In conversation with Ummni Khan -
Sado-Masochism in popular culture and the law.
Ummni is the author of a new book entitled
'Vicarious Kinks - S/M in the socio-legal imaginary'
A team of psychologists led by a woman has uncovered some
surprising findings on one of the most secret aspects of female
While almost everyone has sexual fantasies, previous research into
the subject has found between 31 and 62% of women have rape
fantasies. To be sexually aroused by such an imagined scenario
represents a psychological mystery. Why fantasise about a criminal
act which in reality is repulsive and harrowing?
To investigate these and other riddles at the heart of female
erotic fantasy, a team of researchers based at the University of
North Texas and the University of Notre Dame studied 355 young
A part of the research involved the participants being read a rape
fantasy scenario over headphones, to investigate how aroused they
In the study, published in the academic journal Archives
of Sexual Behaviour, participants were instructed to close
their eyes while listening and to try to imagine themselves as the
woman described in the narrative. This scenario was derived from
story lines typically found in much women's romance literature, so
it portrayed an erotic rape fantasy, rather than a literal
portrayal of actual assault.
This was the scenario: a male acquaintance is strongly attracted to
the female character. He expresses a yearning for sex with her, but
she's clearly unresponsive. He attempts without success to convince
her. When she continues to openly refuse, he overpowers and rapes
The female character is resistant throughout the interaction and at
no time gives consent. However, as the man is attractive and he
provides erotic stimulation, she does experience gratification from
the forced sex. The scenario places more emphasis on the use of
coercion than on the sexual pleasure.
The results of the study, (which also explored other sexual and
aggressive fantasies, self esteem, attitudes to sex and other
personality testing) are that 52% of the women had fantasies about
forced sex by a man: 32% had fantasies about being raped by a man:
28% - forced oral sex by a man: 16% - forced anal sex: 24% -
incapacitated: 17% - forced sex by a woman: 9% - raped by a woman:
9% - forced oral sex by a woman. Overall, 62% reported having had
at least one of these fantasies.
The team of researchers lead by Dr Jenny Bivona, based at the
University of North Texas found that overall, 62% of participants
reported having a rape fantasy of some type.
Of the women who reported having the most common rape fantasy rape
fantasy, ''being overpowered or forced by a man to surrender
sexually against my will,'' 40% had it at least once a month and
20% had it at least once a week. The authors conclude these results
indicate rape fantasies play a significant role in the sexual
fantasy lives of many women.
It's important to note that while headline writers may focus on the
fact women have sexual fantasies about coercive sex, this research
finds it's an occasional daydream, not a preoccupation. It would be
similarly unfair to tar men with the brush of an occasional fantasy
they may have. When these female fantasies are erotic in character,
the male protagonist is always described as highly attractive or
According to this study, entitled Women's
Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major
Explanations, a previous common psychological theory as to why
women should fantasise about rape or forced sex was termed 'sexual
blame avoidance'. This theory was about women avoiding taking
responsibility for sexual desires. The hypothesis argued that women
have been socialised by our culture to work hard at not being
perceived as promiscuous or overly sexual. For example,
stigmatising labels, such as ''tramp'' and ''slut,'' are invoked
which control or restrict female sexuality.
'Sexual blame avoidance' theory argues that, for some women
therefore, fantasies of consensual sex could generate self-blame,
guilt, and anxiety. So by letting the fantasy take the form of
rape, the woman in the fantasy is being forced to do something she
doesn't want to. It follows then she can't be blamed for the
occurrence of sex. In contrast to a consensual sexual fantasy, a
forced sex theme enhances sexual gratification by allowing the
fantasiser to avoid blame and guilt.
The results of this study found no support for this theory.
The authors of this new ground-breaking research concede that
'sexual blame avoidance' may have been true in the past when we
lived in more sexually repressed times, so it's possible that over
recent decades changes in attitudes to sex means the stress for
women of being viewed as overly sexual has disappeared. Now few
women appear to have rape fantasies to avoid blame from having
openly consensual sexual fantasies.
In direct contrast to 'sexual blame avoidance', is the 'openness to
sexual experience' theory. Instead of being driven by repressed
sexuality, this supposition is rape fantasies derive from a
generally open, tolerant and guilt-free attitude toward sex. It was
this theory which received the strongest support in this new
research by Dr Bivona and colleagues.
A notable finding is that women who reported being less repressed
about sex were more likely to have rape fantasies, but were also
more open to fantasy in general, more likely to have consensual
fantasies, and more likely to report a higher level of arousal to
Interestingly, the women who reported having frequent rape
fantasies were also likely to report having fantasies about
"overpowering or forcing a man to surrender sexually against his
Fantasising about being a stripper also predicted a tendency to
fantasise about rape. Another intriguing result is women who report
rape fantasies were more likely to have high self-esteem.
These results suggest that having fantasies about things we would
never endorse or choose to do in reality, are not necessarily signs
of psychological disturbance. In fact, according to this research,
women who have rape fantasies also tend to have more positive
attitudes toward sex, high self esteem, and more frequent
consensual sexual fantasies.
This study in no way condones or tries to justify rape, which
remains a violent and reprehensible crime no matter what the
research on sexual fantasy of either gender might turn up. While
some may even believe that publishing results such as these is
going to assist some rapists in justifying their actions, the
reality is these violent criminals are not scanning erudite
academic research searching for justifications for assault. The
editors and armies of academics who consider research submitted for
publication in academic journals such as Archives
of Sexual Behaviour also clearly believe this kind of
study deserves publication, and wider dissemination in the
Fantasy is a deeply problematic area for many people and for
psychiatry and psychology - why do some people convert strange
ideas into actual deeds - as in the case of Brievik the Norway mass
murder scenario - while others just enjoy their vivid, creative and
somewhat unusual imaginations without taking action. Why do various
individuals become disturbed about fantasies of which they don't
approve? As a result much psychosexual therapy involves exploring
and confronting the mysteries of sexual fantasy.
We don't yet know the answers to many of these questions, but this
kind of scientific investigation is assisting in our search for
Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London, Dr
Jenny Bivona graduated from the University of North Texas and now
works as a clinical psychologist.