Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape in romance

Over the last few weeks, I've been researching and writing entries for The Encyclopedia of Romance, to be published by Greenwood/ABC-CLIO. Writers got to choose the entries they wished to work on, and my list is pretty eclectic, including topics from "Samuel Richardson" to "YA romance." The most unusual topic I selected, and the one furthest from my past research interests, must be the topic "rape in romance." But ever since my adolescent reading of Harlequin and 70s historical romances, I've been both fascinated and horrified by the "forced seduction"/rape trope, and was eager to explore where and why romance novels draw the line between seduction and rape.

I discovered far more information than I was able to include in the brief 1000-word entry for the EofR, of course. I'd like to share some of it with you here in upcoming weeks in a variety of posts. The first topic I want to tackle is the surprising (at least to me) fact that in real life, many women have erotic fantasies about being raped.

In 2008, psychologists Joseph W. Critelli and Jenny M. Bivona of the University of North Texas undertook a meta-study*, searching for and analyzing previous scientific studies that had attempted to account for the "psychological enigma" of erotic rape fantasy (57). Though most women (99% in one study) do not want to be raped in reality, many do fantasize about it, and find such fantasies sexually stimulating. The statistics from twenty scientific studies (dating from 1974 to 2006) suggest that such fantasies are not rare, isolated incidents; between 31% to 57% of women surveyed reported experiencing erotic fantasies described as "rape" or "overpowered or forced" to engage in sex. Though rape fantasies were not the most common type of fantasy reported, the theme did show a median ranking in the top ten (of five to 34 topics, depending on the study). For women who did report fantasizing about rape, the theme was cited in the top 3 of the most frequently experienced fantasies. Fascinatingly, though one might expect the prevalence of rape fantasies to have changed over time, just as awareness of rape and depictions of rape in film, television, and fiction have changed, the prevalence of rape fantasies appear to have been relatively stable over the last four decades (61).

Why would women fantasize about being sexually violated, and be sexually turned on by such fantasies? Critelli and Bivona describe eight possible explanations previous scientists have theorized, and comment upon the likelihood of each:

1. Women are Masochists

Must be a girl snake...
The first theory,  posited in the 1940's, argues that women are inherently masochistic. Later studies have shown that while some women who fantasize about rape do enjoy the masochistic elements of such fantasies, the percentage is quite small, is true of men as well as of women, and is not usually considered pathological. Most scientists discount this clearly sexist explanation.

2. Avoiding the Blame

The most frequently cited explanation for rape fantasies is that they are a way to avoid blame. In societies that frown upon female sexuality, women might fantasize about rape in order to experience sexual feelings without having to take responsibility for them, or be blamed for them. I remember reading this explanation in Nancy Friday's books about women's sexual fantasies (My Secret Garden, 1973; Forbidden Flowers, 1975). The evidence to support this theory is decidedly mixed, leading Critelli and Bivona to suggest that explanation might be true for women with "high sex guilt," but not for the population in general.

3. We Love Sex, All Sex

By the late 1980s and 1990s, the discourse about rape fantasy had begun to shift, with several researchers suggesting that rape fantasies reflected a relative openness to and acceptance of sexual experience. As women have more sexual experiences, the diversity of their fantasies increases, research shows. But researchers have not be able to explain the most paradoxical aspect of  rape fantasy: why should women who would not find being sexually violated in real life find fantasies about the experience erotically pleasurable?

4. Do You Really Want (to hurt) Me?


Another psychosocial explanation researchers have set forth is one that should be familiar to readers of Old Skool romance: rape (or "forced seduction") occurs because a woman is "so attractive, seductive, and desirable that the man loses control, breaking core expectations of civil decency in order to have her" (64). In other words, I'm so powerful that I make you want me/rape me. Critelli and Bivona argue that there are other themes that address the issue of desirability equally, or perhaps even more directly, than rape fantasies do, and suggest that further study should be done to test this theory.

5. My Enemy, My Lover

Another possible explanation also stems from the romance novel, or of critics' interpretation of it. Helen Hazen's Endless Rapture (1983) argues that for a romance novel's heroine, the challenge is to overcome an apparently evil man, "conquer his heart, seduce him into falling in love with her, have him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transform his apparent evil and cruelty into something more socially acceptable without diminishing his masculinity" (Critelli and Bivona 67). In such novels, rape is used as a tool to create "excitement and dramatic tension." No one has asked women who fantasize about rape, though, whether their fantasies include the transformation of their rapists, so again this explanation lacks credible supporting evidence.

6.  Brainwashed by Rape Culture

In her influential 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller argued that women's rape fantasies were the pathological result of living in a male-dominated culture, in which women are the objects for the dominant male's desire. Several interesting findings seem to invalidate such a conclusion. First, women who claim feminist identities are just as likely to have fantasies of forced sex as other women. Second, men do not fantasize about raping women nearly as often as women fantasize about being raped. Finally, many men (between 10-20%) also fantasize about being forced into having sex. Critelli and Bivona do concede, however, that American culture is filled with depictions of women as sexual objects of male desire.

7. That Primitive Brain...

The final two theories are not psychosocial, but biological in nature. One suggests that since in many species, the male must put on a show of dominance or pursuit before copulation can take place. Perhaps this predisposition lingers in "primitive brain regions that have evolved to insure successful mating in reptiles, birds, and mammals.... females may have a natural desire to surrender to a selected, dominant male. If so, humans may also have a corresponding tendency to portray this ritual in fantasy," although they have no actual desire to experience rape itself (65). A lot of "perhaps" and "may" in this theory....

8. Scare Me, Turn Me On

Recent scientific studies on "sympathetic activation"—the physical manifestations of the "fight or flight" reaction—show that sympathetic activation can enhance sexual response. If you frighten me, you might also sexually excite me. But you can't scare me too much; while moderate levels of fear can increase pleasure, too much is simply "disruptive" (66). Roller coasters, yes; Freddy Krueger, no.

Critelli and Bivona conclude their article by suggesting that a combination of biological predisposition to surrender fantasies, sympathetic activation, and adversary transformation (7, 8, & 5) provide the most likely general explanation for women's rape fantasies, while blame avoidance, openness to sex, and desirability theories (2, 3, & 4) might best account for a particular woman's attraction to particular types of rape fantasies.

What research would you want scientists to undertake to help explain women's rape fantasies? Can you think of any other explanations for why women would fantasize about rape, and take pleasure from such fantasies? And which of the above explanations do you think best accounts for the prevalence of rape and/or forced seductions in romance novels?

*Published in the Journal of Sex Research 45.1 (2008): 57–70.

Photo/illustration credits:
Journal of Sex Research: Taylor and Francis Group
Tread on Me flag: Althouse
Culture Club record: 45cat 
Roller Coaster:

Next time on RNFF: Battle of the Sexes in the Courtroom: Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect


  1. It doesn't offer a scientific approach, but Angela Toscano's piece on this topic in JPRS--not the most recent issue, but in issue 2.2--is a really useful and thoughtful look at it as a literary trope in romance. Highly recommended.

    I'm sorry it's taken me so long to start reading your blog, by the way--it's very, very good!

  2. Thanks, Eric. Yep, Angela Toscano's work is another piece of the research I did on this topic that didn't quite fit into the scope of the encyclopedia article. Looking forward to discussing it in a future post.

    And thanks for taking a look at the blog -- glad you're finding it of interest.

  3. thank you so much for writing. this explains tons of stuff about my childhood that i was unable to understand. i guess it was partially because i was so lonely as a kid, and abuse was hurtful and degrading, but it felt like the only way i could be close to anyone...