Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rape Culture and Rape Fantasy: Lilah Pace's ASKING FOR IT

Do we live in a culture that normalizes rape? Tacitly encourages it?

If so, do romance novels play a role in perpetuating such a culture?

Do women who have sexual fantasies about being raped feel ashamed of such fantasies? Feel like bad feminists?

Would a woman who lived in a non-rape culture never fantasize about being raped?

These and other questions have been swirling around in my head after reading Liz McCausland's June 13, 2015 "Unpopular Opinion" post on her blog, Something More: my extensive reading, which discusses the questions we are not asking about our romance novels when it comes to the issue of rape. And after reading an article in the July/August 2015 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine, in which four women, including two current Yale students, hold a conversation about issues of sexual misconduct on campus. And especially after reading Lilah Pace's controversial erotic romance, Asking For It, which explores the issue of rape fantasy while simultaneously presenting eroticized scenes of consensual rape for its readers' pleasure.

Pace's novel, told from the point of view of Vivienne, a white New Orleans girl of privilege who has moved to Austin, Texas, to attend the University of Texas and earn a Ph.D. in art. Vivienne is in therapy, in part because of the guilt and shame she feels about her sexual fantasies: "I don't get off unless I'm imagining being raped.... I hate this about myself" (page 2). She hates it, but even so, she wishes she could move from fantasy to reality, not by being attacked (been there, done that), but by sharing her fantasy with a willing partner in a sexual role-play. Unfortunately, her last boyfriend, nice-guy lawyer Geordie, was not at all comfortable playing such a sexual role, even in play, and because of this, as well as other incompatibilities, the two broke up.

One part of Vivienne is sickened by her obsession with rape fantasy. Another takes deep pleasure in indulging in it, even when the lines between reality and fantasy get blurry. A flat tire on a dark, lonely road; a cell phone with no charge; a large, overpowering male stepping out of his sleek car to help—when Vivienne finds herself in the midst of this real-life scenario at the start of Asking For It, her mind soon fills

...with visions I didn't want to want. Visions of him bending me over the back of my car, pushing up the skirt of my sundress. Of him pulling me into the backseat, putting my hand on his cock, whispering, Time to thank me. His hands fisting in my hair as he towed me down on my knees—
     Stop it. (8)

Good Samaritan does not turn into actual rapist, and the two part without even exchanging names. But only a few days later, at a friend's party, Vivienne finds herself being introduced to unsmiling Jonah Marks, UT Earth Sciences professor, and the sexy object of her latest guilty fantasies. Even worse, former boyfriend Geordie is also in attendance, and is headed toward sloppy, confessional drunk territory. When Geordie attempts to apologize for his role in their breakup in excruciatingly embarrassing detail—"I mean, kink yay, right? Everybody should love kinks. And you get to have yours! You do. But it's not my kink. At all. Playing rapist freaks me out. But I shouldn't have been such a dumb cunt about it" (25)—Vivenne can't bring herself to just laugh and forget it. And neither can Jonah, who overhears Geordie's confession. And who makes Vivienne a proposal that tells her that he, too, was as far from envisioning himself as a Good Samaritan as it was possible to be:

     "I don't even know you."
     "That's going to make it better for you," Jonah says. "With a boyfriend, you can pretend—but it's a joke, really. A game. Not the fantasy you really want. Me? I'm nearly a stranger. I can do more than fuck you. I can scare you a little. Just a little. Enough to make it what you really want.
     "It's your fantasy, and mine. Chances like this don't come along often—two people twisted in the exact same way." Jonah smiles; it's a fierce expression, rather than a friendly one. "If we don't make something out of this, I think you'll regret it. I know I will." (29)

Unsurprisingly, the rational, thinking part of Vivienne is appalled by Jonah's proposal:

My fantasy is something I'm trying to escape from, not sink down into. If I try this and hate it, that would be beyond horrible. It might be as traumatic as a real rape, and I would have walked right into it. That's not what scares me, though. What scares me is that I'll try it and love it. Maybe I really am that fucked up. (30)

Yet her own obsession calls to her, and only a few days later, she finds herself emailing Jonah, asking him to meet. And then asking him for more.

Several consensual forced sexual encounters later, and Vivienne and Jonah know they're explosive together as lovers. And so do readers; these scenes are detailed, explicit, and meant to be a turn-on, not a sign of Vivienne's "fucked up" mind. And they were so, at least to this reader, even though rape fantasy isn't really something that pops to the front of my brain when I'm imagining sexy times. I've never been sexually assaulted myself, but I have friends, acquaintances, and relatives who have, and I find the idea of eroticizing sexual violence against women in the face of that knowledge pretty distasteful. But Pace's story turned me on. Why?

