Sunday, January 08, 2006

Why Rape Fantasies Aren't About Rape

[I wish to credit interesting discussions on two blogs, An Innocent A-Blog ("Sex", Monday September 19, 2005) and Smart Bitches Trashy Books ("Talking about the R Word", Wednesday September 14, 2005), and a provocative response from Robin on the latter blog, which have prompted this further commentary. In it I would like to combine comments I made on both blogs with further reflections on rape fantasies.]

Rape fantasies aren't about rape.

While women may fantasize about strong (or supplicant) males and various forms of 'power exchange', these are not fantasies about rape. They are half-admitted-and-half-buried narratives of female sexual desire in which women are not yet quite able or willing to take possession of our own visceral power. I will add to this the necessarily paired assertion that male 'rape fantasies' are not about rape either: instead, they are equally incomplete narratives of possession and joining, reflecting a fear or inability to acknowledge the mutuality of sexual power.

The 'rape fantasy' is a standard of the more erotic variety of bodice ripper. The narrative rarely varies much: a beautiful, fragile woman is ravished against her will by a powerful, brutish male. Her tiny fists are powerless against the strong masculine hands gripping her body. Despite her weak protests, she finds herself overcome by a strange passion and is swept away by its force. Almost invariably, she falls in love with her rapist/lover, who reports that his uncontrollable passion had been unleashed by her beauty. In the end, both are absolved by their passion; neither can possibly be guilty of having wanted it all along. It is a trope repeated across literature. Even Shaw's Pygmalion might easily be interpreted as a rape fantasy. Perhaps it is. Yet, in my view it is a monstrous conflation to speak of rape fantasies as though they are essentially indistinguishable from the kinds of real rape that happen near bus-stops, in war zones, in suburban bedrooms, or in schoolhouse cloakrooms. Despite the prominence of fictional narratives of rape, few men actually want to be this kind of rapist, and fewer women really want to experience this kind of rape.

If so, why the persistent narrative of the 'rape fantasy'? If they're not about real rape, what are 'rape fantasies' really about? More importantly, what are they denying? A couple of examples might prove instructive.

In Margaret Atwood’s, “Rape Fantasies”, a story from the Dancing Girls collection (McClelland and Stewart, 1977), the narrator describes a group of women talking about their rape fantasies. The protagonist points out that they are missing the point: “ ... you aren’t getting raped, it’s just some guy you haven’t met formally.” She describes a series of her own ‘rape fantasies’, in which the perpetrator is invariably inept, leaving her, in the end, disappointed.

Here’s one:

"All right, let me tell you one,” I said. “I’m walking down this dark street at night and this fellow comes up and grabs my arm. Now it so happens that I have a plastic lemon in my purse, you know how it always says you should carry a plastic lemon in your purse? I don’t really do it, I tried it once but the damned thing leaked all over my chequebook, but in this fantasy I have one and I say to him, “You’re intending to rape me, right?” And he nods, so I open my purse to get the plastic lemon, and I can’t find it! My purse is full of all this junk, Kleenex and cigarettes and my change purse and my lipstick and my driver’s licence, you know the kind of stuff; so I ask him to hold out his hands, like this, and I pile all this junk into them and down at the bottom there’s the plastic lemon, and I can’t get the top off. So I hand it to him and he’s very obliging, he twists the top off and hands it back to me, and I squirt him in the eye."

The story closes with this musing: “... I think it would be better if you could get a conversation going. Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you’re human, you have a life too, I don’t see how they could go ahead with it, right? I mean, I know it happens but I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand.”

The protagonist in Atwood’s story is confused, finding her own 'rape fantasies' tepid and unsatisfying, and at the same time not understanding how a 'rape fantasy', real sex, and real rape can be so different. In her fantasy she can imagine the setting but little of the plot: she can’t get past her need to issue stage directions.

A second example, this time from a male perspective, might also prove helpful. A (male) correspondent, responding to a draft of this commentary, wrote,

a woman goes out with a man. after, at her front
door, he holds her helpless one moment. looks at her,
his eyes saying "i could and you couldn't stop me."
she flips out, slams the door in his face and runs air
raid sirens for the town.

a woman goes out with a man. after, at her front
door, he holds her helpless one moment. looks at her,
his eyes saying "i want to and could but won't because
you mean so much more than that to me." different,
no? if she runs air raid sirens it's just for the

different how? well, it's that R word, alright. R -
for romance.

What's the difference? In both examples, communication and intentions count. Yet, the 'rape fantasy' in the first falters upon its own subterfuge. Atwood's narrator dimly perceives that 'rape fantasies' and real rape are miles apart, but can't stop herself from conflating them. The would-be rapist becomes the agent not only of the attempted sexual encounter, but of a counter-assault on his person, obligingly opening the plastic lemon so she can squirt him in the eye and (presumably) incapacitate him. Although she is the choreographer not only of the fantasy but its format, we are to believe she is doubly helpless and perhaps thus perhaps doubly innocent. In the second example, "she" is far from helpless: she might rebuff the threat and enthusiastically embrace the invitation. As an active participant, she is equally able to make a visceral assertion, while successfully distinguishing coercion (the threat of rape) from the possibility of communion ( a sexual joining based upon mutuality).

