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.
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)
"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?
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