Tell Me What You Want (2018). ‘To be clear,’ he says, ‘the vast majority of people with forced-sex fantasies have not been sexually victimised.’ In fact, rape fantasies appear to be common across most demographics. That is likely why non-consensual sex is (and has long been) a cornerstone of mass-market women’s erotica. Patricia Hawley, a professor at Texas Tech University who studies power and gender and co-authored a major paper on this topic a decade ago, says that this fantasy ‘is so normative … that it is vanilla’.

But, though common, such fantasies can be uncomfortable for those who experience them, and cultural critics perpetuate that feeling. Some say that the fantasies are a protective mechanism for women taught to believe that they should not have sexual urges. Others have claimed that they are direct reflections of rape culture, internalised as one’s own desires – patriarchal brainwashing. Others still argue that, for women who develop these fantasies after sexual abuse, they are manifestations of their assailants’ continued control over them. Rape fantasies, Hawley stresses, ‘have been pathologised for a century’ by thought influencers.

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