When Rape Is a Fantasy

Is it possible to reconcile sexual fantasy and sexual violence?

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My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday turns 40 this year. Though it was a best-seller in its day, it's not especially well known now, perhaps in part because age hasn't made it any easier to deal with. Part sociological study, part feminist manifesto, part porn anthology, the book is a collection of women's sexual fantasies which Friday solicited from friends and through advertisements. From bestiality to incest to rape to lesbianism, the narratives are separated by Friday's enthusiastic embrace of the liberatory potential of all things sexual fantasy...and by her generally unnecessary and almost never acute pop-psych noodling.

"During sex a lesbian's fantasies have to be especially active to help make rational to herself her often wildly veering changes of identification between one sex and the other," she insists, with no particular evidence except the assumption that lesbian sex is less normal than other kinds. The part where she talks about white women's fantasies about black men without ever considering the fact that real black women exist and have fantasies of their own is perhaps the low point, but it has competition.

Despite such stumbles, though, the fantasies themselves still, four decades later, retain their punch. The spectacular opener from a woman named Madge--featuring interracial sex, lesbian sex, rape, bondage, bestiality and pedophilia--proves that, even if Friday's analysis is weak, her instincts as a curator are spot on.

The book's most disturbing fantasy was written by an acquaintance of Friday's named Johanna. While Johanna was living in Mexico City, a stranger entered her house and raped her at knife point.

Her sexual fantasy is the memory of the assault. "You could say that my inner sexual life still revolves around the rape," she admits, and then goes on to describe the incident in obviously well-rehearsed detail.

I closed my eyes and tried to think of how terrified I was, how much I hated him. But I felt myself becoming more and more excited. I closed my eyes and tried to turn from side to side, as if trying to get away from his tongue, but it was also to have that tongue touch different sides of me, inside. Once I opened my eyes. All I could see was the dark top of his head, his hair, and the hand holding the knife just beside me. Then I closed my eyes again and I suddenly couldn't help it, I pulled his head right into me, pulled his tongue right into me as high as possible, and then I came, over and over again.

No one, Johanna concludes, "ever made me feel so sexually in heat the way that man did when he raped me."

It's hard to imagine a scenario which fits more neatly into the ideology of rape deniers. In her essay "The Lie," Andrea Dworkin insisted, with great passion, "The one message that is carried in all pornography all the time is this; she wants it; she wants to be beaten; she wants to be forced; she wants to be raped." Johanna's rapist repeats the lie himself: "He even told me I would enjoy it," she says. And then, the lie is the truth. She does enjoy it.

Johanna's story, I think, gets at a central difficulty about sexual fantasies and sexual violence. Namely, how do you reconcile the two? You can say, perhaps, that they have nothing to do with each other: that sexual fantasy is in your head and sexual violence is outside your head. Freud made an argument like this when he famously changed his mind about his patients' reports of sexual abuse. Their fathers were not abusing them, he decided; instead, they were fantasizing about sexual abuse. Fantasies of sexual abuse and the reality of sexual abuse, he decided, couldn't coexist.

But Johanna's fantasy shows that the walls between the two are more permeable than Freud was willing to allow. For her, sexual violence intruded on sexual fantasy, and sexual fantasy intruded on sexual violence. Freud might well say that she made the whole thing up...but it's not like sexual arousal during rape is unknown, or even especially uncommon. Lots of women have rape fantasies; lots of women are raped. It seems improbable that the two populations never overlap. And, for that matter, men have fantasies of being raped, are sometimes raped themselves, and sometimes experience orgasms when they are raped.

One person who has been sexually assaulted and has had fantasies of sexual assault is writer and sex-positive feminist Susie Bright. Bright's essay on Nancy Friday in her 1992 book Sexual Reality does not directly reference Johanna's story. But it does speak to the issues it raises.

In her piece, Bright talks about being threatened by a couple of kids with knives while walking home in San Francisco. One of them shoved his hands down her pants and felt her up. Bright's friend managed to blow her emergency whistle and the kids took off. Bright was, understandably upset, and moved out of the neighborhood.

