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not tonight, mr. grey: against the eroticisation of rape

Image: David Shankbone

Image: David Shankbone

*Trigger Warning: this article contains discussion of rape, sexual violence and anti-feminist backlash that may be disturbing and/or upsetting for some readers.

In spite of the resurgence of feminist activism against rape and sexual violence, it seems like every day we hear of new atrocities: the Steubenville rape, the Cleveland kidnappings, a young aspiring Tasmanian model who was blamed for her own sexual assault by a photographer, and This.

Although there is ample evidence to claim that the concept of rape culture is alive and unfortunately kicking, some men’s rights activists claim that this is all a plot by evil feminists to bring down men and assert their “sexist” ideologies over the poor, old patriarchy. In a confusing piece of jibberish (I’m not even going to call it an article) Paul Elam constructs a fake argument that the majority of (female) rape victims actually enjoy the event, in an attempt to show how evil feminists commit ‘academic fraud’ by twiddling with statistics and fabricating evidence to support their outlandish claims. Though this is no more than a blatant attempt to rile feminists, these kinds of phony articles still perpetuate negative ideas about women, as can be seen in the comments section of the page where many readers do not read the article for what it really is and have their misogynist beliefs validated by these fake statistics and studies. The perpetuation of rape culture is definitely in play here.

Elam’s engorged piece of crazy cites an actual real live article on Psychology Today that does claim that a large number of women do have sexual fantasies about being raped. In Michael Castleman’s article he claims that rape fantasies ‘are no different from any other fantasies. They are neither wrong nor perverted. They imply nothing about one’s mental health or real-life sexual inclinations. They just happen, to somewhere around half of women.’

Castleman cites an actual real live study by Bivona and Critelli (2009), in which 355 college women were asked ‘how often have you fantasized being overpowered/forced/raped by a man/woman to have oral/vaginal/anal sex against your will?’ According to this study 52% of the participants said they had had such fantasies, with 32% specifically fantasizing about rape. Although Castleman’s article seems legit as it appears on a seemingly credible, scholarly website, it is important to note that the writer previously worked as a sex columnist for Playboy magazine, which has arguably been a major pillar of the cultural objectification and sexualisation of women in Western societies.

As feminists, what are we to make of the existence of rape fantasies among women? Does coverage of this phenomenon legitimise rape? Does it support the already existing “asking-for-it” mentality? Does it position women who privately fantasise about being forced into sex as pathological, while actual rapists are led to feel that rape is a natural and normal articulation of heterosexual masculine desire that most women are compliant with?

According to Castleman, romance novels such as ‘bodice-rippers’ play a part in influencing these types of fantasies for women, claiming that the establishment of the romance genre as ‘porn-for-women’ invites women to identify with the often submissive female protagonist who is lustfully devoured by the viciously Casanova-esque male lust-interest. We saw this in Twilight and we definitely saw it in Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades sensationalists everywhere reported that housewives are fantasising about getting in the Red Room of Pain for all sorts of previously illicit, but now oh-so-fashionable, violent sex. A woman on my Facebook recently posted a status along the lines of ‘not tonight, Mr. Grey… Said no women ever!’ Uh… Christian Grey brutalised, objectified and manipulated the already vulnerable and vapid Anastasia, and spare me the whole ‘but she freely consented to the way he treated her’ argument, because regardless of whether she gave consent, the story still eroticised sexual violence and aggressive male dominance.

In the murky waters of the discussion and comments section of Castleman’s article, the psychological debris of internalised rape culture bubble and ooze to the surface. Like Elam’s article and the anti-feminist movement more broadly, ironic sexism and sexist trolling are rife, so it is important to take some messages with a whole shaker of salt. Many (I’m assuming) women agree and claim that they too have rape fantasies, often as a result of sexually repressive, religious upbringings that led them to only be able to fantasise about sex if they had no active role in initiating it. This in itself is horrible, but the most disturbing anonymous comment I found was this:

‘I used to tie up and gag my Barbie dolls rather than play house with them. I lied to my mother when she’d find them and say they were being rescued by ken in kidnap scenarios, but really, I just thought they looked prettier with a gag on.’

This story, if true, indicates how rape fantasies could be seen as the results of internalisation of rape culture by women, signifying the ongoing sexual and psychological oppression of women. Thirty years ago, Adrienne Rich argued that ‘the most pernicious message related by pornography is that women are natural sexual prey to men and love it.’ This statement is given a whole new lease of life in contemporary society when the messages of anti-woman porn and rape culture are so abundant that women are even starting to take pleasure in them subconsciously.

3 thoughts on “not tonight, mr. grey: against the eroticisation of rape

  1. I think a lot of women would object to being labelled ‘damaged’ if they have fantasies about being raped or having sex forced upon them but. But for the most part, these fantasies are just that. A lot of women might fantasise about being with another woman without having any real desire in their actual lives to have lesbian sex. Sexual fantasies are for the most part perfectly healthy, even if they explore things like rape and coercion.

    But it’s important to know that even if a woman likes being held down, or gagged, or tied up, she wants this in a controlled and respectful environment. It’s giving someone permission to treat you in a certain way, that you really like sexually, but knowing if you wanted to stop, because it hurt, or you were uncomfortable, you could. It’s having control.

    50 Shades of Grey and their ilk are awful, as is suggesting that women ‘enjoy’ rape in ANY capacity but I think it’s important to not conflate this with sexual fantasies. God, that Voice for Men website is so awful.

  2. “what are we to make of the existence of rape fantasies among women? Does coverage of this phenomenon legitimise rape?”
    No it doesn’t. That argument is based on the assumption that morality and biology are entertwined and, if our biology suggests we are pre-disposed in some way, it means it morally legitimises that pre-disposition. It’s called the Naturalistic Fallacy.

    The problem with the naturalistic fallacy is that it backs the arguer into a tight intellectual corner where they *have* to believe that rape fantasties are, in fact, “the results of internalisation of rape culture by women” rather than biologically based, because to believe otherwise is to apparently believe that rape is okay.

    Regardless of whether there is a biological pre-disposition to rape, rape is morally wrong. Full stop.

  3. There is a huge difference between fantasy and reality. Just because a handful of women fantasise about “being raped” doesn’t mean that the actual act is then okay. Some women like to be dominated, doesn’t mean that they then want to be in a physically or mentally abusive relationship. I find it hard to believe that women have this fantasy in the first place, but each to their own.
    What Judge Glass said in court in regards to the 17 year old VICTIM is horrendous. Just because the attacker was “gentle and nice” doesn’t mean it was any less traumatic for the girl. Did she say no? Yes. Well that’s then rape if he forced himself on to her. It’s disgusting.
    As for those teenage boys, the fact they filmed the whole thing is disturbing, but from the sounds of things they’re not going to get away with it. If you’re threatened with death complying with the attackers doesn’t mean you asked for it. Again, no means no.

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