In the wake of ubiquitous popularity for The Book That Shall Not Be Named, the reality that women do experience – and even enjoy! – sexual fantasy has collided with far more than 50 shades of judgment about who, what, where, when, why, how, and whether that’s okay. Last week, Leigh at AAR wrote a blog post detailing her concerns about the real life relationship messages conveyed in Romance novels’ treatment of sexual force scenarios. Sandy Coleman went even further, invoking the “slippery slope,” Stockholm Syndrome, and insisting that “It’s dangerous for readers to be comfortable with forced seduction. Or date rape.” As debate ensued over whether such sentiments blame women for rape and shame them for their sexual fantasies, Ridley summarized her opposition to Leigh’s and Sandy’s concerns by arguing that “Women still can’t be overtly sexual beings without being judged for it. Rape themes in romance continue to be a way to work with and around this.”
After the haze of red cleared from my vision, I started thinking about how frustrating these discussions often are for me, in large part because I don’t find the framing all that helpful or illuminating. Some version of the following arguments appears in almost all of these discussions (and I have certainly been guilty digging these holes, myself):
- Adult readers can tell the difference between fantasy and reality;
- Books both reflect and instruct, and because they instruct, we need to be conscious about the messages they send and we imbibe;
- Because women are writing these books, and women are primarily victims of violent sexual crimes and domestic violence, we have a higher level of responsibility for conveying the “right” messages, especially to impressionable girls & young women
So for the sake of argument, I want to start by accepting a version of each of these arguments to be true:
- In the overwhelming majority of cases, adults know the difference between fantasy and reality;
- Words are powerful, stories are powerful; therefore, books are powerful. They affect us in our real lives. As cultural artifacts, they are identifiable within the cultural paradigm shared by authors and reader, which means that they can both perpetuate and challenge dominant ideologies’
- As women raised in primarily patriarchal societies, we absolutely help to socialize each other to survive and thrive within the patriarchal paradigm. We are almost always operating from inside the paradigm, and because paradigm shifts of this magnitude take a long time to occur, at some point we’re all complicit in sustaining the dominant paradigm.
So with all that on the table, let me propose we re-frame the discussion for a moment. Let’s start from the idea that books can powerfully affect readers and that real life rape and battering are horrific experiences that no psychologically sound person desires.
From there, let’s take a quick look at the concept of the submission fantasy, of which the rape fantasy is part. Although I’m not the biggest fan of Psychology Today, this brief article by Michael Castleman points out that in 35 years of research, only 9 major studies had been conducted. To those, I would add the work of Nancy Friday, who, though not a social scientist herself, has written numerous books and amassed an impressive archive of erotic fantasy archives, of which submission fantasies remain the most numerous. As she notes in her most recent book, Beyond My Control, when she first wrote My Secret Garden back in 1973, there was widespread backlash to the idea that women even had sexual fantasies. And yet, as Friday has shown in her almost 40 years of research on the subject, there is something primal about sexual fantasy, something that is so real that it seems to exist coherently only on an experiential level.
Clinical research seems to back this up. As the 2009 study, “The nature of women’s rape fantasies: an analysis of prevalence, frequency, and content,” concludes, we know far less about the purpose and meaning of these fantasies than their ubiquity (researchers have measured between 31% and 57% of women, with speculation that the number could be higher, with some women reluctant to disclose) and their diversity (recorded on an “erotic-aversive continuum”). We know that women who have been raped experience submission fantasies, and while some research (namely Bivona and Crinelli’s study) indicates that women who experienced rape might be more inclined toward aversive fantasies (i.e. fantasies that are less arousing or involve more pain), others continue to experience the fantasy as erotic and enjoyable.
In Beyond My Control, Friday relates the story of one woman for whom erotic submission fantasy has been “therapeutic.” The woman, identified in the book as “Melly,” goes so far as to say, “I suggest fantasy for any women who has been raped.” Consequently, the persistent belief that women who enjoy rape fantasy are not the same women who are raped is just not sustained by either the qualitative or quantitative research. Which, again, supports the absolute lack of understanding we have about the source of these fantasies or any systematic conclusions about the work they do – psychologically, physically, culturally, etc. Friday has long argued that the sexually “forbidden” is always most arousing, and that submission fantasies are about “[r]elinquishing power in a world that offers so much.” She stresses that while the fantasies themselves may be beyond the woman’s conscious control, at some very fundamental level, the fantasizer exercises absolute control over the terms of the experience.
That paradox is evident in numerous textual expressions of the fantasy, as well, especially in Romance where the author is literally exercising absolute control over the construction and execution of the “fantasy” scene. In this sense, the fantasy is deliberately created, so it differs from the primal erotic fantasies chronicled by Friday and others. However, textual representations can trigger a fantasy response in the reader, which is where much of the controversy surrounding forced sex in the genre hovers. Even if submission fantasies are spontaneous and, at the very least, value neutral in their seeming naturalness (that is, as natural as anything can be within our cultural paradigm), textual representations are deliberative and artificial. In other words, fantasies themselves may be uncontrolled responses, but the writing process is not.
This is the point at which I think a huge leap is often made, namely, that if texts are deliberately constructed, and they are also socially and culturally coded, that the reader is similarly being encoded during the process of reading. For example, books that reward a heroine for staying with a hero who rapes her could be telling the reader that they should tolerate male violence. And the more we read these kinds of scenarios, the more desensitized we become to the idea of violence against women, and the more likely we are to let violence against women go unaddressed. The problem is that this conclusion assumes facts not in evidence.
