On Rape, Romance, and Empathy
This post will discuss rape and rape fantasies. It may be triggering.
When Jon Ronson’s galleys for “You’ve Been Shamed” were released, there was a line in it where he compared rape to economic loss, specifically the loss of a job. There was a firestorm of controversy that came out of this given more problematic statements from Ronson, but one thing that struck me at the time (and has stayed with me) was his clear lack of comprehension of rape as a fear for women.
One of the author’s sources, a female member of the infamous message board 4Chan, told him, “4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.”
Struck, Ronson contemplates this idea for a while before deciding, “I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.”
Robin and I talk a lot about paradigms and that it’s hard to understand another person’s point of view if you don’t understand their personal paradigm. It’s essentially nothing more than the proverb “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
In Ronson’s case, his greatest fear is apparently losing his job. I think he grasps on to this analogy because it is representative of an actual, dread inspiring event in his life.
First, economic loss in an uncertain time is realistic. Meaning that it is conceivable to the person whereas murder or even death is a more nebulous concept. Second, male identity is often measured around his net worth or, at the very least, his ability to make money. Take that away from a male and, generally speaking, you’ve eviscerated him.
“Being unemployed is actually one of the most difficult, most devastating experiences that people go through,” said Robert L. Leahy, director of the American Insitiute for Cognitive Therapy and author of “The Worry Cure.”
Research suggests that being unemployed doubles a person’s chance of a major depressive episode and that unemployment is also highly associated with domestic violence and alcohol abuse, Leahy said. Unemployment is also associated with an increased risk of suicide, often because of the link to depression, according to the Suicide Research and Prevention Center.
So here we have Ronson, to whom the idea of rape is as nebulous as death and dismemberment—something he knows exists but is as real to him as Thor and the Black Widow—trying to come to a better understanding of what it feels like to be subject to rape threats and comes up with economic loss.
Rape is so foreign to him as an actual threat that he has to reach and search for his own bogeyman to come to a better understanding, however weak it is. Ronson is getting there, though, because the loss of a job and the loss of the ability to earn money, when you’ve identified yourself as being a breadwinner, can be shameful and in our world, in this paradigm, being a rape victim is shameful. Hell, enjoying sex for women is shameful (or there wouldn’t be “slut shaming” or the “madonna/whore” complex).
It was a light bulb moment for me. No wonder comedians, particularly men, have no problem delivering the rape joke and then wondering why women fail to see the funny in it. No wonder men tell women to not be afraid when the women say that they are tired of being afraid. No wonder men scoff at the typed out rape tweets. After all, they are just insults and they’ve heard worse in the locker room from the guy next to them who doesn’t have any clothes on and could actually rape them. Actually no, they couldn’t because men have this feeling of invincibility. They are bigger and stronger and can fight off an attack.
Whereas women are taught that they are the weaker sex. They run “like a girl”, throw “like a girl”, fight “like a girl”. And the girl they are talking about isn’t Ronda Rousey. Moreover, women are taught that to enjoy sex, particularly with more than one partner, is shameful. We see this repeatedly throughout romance books where the good girl who doesn’t sleep around is elevated against the evil other women who spread their legs easily for any male who asks.
Women have been told to not wear certain clothes, make sure to not walk across parking lots and parking garages alone or beyond a certain time period, make sure you are always in well lit areas, make sure you don’t drink to much, make sure you are always with a trusted friend, make sure that just don’t leave your house. Ever.
If you have more than one partner, they can’t exceed the number of fingers on one hand excluding the pinky and the thumb. The thumb isn’t a finger after all. Too much sex is shameful (although there’s never any indication what too much is).
The message to women is that we are weak prey. And any time we are alone, there’s this apprehension that sneaks in. Is *this* the time?
I was reading a message board post about the rape fantasy and someone came on to say that no woman truly wants to be raped. What she wants is to be taken by force in a specific set of defined circumstances where she knows she will not be hurt beyond what she can handle at the hands of someone who is not there to degrade and hurt her beyond the limits of what she is willing to consent to.
In Lilah Pace’s book, Asking for It*, the main character is a rape survivor and she struggles with the fact that she fantasizes about being taken by force. Worse, she has her best sexual releases when she is imagining these things. But she never fantasizes about her attack. Instead it is of a different man and in ways much different than her actual attack.
*Note: Lilah Pace and I share the same editor, Cindy Hwang at Berkley, a division of Penguin.
When she finally does find someone who has the same kink as she does, the lines of consent are clearly drawn. And she wants nothing to do with acts that remind her of the actual attack, at least at first. The two parties engage in outright negotiations about where and when and how her fantasy (and his) will be fulfilled.
“What would it take to make you feel safe?”
I like that he asked this. But how do I answer?
Cut to the chase, I remind myself. Jonah’s blunt honesty is the only way to go. “I’d need you to wear condoms. Unless you want to show me your medical records.”
Jonah nods. “I can get those for you. Can you show me test results too?”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that Jonah also might be concerned about that. “Um. Yeah, sure.”
“No rush,” he says. “I don’t mind wearing a condom at first. Makes it last longer.”
My cheeks flush as I envision Jonah inside me, pounding me, going on and on and on without mercy—
Jonah must know what I’m thinking, because he tilts his head as if he’s relishing the effect he has on me. He murmurs, “What else?”
Another sip of wine steadies me enough to answer. “I wouldn’t want you to tie me up. Not the first time, anyway.”