She also, however, ended up using the incident as a sexual fantasy. In this fantasy, she says, the boy

kept fucking me with his hands, and I was frozen, naked on the sidewalk. He talked to me nasty, he was arrogant, and he teased the knife against my nipples. Nieghborhood people gathered; he invited them to take his place.

Bright says she used this fantasy twice, and that it brought her to orgasm both times. After that, it lost its power over her. She concludes the essay triumphantly by saying that she had moved back to, and reclaimed, her old stomping grounds. "Welcome to my neighborhood--all of it," she declares, referring both to her physical surroundings and, it seems clear, to her fantasy life.

For Bright, then, the rape fantasies become a kind of solution or antidote to real sexual violence. She doesn't see her fantasy about the boy who assaulted her as a self-betrayal. Instead, it's a way to process and lay claim to the territory--her body, her sexuality--that the boy had tried to steal from her. "What really happens when you get your consciousness raised is you can't be afraid of your fantasies any longer," she says. "You see the difference between your real life anxieties and limitations vs. your potential to go to any extreme in fantasy. Now that is empowering."

From that perspective, we could see Johanna's fantasy as a laying claim to her experience. She was assaulted, and one way she deals with the violence is to make what happened to her part of her fantasy life. The rape was outside of her control, but in her fantasy life she controls it, and can even use it (as she says) to make her sex life with her husband more satisfying.

Again, though, this is a little too easy. Bright seems to see her fantasy about her assailant in almost entirely positive terms, but many others, women and men, are much more ambivalent about the intersection of their rape fantasies and their assaults. People who experience pleasure during or after the rape often respond with guilt and self-loathing rather than with feelings of empowerment.

Therapists tell rape victims who experience orgasm or lubrication that it is not their fault. You can't be blamed for your body's involuntary responses. That is no doubt true. But it doesn't exactly get at the heart of Johanna's dilemma, which involved not so much a body betrayal as a mental and emotional betrayal.

Nor does that tangled knot of emotions lose its power over her, as Bright's fantasies about her assault lost their power over her. On the contrary, Johanna's story is charged with real, palpable pain. "It's no good when I'm in bed with Charles, telling myself that I love him and that I hate that other strange man," she writes. "It just kills whatever erotic feelings I have." She goes on to say that sometimes she can get past the memory of her sexual response to the rape and make love to her husband, but sometimes she can't.

Friday says that rape fantasies in general "relieve" women" of their "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."

Friday makes no comment on Johanna's story in particular; it's not entirely clear that she even realizes how uncomfortably it fits into the rape fantasy rationale she posits. But more than any of the other accounts in My Secret Garden, it's clear that Johanna's narrative is not just her fantasy, but her trauma. If in some sense her fantasy helps her deal with her assault, as Bright's did, it's also the case that in some sense her fantasy is the assault. It's the lever through which the rapist (who, remember, said she would enjoy it) continues to control her. And if her fantasy is part of her abuse, there's an uncomfortable possibility that rape fantasies in general are, at least in part, not empowering in the way that Friday seems to think they are. For Johanna, certainly, and for others quite possibly, rape fantasies are as Dworkin and other second-wave feminists claimed, a mechanism of control and harm.

Feminists like Dworkin often argue that the solution to the problem of rape fantasies was to get rid of them, to "overcome" them, as one of Bright's feminist professors suggested. The problem, though, is, how do you tell someone her thoughts are evil without telling her that she is evil? Is Johanna bad or weak because of her arousal? Is she more brainwashed by the patriarchy than other women who have been raped? If her fantasies are the rapist's, and not hers, then there is no space anywhere, no corner of her mind, in which she is not a victim.

I don't think Johanna's story has a single good answer. There isn't a single good answer, or much of anything good, in rape. Perhaps, then, the story tells us one more bad thing, which is that, as long as there is rape, rape fantasies are going to be linked to violence. My Secret Garden, then, might be seen, not as a dream of empowerment fulfilled, but as a hope that someday, somewhere, more than 40 years from now, we will eliminate, not rape fantasies, but rape itself. And when that day comes we will have a world in which, miraculously and perhaps impossibly, the rape fantasies in Nancy Friday's book could be what she wants them to be: exciting, empowering, and safe: a garden of violent dreams without the shadow of violence.