This distinction is vital. Why? Because real sex is a visceral assertion - as Bernita says, against mortality, against enemies -- but also toward them in a collision of contradictions made manifest in the moment. Real sex (which cannot help but expose these contradictions) is also against the kinds of orderly or hackneyed stage directions the mind dreams up in efforts to deny or bury the body. Real sex isn't about ‘power exchange’, that clinical term favoured by those looking to be or beat a willing corpse. That’s all a tepid act, and one reason literary and performative sex is almost invariably self-parodying.

And 'rape fantasies'? Although they leak out of the pages of so many torridly titled bodice rippers, they aren't about sex any more than rape is. 'Rape fantasies' are, sadly, a socially acceptable way of rationalizing and repressing the female sexual viscera, of perpetuating the myth that women do not ourselves possess the visceral/animal sexual identities acknowledged in men. How trite, and how tiring the stage directions become. Describing women’s sexual fantasies as rape fantasies is a misnomer, a denial of women’s sexual desire, and a re-writing of the view once espoused by some radical feminists that all sex is equivalent to rape. In other words, criminalizing male sexual desire (in both literature and in life) has become preferable to admitting our own.

As Nancy Friday writes in My Secret Garden (1973; Simon & Schuster)

Rape does for a woman's sexual fantasy what the first martini does for her in reality: both relieve her of responsibility and guilt. By putting herself in the hands of her fantasy assailant -- by making him an assailant -- she gets him to do what she wants him to do, while seeming to be forced to do what he wants. Both ways she wins, and all the while she's blameless, at the mercy of a force stronger than herself. (page 109)
Perhaps this commentary is emblematic of a wider cultural ambivalence about female sexuality; that for almost every image of women depicted as wilting flowers, there's a drawing of a vagina with teeth. But given that most of these surviving portrayals have historically been produced mainly by men, and given that women are increasingly the authors of our own sexual narratives, I'd like to see some more ownership by women writers of female sexual identity, including all its contradictions.

What might heterosexual female sexual identity look like, if we were prepared to admit it existed? Despite its anachronistic focus on the heterosexual male perspective, John Norman's Imaginative Sex (1974; Daw) at least argues in favour of female sexual expression:
These are games in which the woman, all of her, her mind, her imagination, her body, is fully and necessarily the equal of the male partner. If she is passive, if she does not understand, if she is puzzled, if she does not join fully, the games are impossible. Her ideas, her inventions, her imaginations are as needful and as important as those of the man. (pages 16-17)
More recently, though, there have been a few adventurous strides forward. One half-decent beginning (a beginning only) is Lynn Crosbie's edited anthology The Girl Wants To: Women's Representations of Sex and the Body (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993). Combined with the frank revelations in Harry Maurer's Sex: An Oral History (1994; Viking), one might be tempted to think that women were finally coming out of the sexual closet. Yet, Nelly Arcan's Whore, in which sex is narrated as a continuous assault (2001; trans. 2005; Grove/Atlantic), and the anonymous Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; based on the well-known blog of the same name), in which sex is represented as a series of shallow and essentially faceless encounters, suggest that we are still trapped in a virgin-whore dialectic in which even the whores are victims (of men or their own ennui) and are profoundly disconnected from their own sexuality.

I'd like to do away with the whole virgin-whore dialectic. Why must we still be faced with the narrow choice between the most prim of female sexual narratives (the sensitive male kneeling before her and weeping his declarations of undying love) and the most violent (the maurauding male, who takes with every rough thrust). In my view, 'rape fantasies' are simply another way of perpetuating the subterfuge that women are sexually inert orificies whose desire is brought out only through rigorous (and simultaneously criminalized) male attention. This conflation of female sexual desire with rape undoes decades of struggle toward sexual equality and self-expression while co-opting the pain of women who really have been sexually assaulted. And that's a coercion almost as bad as rape itself.

Suggested reading:

Arcan, Nelly, 2001; trans. Bruce Benderson, 2005. Whore. New York: Grove/Atlantic.

Atwood, Margaret, 1977. "Rape Fantasies". In Dancing Girls. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. Pages 99-110.

Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. 2005. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Crosbie, Lynn, ed., 1993. The Girl Wants To: Women's Representations of Sex and the Body. Toronto: Coach House Books.

Friday, Nancy, 1973. My Secret Garden: Women's Sexual Fantasies. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Friday, Nancy, 1980. Men in Love: Men's Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love over Rage. New York: Laurel.

Maurer, Harry, 1994. Sex: An Oral History. New York: Viking.

Norman, John, 1974. Imaginative Sex. New York: Daw.

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