I have fantasies about being ravished and that doesn’t make me a ‘bad feminist’. Perhaps that offends you, or maybe you agree with me, but however you react to that statement, know that it has taken a long time and a lot of work for me to be able to say it. In fact, I think I’ll say it again. My ravishment fantasies do not make me a bad feminist. I’ve had them throughout my adult life.
But, far from allowing myself to enjoy my fantasy world, for years I felt deeply embarrassed, not to mention guilty at what was going on inside my head. I worried I must be mentally unwell, or a bad person – certainly, a bad feminist. I’d tell myself I would never think about it again, that I’d be a proper feminist, and only have imagine having sex on a pile of militant lesbians, whilst reading the works of Simone de Beauvoir. And yet, thoughts of being held captive on a pirate ship, being tied up by faceless barbarians, or Khal Drogo ravishing me in the bushes as the rest of the khalasar looked on, continued to run through my tormented mind, sticking two fingers up to feminism as they went.
To make matters worse, I have been the victim of sexual violence. I felt so guilty about my fantasy world that I convinced myself I had no right to be traumatised when I was attacked. It was in counselling that I finally started talking about what happened, and where I learnt these kinds of fantasies are incredibly common, that fantasies are not wish fulfilment, and that it’s ok for me to explore and enjoy this part of my sexuality. I came to understand that these fantasies are not actually about abuse, they are about power and domination. Abuse and sexual violence, by definition, are not consented to, but you are always consenting to your own fantasy. No matter how rough things may get in your head, you are in charge of what happens. I felt relieved to hear this, but also angry at the misplaced guilt I had been carrying for years. I still get angry at the suggestion women are somehow letting the side down by exploring rough sex and sexual submission.
Author and Guardian columnist, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently posited the question ‘why are so many women writing about rough sex?’ While I am thrilled the question is being asked, I was deeply disappointed to find that the article concluded that women who write about rough sex have internalised misogynistic narratives, and that ‘the battle had been lost’. Needless to say, this is not what I see when I look at the prevalence of rough sex in fiction by women. I see women actually asking for what they want.
In Kristen Roupenian’s collection of short stories, ‘You Know You Want This’, for example, a woman tells her lover, ‘I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can. After you’ve punched me, when I’ve fallen down, I want you to kick me in the stomach. And then we can have sex’. Is this shocking? Yes. Is it violent? Absolutely. Is it a woman owning her fantasy, and telling her lover exactly what she wants in bed? Yes, it sodding well is.
According to research published in 2009, 62% of women have sexual fantasies in which they are forced into having sex against their will. A woman being able to articulate her sexual needs is not a bad feminist. Why are so many women fantasising and writing about rough sex? Is this the result of internalising our own oppression? No, it isn’t. Another piece of research carried out by the University of Kansas found that while women fantasise about sexual force a lot, ‘men had a higher preference for submissive fantasies than did women’. You read that right. Men fantasise about being dominated, roughed up and forced even more than women do. But, no one is scrutinising this. No one is suggesting men have internalised matriarchal narratives, or that they are losing a gender war if they write about a bit of slap and tickle. Why is this the case? Because women’s sexuality is shamed, politicised and critiqued in a way that a man’s never is. The truth is that fantasies about domination and submission are extremely common, for everyone. To suggest women shouldn’t be writing about this denies them sexual autonomy, and reinforces patriarchal narratives that a sexual woman is a bad woman.
In 2012, a team of psychologists from the University of Texas, led by Jenny M. Bivona, found that women ‘who were higher in erotophilia [positive attitude to sex], openness to fantasy, desirability fantasies, and self-esteem reported greater sexual arousal to rape fantasies’. Rather than viewing such fantasies as resulting from psychological trauma, repression or internalised misogyny, we should view them as the result of an openness to sex and fantasy in general. That women authors are now exploring rough sex in their writing, and showing female characters asking for the sex they want, does not mean feminists have lost the battle – it means we’re just warming up.