While rape and sexual violence remain an extremely taboo subject – particularly on college campuses – a recent Vice article suggests that women seek out extreme or violent porn at more than double the rate of men. The article cited a study wherein 62% of women surveyed, fantasised about forced sex acts. How should we – particularly men – look at this data, and what does it mean for our understanding of sexual violence and consent?
As the article mentions, trauma can sometimes be a factor in fantasies of an extreme sexual nature. Of course, it is wrong to suggest that all women with these fantasies are traumatised – rough or violent sex could merely reflect a perfectly normal shade of human sexuality. However, the article’s content makes it undeniable that trauma can be of particular relevance in such cases.
In the wake of traumatic experiences, individuals try to reconstitute themselves in a number of ways, of which confrontation is one. This entails discussing the traumatic experience and putting it into personal narrative, or alternately engaging with the experience through what psychologists call ‘performativity’.
The latter is of particular relevance here. In the aftermath of trauma, victims may feel compelled to repeat or perform their experiences so many times that they become comprehensible, non-threatening, and eventually banal. Freud discussed this in great detail, noting how the compulsion of victims to confront and repeat experiences could manifest unconsciously, in compulsive behaviour as well as in dreams. While this repetition can help individuals deal with traumatic experiences, its implications when applied to the issue of sexual assault are as obvious as they are ominous.
Rape is a terrible and horrific experience, particularly because it invalidates the humanity of its victims by reducing them to objects with the sole purpose of sexual gratification. In the aftermath of rape, some survivors show symptoms of ‘hypersexuality’, wherein they repetitively pursue causal sex with no meaning outside of the sex itself. Through the sense of ‘valuelessness’ this experience
entails, they can confront the traumatic experience and transform incomprehensibility into normality.
Survivors may also seek to replicate acts of violence in the same way. This can mean incorporating physical violence and verbal abuse into the bedroom but on a consensual basis. It can be speculated that through normalisation the trauma fades, and the symptoms of anxiety and depression disappear. But should we be eager to see victims internalise sexual violence in this way?
As a man, I am a bystander in this issue – yet, as with many other men, I am also directly involved. The question of how to deal with these issues has repeatedly confronted me, as with many other men, in the form of requests from partners to engage in specific, extreme acts.
I experienced one such case with a former girlfriend. Over the course of our loving, caring, and faithful relationship, the requests she made of me in the bedroom became increasingly extreme. We were like any other loved-up couple, and yet every day – often multiple times a day – that love meant verbal abuse, dehumanisation, physical violence, and more. Before I knew it, slapping, tying, and choking became as normal for me as they were for her.
At the time I never questioned any of this, or what it really meant. It is only later, after having split up, that I begin to wonder exactly what it means to treat the woman you love not as a human, but as a sexual object fit only for personal gratification – even though I was explicitly requested to do so. What does it mean about me that I eagerly accepted, with no real reservations?
I fear that the sexual acts we engaged in, although with informed and agreed consent, eroded the line between lover and abuser. I fear that I not only dehumanised my girlfriend, but that I also dehumanised myself. Yet from her perspective, none of this was even dehumanising – it was simply business as usual. To this day, I don’t know whether my partner was motivated by a previous traumatic experience, or mere preference, and I suppose that now I never will.
It is hard to say what we as men should do in these situations. We cannot make arbitrary presumptions as to why a partner might want to act out a dark sexual fantasy, nor can we judge or stigmatise those who may be motivated by traumatic experiences, such as rape survivors.
What we can say is that fantasies around rape and sexual violence are far more complicated than any statistic can show. There is no ‘true meaning’ to the rape fantasy. Behind each one of these statistics lie real human beings. They may be perfectly well-adjusted and happy, just as they might be psychologically scarred and traumatised. Everyone is different, and there is no singular answer as to why some women may fantasise about sexual violence.
What is important is that we consider the implications of acting out these fantasies, and how it affects us as human beings – both men and women – when we engage in consensual acts of dehumanising or violent sex.