Rape, Fantasies, and Female Arousal

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2009 8:24 AM

Rape, Fantasies, and Female Arousal

Do some women fantasize about rape? Do some become aroused during rape? If so, what does it mean?

Daniel Bergner, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine , raises those questions in the magazine's current issue . Obviously, Bergner's a guy. So am I. But the evidence and theories in the article come from women who have been researching female sexuality. For instance, Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queen's University,

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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has confronted clinical research reporting not only genital arousal but also the occasional occurrence of orgasm during sexual assault. And she has recalled her own experience as a therapist with victims who recounted these physical responses. She is familiar, as well, with the preliminary results of a laboratory study showing surges of vaginal blood flow as subjects listen to descriptions of rape scenes.

Moreover,

According to an analysis of relevant studies published last year in The Journal of Sex Research, an analysis that defines rape as involving "the use of physical force, threat of force, or incapacitation through, for example, sleep or intoxication, to coerce a woman into sexual activity against her will," between one-third and more than one-half of women have entertained such fantasies, often during intercourse, with at least 1 in 10 women fantasizing about sexual assault at least once per month in a pleasurable way.

How could anyone want something done to her against her will? Isn't that self-contradictory? And if she doesn't want it, why would she become genitally aroused?

The answer, some of these researchers propose, is that women's sexuality is split. In one of Chivers' studies, for example, "men's minds and genitals were in agreement" while watching sexual videos. But among women, genital blood differed sharply from self-reported arousal: "During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more." Even lesbians, while watching videos of men, "reported less engagement than the [blood-flow monitors] recorded."

Chivers speculates that female sexuality might be split between "physiological" and "subjective" systems. This could explain the rape data:

[T]o understand arousal in the context of unwanted sex, Chivers, like a handful of other sexologists, has arrived at an evolutionary hypothesis that stresses the difference between reflexive sexual readiness and desire. Genital lubrication, she writes in her upcoming paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, is necessary "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." Evolution's legacy, according to this theory, is that women are prone to lubricate, if only protectively, to hints of sex in their surroundings.

In other words, part of the female arousal system is designed for self-protection and is particularly well-suited to what we now regard as abuse. Sounds horrific, right? But Marta Meana, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, offers an arguably more disturbing theory. She points to research suggesting that 1) "in comparison with men, women's erotic fantasies center less on giving pleasure and more on getting it"; 2) "as measured by the frequency of fantasy, masturbation and sexual activity, women have a lower sex drive than men"; and 3) "within long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex." These and other findings fit her theory that female desire is driven by "being desired."

So does reproductive logic, according to Chivers:

[O]ne possibility is that instead of it being a go-out-there-and-get-it kind of sexuality, it's more of a reactive process. If you have this dyad, and one part is pumped full of testosterone, is more interested in risk taking, is probably more aggressive, you've got a very strong motivational force. It wouldn't make sense to have another similar force. You need something complementary.

And here's where it gets icky.

A symbolic scene ran through Meana's talk of female lust: a woman pinned against an alley wall, being ravished. Here, in Meana's vision, was an emblem of female heat. The ravisher is so overcome by a craving focused on this particular woman that he cannot contain himself; he transgresses societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders. ... [Meana] spoke about the thrill of being wanted so much that the aggressor is willing to overpower, to take.

Does this mean women want to be raped? No. Both theories assume the opposite. And that's a pretty safe assumption, given the logical impossibility of willing a violation of your will. The challenge is to explain the data on rape fantasies and arousal from sexual assault, given that nobody literally wants to be raped. What part of rape or the idea of rape is arousing? And what part of the woman is aroused?

The first theory, lubrication, suggests that rape-related arousal is purely physical and reflexive, leaving the will untouched. Your vagina says one thing, your brain says another, and (this is the crucial part for men to understand, morally and legally) your brain is what matters. But that doesn't explain the data on rape fantasies. Fantasies imply brain arousal. And that, in turn, implies that we should be asking not which part of the woman is aroused, but which part of the rape fantasy is arousing.

The second theory, which Meana frankly calls narcissism, posits a clear answer. We generally define rape as sex against the victim's will. But a woman mentally aroused by a sexual assault fantasy isn't thinking about the victim's will. She's thinking about the perpetrator's. She's imagining being wanted. That's what she wants—and the fact that she wants it exposes the fantasy, by definition, as not really rape. The imaginary act arouses her not because the woman in the scenario doesn't want it, but because the man does.

But if that's what these fantasies are—one person drawing her will from the will of another—what does it say about us? If derivativeness of will is, as some of these researchers posit, a fundamental difference between male and female arousal, what does it say about equality between the sexes? Are women, in this sense, inherently less autonomous?

( Update: My colleagues at the XX Factor , who actually have the relevant equipment, are discussing this topic right now . Meghan O'Rourke has flagged the same question about whether female sexuality is reactive . I'll be interested to see other comments from the focus group.)

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