I think that it's because that, despite all the pre-publication talk about the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, there is a clear line between rape and role-play, both for Vivienne and for the reader. Vivienne and Jonah discussed their hard and soft boundaries, as occurs in many BDSM romance novels, before their first encounter, and all of the sites of their trysts, as well as the general outlines of the fantasy each one will involve, are agreed upon by both parties before each occurence. Vivienne is sickened by her actual rapist, who is still involved in her life to a small degree, but she is turned on by the pretense of being forced. Reading Vivienne's story felt far different to me than reading Old Skool rape-tastic romance, in which rape occurs but is rarely named such in the texts. In Old Skool romances, a reader has to turn a narrative of actual rape into a fantasy inside her own head. In contrast, what Vivienne and Jonah are doing is meant to simulate rape, rather than rape pretending to be something more benign as in Old Skool romances. The fantasy takes place on the pages of the book, in the head of the protagonist, rather than in my own. I'm not pretending that rape is a pleasure; Vivienne is, and it turns her on. That difference may not seem to be a major one, but for me, it was the difference between a book that makes me want to throw up and a book that I find both intellectually intriguing and sexually pleasurable.

And it's also because Vivienne has the advice of a kindly, intelligent, and insightful therapist to guide her through her unusual sexual journey. Doreen, said therapist, reassures Vivienne that experiencing rape fantasies in the wake of being sexually assaulted, while uncommon, is not unheard of. After her first encounter with Jonah, Vivienne fears that Doreen will judge her negatively for turning her fantasies into reality/play (projecting much?), and will advise Vivienne for her own mental health against doing it again. But Doreen, like the best of therapists, refuses to judge; instead, she assures Vivienne that "there's a world of difference between your fantasies and what [X] did, because he raped you.... You choose your partner in the fantasy—whether that's a figment of your imagination or a willing lover like Jonah. You didn't choose [X]. He took that choice away from you" (192). Doreen tries to help Vivienne redirect her focus to what she thinks is Vivienne's real problem:

"One of the reasons you came to me was that you wanted to stop having this fantasy. I understand your reasons. But I don't think the fantasy itself is your most significant problem. I think your main problem is the way you beat yourself up about it.... That, and the reason you're fixated on the fantasy in the first place." (11)

Initially, Vivienne is able to keep her guilt and shame out of her trysts with Jonah. In large part because she and Jonah agree to keep their personal lives out of their sexual play, feeling that this will make the play all the more sexually charged. But such compartmentalization becomes more and more difficult as they encounter each other casually on campus and find themselves feeling empathy for the other's emotions, and when real life, in the form of family problems, interrupts their consensual play. Can a relationship founded on rape fantasy transform into a romantic relationship? How much can Jonah and Vivienne keep hidden from one another (Vivienne's rape and her dysfunctional family; the reasons why Jonah's so drawn to rapist role-play, and his own family troubles) and still hope to build mutual trust?

The most memorable scene in the novel for me was a confrontation of sorts between Vivienne and Doreen, when, after months of building up trust between them, Doreen thinks Vivienne is strong enough to listen to this bombshell: "You might have had this fantasy even if [X] had never raped you" (251). Though Vivienne disagrees—"No." I shake my head. "He did this to me. You know he did," Doreen asks Vivienne to consider thinking about her history in a different way:

     "[X] raped you.... The fantasy comes from that, and from a culture that eroticizes violence against women, and leftover puritanical guilt about sex that tells us we're not allowed to choose it and want it for ourselves, and from God only knows where else."
     I'm furious with her. I want to cry. My cheeks are flushed with shame. Every emotion I've ever felt about this is bubbling up at once. "But it's the only thing that gets me off. I can't come any other way! Does that sound normal to you?"
     Doreen looks at me steadily. "Exactly. The fantasy isn't your problem; it's the extremity of your fixation on it. Who  is it who won't let you find sexual satisfaction any other way?"
     Me. She means me.  (251-52)

Asking For It doesn't provide any easy answers to the questions that opened this post; in fact, with its "To be Continued" ending, it leaves far too many of them frustratingly open. But at least it is asking us to give voice to the questions, to start thinking about the intersections of rape culture and rape fantasy, in romance novels and in real life. A truly feminist move, in my book.

Asking for It
Berkley, 2015


  1. Really good analysis. I enjoyed this novel immensely, but it was partly because of the therapist being along for the ride. She acted almost as a Greek chorus, helping the reader deal with the subject and the way Vivienne was exploring it.

  2. More shopping for me! This one sounds really interesting...

  3. I like your review about this book, because it makes me think about these issues.
    But I have to recognize that the rape fantasy makes me very uncomfortable when I find it in a book. Although I've read that it's a fairly common sexual fantasy and that a) it's not real rape because in the fantasy things happen in a different way from real rapes; and b) it doesn't mean that the person having this fantasy really wants to be raped... It makes me uncomfortable nevertheless and I prefer not to find it in my books.
    After reading your analysis, I womder if I should read this book before judging it. But at the same time, I'm aware that I'm not the public for this kind of story.

    1. I hear you, Bona. I'm not fond of the rape fantasy at all, either. In fact, I kept putting off reading this one, despite the interesting things I heard about it, because of that reading preference.

      I'll be interested to hear what you decide...