He smiles. “I like that you’re thinking about the future. I’ll have plenty of chances to give you what you want.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me before today that Jonah might have been considering a onetime fling. Now that I think about it, that makes more sense than assuming we’d keep playing out this scenario. But I’ve wanted this too long, too much, to assume one night will be enough to get it out of my system. If Jonah’s the right partner for this fantasy, then we have a chance I don’t intend to waste.
Already I sense that one taste of Jonah Marks won’t be enough.
“Yes.” I meet his eyes evenly. “Assuming we decide we like it.”
“I think we will.” My God, his smile right now—it’s hungry, and animal, and I know he’s imagining having me. This instant. The knowledge shakes me in the best possible way.
His question to her is how she can feel safe within this forced-sex role playing fantasy. It’s the opposite of real rape where you are unsafe and not in control. In Asking for It, the lines of consent are so clearly and obviously drawn. But in other books, the lines of consent are more nebulous and I think those are the books in which authors have failed to adequately procured the readers consent on the forced-sex/forced seduction. This may happen because the authors fail to realize they are writing a forced-sex/forced seduction story or fail to articulate the boundaries of consent well enough for that particular reader.
Initially the scenes are fairly tame but they escalate throughout the book as trust grows between the couple. And Vivienne understands that she can say no at any time.
Because of the way the story is structured, the reader gives consent by way of Vivienne’s consent. Similarly in One Cut Deeper, the sadistic hero constantly pushes the heroine to find her limits, not for his sake but for hers. The heroine’s arc in One Cut Deeper is finding her own control. Vivienne’s is understanding that one violent sexual assault didn’t take hers away.
There’s probably nothing more confusing for a man like Ronson than the rape fantasy. He’s been told that just getting rape threats is enough to adversely affect the mental health of a woman. Yet, 60% to 2/3 of women (according to varying studies) have had this fantasy at one time. It’s mainstream enough that Sally mentioned it in when Harry Met Sally.
But it’s a fantasy about taking back control. It’s a role playing fantasy where one party who you know and trust is going to take you by force within a certain set of controls. In some ways, I believe the fantasy is about eradicating the base line fear that lurks in the back of many women’s minds any time they are alone with a stranger or if not eradicating it, reclaiming it. If I am okay with being taken by force, the line of thinking would go, then I can survive this.
Women have been shamed over certain fantasies, arguing that those consenting role-playing fantasies lend itself to confusion to the male population. By creating a shame surrounding the fantasy, by questioning its equivalence to actual rape, the critics are taking the control and power away from the women who enjoy it.
One researcher says the rape fantasy is about eradicating guilt associated with feeling sexual and the idea that a man would want them enough to transgress everything. Another researcher suggested that it has to do with childhood transgressions but no researcher knows for sure. How can they?
“What I can tell you is that rape fantasy fiction is just that: fantasy and fiction. For me, rape fiction is nothing like rape and maybe that’s why it is acceptable to me. It’s, for lack of a better word, romanticized. Even when it’s explicit and forced and violent, it is still fundamentally different from the actual experience, at least to me. When I read rape fantasies, I get turned on, similar to reading a regular sex scene but more intense.”
Robin talks about the rape fantasy here:
“Further, the rape fantasy, as a romanticized erotic interlude between the hero and heroine, will function as romantically successful, empowering, or liberating to the extent that the heroine and/or the reader responds to the incident and interprets/values its consequences within the context of the relationship and the story itself. For me, the key element in valuing these rape fantasies (sometimes referred to as forced seductions) is the extent to which the reader consents on behalf of the heroine, not only to the hero’s forceful taking, but also to the happy romantic ending that the couple share. Whether these incidents of sexual force are politically liberating or limiting in regard to female sexuality and patriarchal dominance is a distinct if related question, and one to which I will posit the answer as both.”
Rape very much is about control being taken from a person. It’s an act of power, cruelty and dominance. The forced-sex role play is about willingly submitting to the act with the full knowledge that the power to end it all exists wholly within the taken turning that person from victim into participant.
Lilah Pace’s book explores the psychological and physical and emotional journey of one woman’s rape survival and how she comes to terms with her own fantasies. One of my favorite parts of the book is where the therapist suggests to Vivienne that perhaps she’d have those fantasies regardless of her sexual past—maybe that is just how she is wired.
In the end, the important thing is that the rape fantasy is exactly that—a fantasy. Both the reader and the person who experiences the forced-sex role play in real life—has the power to turn off the fantasy at any time. The reader walks away from the book, the person who is the taken in the role-play can (or at least should be able to) give the safe word at any time and end the experience. It’s the ability of a woman to separate fact (rape) from fiction (role playing). The refusal to allow women to do this is an exertion of the male privilege paradigm over one where women have power and agency (not over men but over their own bodies and their own fantasies).
It’s fascinating that Ronson didn’t make the connection about sex, power, and shame when he contemplated rape and rape threats given that his entire book is about power and shame. The act and the fantasy are at opposite ends of the spectrum, maybe in two different paradigms and those two paradigms can’t co-exist until the push to characterize forced-sex role playing as shameful ends.
No doubt there are some who think that if a woman can fantasize about rape, then a man can joke about it. But the man’s joke is about exerting power over a woman in a violent, invasive manner whereas a woman’s fantasy is about reclaiming control, agency and power over her own sexuality.