Why are a lot of women resistant to explore their sexual fantasies following sexual assault?
Lots of women have said that, after sexual assault, they are fantasizing about the man who actually attacked them, or about the space where they were attacked, and it really scares them. A lot of the time, they are fantasizing about the actual actions that occurred during the attack, so the feel and pressure of the touch are all playing into their fantasy, which is really disconcerting for them.
Why do you think these women are ashamed to admit that they are having these kinds of fantasies?
No matter what you fantasize about as a woman after sexual violence, there’s always some element of guilt, and that’s because to some extent, no matter what women do sexually in general, there is always an element of guilt, even if you take sexual assault out of the picture.
You are told that you have to be a perfect victim of a sexual assault; you have to be grieving all the time and wear black, or it hasn’t affected you – and if it hasn’t affected you then it can’t be a real assault. Because of that, there is such a massive stigma, especially in cases where women are fantasizing about the men who have attacked them.
Do you agree that submissive fantasies can reflect the recovery of eroticism from the effects of fear, or do you think it’s not that easy to define?
Drawing on a session at Café V on orgasm, there was a woman who talked about how the only way that she could orgasm was by actually imagining the attack. That tied into all sorts of guilt for her, but it was her way of being able to control her sexuality and reach orgasm again, while also processing what had happened. She figured that out herself once she’d been given a chance to talk about it and to air it, and as soon as she opened up, there were so many women who admitted to having had similar experiences.
How do you work through these fantasies with women to come to some resolution?
What is interesting is that these women have often gone through a lot of therapy, but have not spoken about their sexual fantasies there, because they felt as though that conversation was off limits.
There was a woman who felt massive guilt because she saw herself as the rapist in her sexual fantasies. Once her fantasy was unravelled, we realised that she wasn’t actually the rapist in the scenario at all – she was just more dominant during sex in her fantasies – whereas in real life she was quite submissive. Fantasizing about having the power in that situation was just her way of feeling in control. It’s a lot about women’s judgements of themselves, and once they broke things down for us, their initial judgements weren’t quite as accurate as they seemed to think they were.
So is being dominant the most common thread in these fantasies?
There are also a lot of women who have experienced sexual assault and then had very submissive fantasies. There’s a lot of guilt around that, which stems from women being told that if they’d said no louder, or done something different, their assault wouldn’t have happened, and they start to believe that. Telling yourself that you caused something to happen is just another way of trying to control what has happened to you.
Control and judgement are both huge factors here, and so-called ‘rape’ fantasies are often seen as a manifestation of women’s fears of being judged for being sexual – through being submissive in their fantasies, women shirk participation in their own desires. Do you think that holds any merit here?
For women who haven’t been sexually assaulted and are having ‘rape’ fantasies, a lot of it is about them feeling sexual, but feeling like they don’t want a share in the shame of their sexual feelings, and I think the same is true after sexual assault as well.
A common feeling after assault is that it’s your fault – that it happened because you were too sexual, and that makes you become ashamed of your sexual feelings. Submission fantasies can be a really logical psychological response to that shame: a submission fantasy allows you to remain sexual, but it doesn’t feel as though it’s your choice in your head, because you felt like your choices were bad ones before the assault. If you then enact the idea that you’ve been forced into a sexual situation, you relinquish any responsibility in having those sexual feelings.
There was a woman at Café V who was assaulted in her early teens. She was at the age where she had just started to fantasize sexually, and by complete coincidence, what she had been fantasizing about was actually part of her assault. Because of that, she felt like she had imagined her assault into being. Afterwards she had a lot of fantasies around being sexually assaulted. If you look at it logically, you can clearly see that she felt like being sexually active in her mind had brought the assault about, so then the way her mind was dealing with it was to remove the aspect of choice from her fantasies, so she could enjoy being sexual, without feeling any responsibility for it.
While submissive fantasies can be a space for women to relinquish responsibility and feel free to explore their sexuality without judgement, do you think these fantasies can also work as a way of reclaiming control over a situation?
I think firstly that a rape fantasy, by its very nature, is not a rape fantasy, because you’re consenting by fantasizing about it in the first place, and you have so much control in that. During a real life sexual assault, you have no say in what is happening to you. If it’s a so-called rape fantasy, then it’s completely in your control. What you’re doing is not fantasizing about rape at all; you’re just fantasizing about submission, because you’re consenting to everything you’re doing.
Women feel so much guilt over so-called rape fantasies, because we’re allowing a patriarchal voice to tell us that what we’re thinking about is actually a rape, when all you’re doing is being submissive. Simply by calling it a rape fantasy in the first place, we’re being told that what we’re thinking and how we’re thinking it is wrong.
By giving women the space to unravel these fantasies, you can see that they are actually about wanting to control what happened to them, rather than about fantasizing about the attack in particular.
Do you think the fact that these fantasies are described as rape fantasies is a way of keeping them stigmatised?
Completely. Calling them that is a way to make women feel inadequate about their sexual fantasies. It completely silences you because you feel as though you can’t talk about your thoughts openly, because they’re wrong. It’s like the only right way to have sex is how a man wants to have sex. I’ve heard about these fantasies from so many women, and yet individually each of them would never divulge them openly or publicly.
Women are very scared of being judged, both sexually and also after having experienced sexual violence. Society will tell us that we are not being judged, while also showing us through action that we are, and women obviously pick up on that. But I’ve found that once one woman admits to having a certain sexual fantasy and starts talking about it, every single woman in the group has something to contribute to that. A lot of women think they’re alone in their experience but they’re actually not. I think we need to be a lot less scared of putting things out there as women.
You can learn more about the My Body Back Project and its quarterly Cafe V Sessions here.