In recent studies, more than 90 percent of women admit having had sexual fantasies, and depending on the study, some one-third to two-thirds confess at least occasional fantasies of being forced into sex. Of course, sexual assault is a horrible violation. Why would any sane woman fantasize about it? A recent study suggests that rape fantasies are most prevalent among women who are the most erotically open and adventurous, who feel most comfortable daydreaming about sexual situations way beyond what they’d ever want to experience.
Researchers at Notre Dame and the University of North Texas gave standard psychological tests to 355 women undergraduates, who formed a reasonable demographic cross-section of young Americans. Then the researchers surveyed the women’s sexual fantasies. And finally, the women were asked if they’d ever fantasized:
1. Being forced by a man to surrender sexually against my will.
2. Being forced by a woman to surrender sexually against my will.
3. Being forced into a sex against my will because I was incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, or being unconscious.
4. Being forced by a man to give him oral sex.
5. Being forced by a woman to give her oral sex.
6. Being forced to have anal sex.
7. Being raped by a man.
8. Being raped by a woman.
Note: The researchers did not define “forced” or “rape,” leaving participants to use their own understanding of these terms, “forced” having somewhat less negative connotations than “rape.”
Explanations Old and New
This study was far from the first to attempt to understand why some women have rape fantasies.
Decades ago, psychologists believed that dreams and fantasies (daydreams) were subconscious wishes, therefore, women who had rape fantasies actually wanted to be coerced into sex. That view has been thoroughly debunked. Fantasies don’t necessarily reflect wishes. Among those in long-term relationships, one of the most common fantasies is sex with someone else, even when the daydreamer is happy in the relationship and has no real desire to jump into another bed. Plenty of men fantasize saving damsels in distress without the slightest real wish to face a raging fire on the 23rd floor. Wishing plays a role in some fantasies, notably dreams of striking it rich or losing weight, but having an erotic fantasy in no way means you want it to come true.
So forget wish fulfillment. Today psychologists suggest that women’s rape fantasies have three other possible explanations:
• Sexual blame avoidance. This is the most popular explanation. It recognizes that women’s erotic desires may trigger feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame. How can women enjoy robust sexual fantasies without developing these feelings? Fantasize about being forced. That way, women aren’t responsible for the sex and need not feel distressed about it. I was forced. It wasn’t my fault.
• Sexual desirability. This explanation reflects the arc of romance fiction, which is wildly popular among women (and the single largest-selling category of fiction). In romance novels, a powerful, dangerous man becomes so enthralled by the protagonist that he must have her, even if his pursuit is assaultive. Eventually, she tames him and they marry and have children. The sexual-desirability explanation says that women have rape fantasies to bolster feelings of seductiveness and desirability. I’m so hot. I drive men crazy.
• Sexual openness. This explanation says that women who enjoy sex and accept their enjoyment without anxiety, guilt, or shame feel sufficiently free to play with erotic scenarios beyond the boundaries of what they’d ever want to experience in real life. It’s fantasy. I’m free to fantasize anything.
Confirming earlier studies on the prevalence of rape fantasies, 62 percent of participants admitted fantasizing at least one of the eight scenarios:
Forced by a man: 52%.
Raped by a man: 32%.
Forced oral by a man: 28%.
Forced while incapacitated: 24%.
Forced by a woman: 17%.
Forced anal: 16%.
Raped by a woman: 9%.
Forced oral by a woman: 9%.
Note: The participants were considerably more likely to fantasize being “forced” than “raped,” presumably because “rape” carries more connotations of violence and harm.
The high prevalence of rape fantasies—almost two-thirds of the women—suggest that they play a significant role in the fantasy lives of college-age women … and presumably many older women as well.
Meanwhile, in line with other assessments, 15 percent of study participants reported being survivors of sexual assault. The researchers found no relationship, either direct or inverse, between real-life rape and whether participants had any type of rape fantasy.
The frequency of rape fantasies varied considerably. Among respondents who admitted fantasies of being forced by men, 33 percent had them less than once a year, 26 percent a few times a year, 20 percent once a month, 11 percent weekly, and 9 percent at least four times a week.
Among the 71 participants who reported fantasies of being forced by women, 50 said they were heterosexual.
Which Explanation Is Most Compelling?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom that rape fantasies are based on blame avoidance (I was coerced. It wasn’t my fault.), the researchers found this the least supported explanation. The most sexually anxious, guilty, and repressed women had the fewest rape fantasies.
The data provided the most support for sexual openness (I’m free to fantasize anything.) followed by sexual desirability (I’m so hot. I drive men crazy.)
The most sexually open and self-accepting women had the most rape fantasies. They also had the most fantasies of consensual sex. And they reported the most arousal from their erotic fantasies.
The women who considered themselves hotties also had frequent rape fantasies. (They were also the most likely to fantasize being strippers.)
In fantasy, everything is permitted and nothing is wrong. Not everyone accepts this, but as sexual openness increases, so does willingness to daydream about sexual scenarios one would never really want to experience.
Women who have rape fantasies don’t want to be sexually assaulted. They feel comfortable with their own sexuality and are happy to embrace their erotic fantasies—wherever they may lead.
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Shulman, JL and SG Horne. “Guilty or Not? A Path Model of Women’s Forceful Sexual Fantasies,” Journal of Sex Research (2006) 43:368.
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