When it comes to sexual arousal, universally women appear to be split. What we say sexually excites us is often different from what our bodies find enticing. Laboratory studies conducted by psychologist Meredith Chivers on female sexual arousal at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario led to this conclusion by measuring genital blood flow when women looked at sexual images. Chivers discovered that regardless of sexual orientation or subjective statements about what they found arousing, women were genitally aroused by virtually every sexual image they were shown. Their bodies were aroused by 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 no less than 130 scientific studies.1
Professor Chivers postulated the prevalence of rape in patriarchal societies led to the divide between psychological and physiological arousal in women. Sexual arousal, even orgasm, is not uncommon during rape. Professor Chivers theorized 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.”2
Although her theory is plausible with regards to how the body evolved in response to the threat of rape, it fails to explain the equally important need to protect the mind from the overwhelming effects of sexual violence.
One way to explore how women protect against the psychological consequences of rape is to look at how our minds defend against our own bodies. One prominent way this occurs is through dissociation. During dissociation, the mind escapes what the body must endure. Endorphins released during states of dissociation act like the body’s natural opium and reducing suffering.3
Mild states of dissociation are associated with fantasizing, including sexual fantasies. Sexual fantasies can be used to reach states of arousal according to the landscape of the mind rather than the realities of the body. However, the imaginal, which includes fantasies, dreams, and imagery (along with erotic imagery), is not only used for distraction or escape; it also contributes to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
Sexual fantasies of rape may be one way women psychologically defend against the possibility of rape that is pervasive in patriarchal societies, as well as identify ways to resolve the potential threat. Sexual fantasies of rape are relatively common. A 2009 study of 355 female undergraduates found 62 percent had sexual fantasies of rape, while a meta-analysis of twenty studies of sexual fantasies conducted over 30 years showed between 31 and 57 percent of women had sexual fantasies of rape.5 Women with and without histories of rape or other forms of sexual abuse have these fantasies. However, from an evolutionary perspective, sexual fantasies of rape likely originated with survivors of sexual violence.
In 1973, Nancy Friday published My Secret Garden, a collection of women’s sexual fantasies.6 One of her interviewees, Johanna, had been raped at knife point while living alone in Mexico City. After the assault, Johanna’s sexual fantasies compulsively focused on the trauma. Johanna remarked, “You could say that my inner sexual life still revolves around the rape.”7
For women with histories of sexual violence, sexual fantasies stemming from an assault can become a compulsive aspect of their sexuality — sometimes triggered by physiological arousal, sometimes used to facilitate reaching orgasm. Nevertheless, these fantasies can cause guilt and self-loathing. Sexual fantasies of the assault become a private validation of both the perpetrator’s and societal attitudes that the victim ‘wanted it.’ Such fantasies can also inhibit intimacy while having sex. This was the case for Johanna. “It’s no good when I’m in bed with Charles [her partner], telling myself that I love him and that I hate that other strange man…. It just kills whatever erotic feelings I have.”8
When something traumatic happens, memories of what occurred are fragmented due to the overwhelming nature of the experience. These fragmented memories seek integration with non-traumatized aspects of the self. In fact, recovery from trauma, if not mental health in general, can be thought of as the capacity for psychological integration along with the ability to emotionally regulate when distressed.9 For women who have been raped, fantasies of the rape may be attempts to integrate memories of sexual violence into their regular lives while also managing fear.
Current research on the epigenetic transmission of traumatic stress has shown traumas like rape irrevocably change women, both psychologically and physiologically, even when they go on to recover. Whereas genes, the fundamental building blocks of life, remain unaltered across our individual lifetimes, traumatic events and conditions can change how genetic code is interpreted, and in ways that recalibrate basic physiological systems.
In response to interpersonal violence, the body rewrites the script that guides its development — orienting towards the possibility of future assaults in place of getting on with ordinary life. This shift towards a defensive orientation makes sense. Survival is the first priority of all living beings. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only when basic physiological and safety needs are met do humans have the mental and physical capacity to focus on more demanding tasks such as forming relationships and self-actualization. Epigenetic research suggests that stressful social conditions have a similar impact as traumatic events — not altering the genetic code, but rather telling the body what orientation and adaptive responses are optimal given the conditions of the world inhabited.
Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studied the effects of epigenetic change in children of Holocaust survivors.10 These children often showed the same signs of traumatic stress as their parents who were imprisoned in concentration camps, despite the children’s relative safety in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. According to Dr. Yehuda’s research, 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 survivor’s oriented to relatively peaceful environments with a sensitivity to potential threats, much as their parents were forced to orient to ongoing threats in the camps.