Extending the pseudo-legal analogy for a second, think about legal and cultural attitudes toward real life rape and domestic violence over the past 30 or so years. Rape laws have become stronger and less dependent on the physical resistance of women for conviction. Sexual harassment laws have become much more inclusive and far-reaching. And in the field of domestic violence, research has finally shifted from the victims – about whom virtually no consistent pattern or list of common characteristics could be discerned – to the perpetrators. For those of us who were raised with the idea that you could make yourself look or act like a victim, these shifts are substantial, if not complete, and they do not suggest a “softer” attitude toward violence against women. And in regard to The Book That Shall Not Be Named, we are seeing women talk publicly and in mainstream media about their fantasies in unprecedented ways, declaring that they refuse to be shamed for something they find pleasurable.
This is not to say that we should not question portrayals of violence against women, that we should not be individually and collectively be discussing, debating, disagreeing, and generally digging deep into the complex dynamics of the stories we tell ourselves. However, prescribing uniform readings and interpretations is another matter. Consider the US Supreme Court justices, who represent, ideally speaking, the pinnacle of understanding in regard to legal history, jurisprudence, and case law. Even among these few highly educated and trained lawyers, there is extreme disagreement in regard to the intention, meaning, and purposeful implementation of the Constitution. How could it be any different when we’re talking about reading fiction?
For all of those who went through college sometime during the past 30 years, reader response theories have informed our literary education. Simply speaking, reader response is a categorical term for theories of reading that focus on the interaction between reader and text. There are many theories that can be classified under this umbrella, and they cross multiple disciplines. Researchers at the University of Alberta have been conducting empirical research on reader response theories, and they have posted numerous online resources on their work and results to date. But one of their premises is particularly applicable to this discussion, namely,
We think literary reading may involve some distinctive psychological processes not found in other kinds of reading. If we contrast reading a newspaper article or a textbook with the reading of a novel, we believe that readers’ feelings are not only more important in the context of a novel, but that feelings play a critical role in the constructive processes that enable a reader to sustain her reading and make it meaningful as a whole. Our theory of reading is thus based on trying to understand feeling rather than cognitive processes. Although cognitive components such as imagery or memory are clearly essential, these are controlled and shaped by the reader’s feelings. Feelings are important because they engage the reader’s sense of self. Reading a literary text involves exploring and perhaps questioning the self, although readers may generally be unaware of this underlying process while reading.
Their focus on emotions and on “the reader’s sense of self” is important, I think, because it brings the focus back to the individual process of reading and interpretation of meaning and significance. In Romance fiction, particularly, the emotional aspect of the experience is forefronted in the structure of the stories themselves, personalizing the experience even more. There is a degree to which we share experiences, perceptions, and constructions of meaning; however, there is a level of experience in reading that exceeds our ability to explain or even articulate the way any of us responds to a particular book. So taking the leap from the personal experience of a book to a universal truth is always problematic, because it assumes a universal way of reading and an undifferentiated sense of self among readers.
This is not to say that textual representations are not – to any of us at a given time – problematic. Nor does it mean we should refuse to problematize them and subject them to the scrutiny of analysis. Shared analysis can be even more illuminating, because individual readers not only measure their own responses to a text, but those of other readers who may have extracted meaning in an entirely different way. For example, women writing, reading, and discussing Romance fiction within a patriarchal cultural context can affect our conscious thought processes. How does it affect our unconscious processes? Can a book force a seduction on its reader? If anything is “dangerous,” perhaps it might be making universally shaming prescriptions (and proscriptions) about how fictional narratives speak to any of us.
Why dangerous? Because it conflates reading as a shared activity and reading as a personal activity. Because it folds reality into the experience of the book in a way that might not be accurate, certainly not for the totality of readers. For example, I did not read Anna Campbell’s book Claiming the Courtesan in the context of Stockholm Syndrome. For one thing, I think the term is overused and often misused. It is a very specific phenomenon, and one of its characteristics is the lack of awareness and/or understanding the captive has about his/her feelings toward the captor. And yet Verity wonders extensively about her feelings for Justin, as do many Romance heroines who are engaged with heroes who make them suffer in one way or another. My “reality” of that text is much different. The text is necessarily an incomplete map of objective reality, because it cannot anticipate every interaction between itself and its readers. Moreover, the reader not only has the ultimate power to consent (or not) for the heroine, but she also has the ability to analyze and respond to the textual representation, creating yet another layer of symbolic distance from “real life.” And in the case of sexual fantasy, what the reader experiences at that level is not necessarily a literal translation of what occurs in the text, as readers of The Book That Shall Not Be Named have demonstrated in conversations about the differences between the (faux) BDSM in the book and their own submission fantasies.
Even the context in which we read makes a difference. As a student of 19th C sentimental and sensational fiction, I have read numerous books in which the “virtuous” heroine who is attracted to the rake suffers sexual degradation, social ostracism, disease, and often ignominious death. By contrast, the Romance heroine who falls in love with the rake gains happiness, often wealth, social acceptance, and, often, a loyal and faithful romantic partner. Two different faces of patriarchy, but are they equivalent? Could the Romance version be viewed – under particular circumstances – as more sex, love, and power positive for the heroine?
So yes, I believe that texts have power, that they convey and reflect socially and culturally conditioned messages. So does everything with which we engage emotionally and intellectually. I do not personally know one woman, for example, who has been untouched by male violence, even indirectly. We learn that men are capable of danger and violence, and, as women, we know we can be vulnerable to that in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish violence and sex. So is it any surprise that in a world made unsafe for women by men that women might find ways to rewrite that story? Is the textual recreation of that story problematic? Perhaps, but I would argue that it’s a problem that will never have only one solver, nor one solution. Which, like the submission fantasy itself, is what makes it so potent with possibilities, and so fundamentally and stubbornly resistant to literalization.