Fortunately, epigenetic changes are not signs of psychopathology. Rather, according to Dr. Yehuda, “the purpose of epigenetic changes … is simply to increase the repertoire of possible responses.” She added, “I don’t think it’s meant to damage or not damage people. It … expands the range of biological responses, and that can be a very positive thing when that’s needed.”11
Dreams and fantasies seem a likely avenue for epigenetic transmission of defenses against traumas, especially so-called “legacy” traumas that impact an entire population. Dreams can be adaptive. Similar to virtual reality, they are opportunities to rehearse behavioral strategies that optimize survival. Irrespective of culture, people experience dreams in four general categories, all of which are related to survival: feeding, fighting, fleeting, and fornication. As Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens wrote, dreams “enable the animal to respond appropriately to food, threat, attack, and sexual encounters even before the gustatory, threatening, erotic stimuli are encountered.”12
Fantasies may also be how we find solutions to threats that have overwhelmed past generations, as well as continue to lurk about the shadows in our own lives. The taboo that for centuries surrounded speaking about sexual violence no doubt has limited the ways girls and women become aware of the threat of rape and other forms of sexual trauma. This must certainly have impacted the ability to create strategies for coping. Sexual fantasies of rape may be opportunities to confront a threat that a young woman isn’t necessarily familiar with, but nevertheless is emotional impacted by through prevailing attitudes, if not sexual harassment, in cultures where rape is a pervasive threat. Through sexual fantasies of rape, there is an opportunity to practice dissociating fear while remaining sexually aroused. For some women, these fantasies may feel empowering. Susie Bright who described using sexual fantasies of rape to overcome an attempted assault, wrote, “You see the difference between your real life anxieties and limitations versus your potential to go to any extreme in fantasy. Now that is empowering.”13
Sexual fantasies of rape are in the woman’s control. Using her mind, she decides the nature of the threat, who is the perpetrator, and how she responds and feels — including replacing fear with arousal and desire. Perhaps this is how sexual fantasies of rape protect the mind: by creating a sense of control, if not habituating the mind to threats the body cannot escape.
Women who fantasize about rape, and who (presumably) lack histories of sexual violence, are described by sex researchers as using these fantasies to let go of control. Professor Chivers asserted, “It’s the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought…. To be all in the midbrain.”14 Similarly, psychology professor Marta Meana claimed, “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. Women want a caveman and caring.”15 Whereas some women no doubt want exactly what Professors Chivers and Meana claim, to think that rape fantasies function differently in women with histories of sexual violence compared to women who lack such histories seems naive. Furthermore, this assumption would ignore the wise and enduring principle of Ockham’s razor, that the simplest explanation of any phenomenon is likely the best one.
Given the enduring threat of gender-based violence, and the equally enduring stigmatization of survivors of traumas like rape and other forms of sexual abuse, it is important to consider how fear of these pervasive threats have been managed over millenia, and what adaptations have resulted that increase the likelihood of survival. How do women learn ways to protect themselves and their children from sexual violence when there is little discussion of these topics? The answer is through our imaginations.
Carl Gustave Jung wrote that dreams “…are the language used in the lifelong dialogue proceeding nightly between the ego and the unconscious: they are the means by which the individual becomes psychically related to the life cycle of the species.”16 For women, especially in the first decades of our lives, we must contend with the pervasive threat of rape and other forms of sexual trauma. Sexual fantasies of rape may be one way to come to terms with this threat, while remaining a sexual being.
Collectively, women have had to adapt to societies in which sexual violence can happen to any woman, at any time, even (or especially) in her most intimate relationships. This has consequences for all aspects of ourselves — our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and even our fantasies. Rather than a release of inhibitions as some researchers suggest, sexual fantasies of rape release women from the stress related to living in societies where violence against women is ubiquitous.
Sexual fantasies of rape are not as empowering as cultures of equality and acts of self-defense. As Iris Young wrote, “We have to learn to feel entitled to occupy space, to defend ourselves.”17 When all girls and women are able to fully embody empowerment, I imagine a lot fewer women will find sexual fantasies of rape arousing.
Questions to ponder: How has your history of sexual trauma impacted the content of your sexual fantasies? What role do your sexual fantasies play in arousal?
(This post is a revised version of an earlier essay titled “Why do women have sexual fantasies of rape?”)
1 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
2 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.
3 Levine, Peter. 2008. Healing trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
5 Bivona J. and J. Critelli. 2009. “The nature of women’s rape fantasies: an analysis of prevalence, frequency, and contents.” J Sex Res. Jan-Feb, 46(1): 33-45; and 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.
6 Berlatsky, Noah. (2013, June 17). “When rape is a fantasy. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/when-rape-is-a-fantasy/276933/, Accessed July 26, 2018.
9 Siegel, Daniel J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (Second ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
10 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.
12 Stevens, Anthony. (1993). The two million-year-old self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, p. 40.
13 Berlatsky, 2013.
14 Bergner, 2009.
16 Quoted in Stevens, p. 42.
17 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.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).