The XX Factor

We Can’t Really Extrapolate Much From Sexual Fantasy

A bookstore in Paris

Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images.

Bryan, I reallly enjoyed your points about the realities of sexual power play and feminism. I  thought Katie Roiphe was attacking a straw-feminist throughout her piece, since by and large, most feminists I know (which are a lot!) are sex-positive and believe that it’s a sign of women’s growing power that they feel more entitled to seek out what turns them on.

All that said, what I found frustrating about the piece is that it’s predicated on an assumption that wasn’t demonstrated and is absolutely controversial, which is that there’s a correlation between increasing levels of power outside of the bedroom and desires for submission in it. Without accepting that premise, her piece really makes no sense, even though she tried to hedge her bets around that concern. The only statistic she cites regarding sexual submission—a Psychology Today estimate that 31 to 57 percent of women have “rape fantasies” (a term that makes me uneasy since these fantasies are rarely about wanting to be tortured and traumatized, making them much different than the fantasies of actual rapists)—just floats there with no frame of reference. Are those numbers higher or lower than in the past? We have no idea; she doesn’t say. That kind of statistic-keeping is relatively new, after all.

That said, there is one gauge Roiphe ignores that would threaten her thesis: the romance novel industry. It’s peculiar in a piece about the female sexual imagination to completely overlook the most lucrative industry in the country catering to lady fantasies. Of course, looking at the trends in romance publishing suggests two things that weaken Roiphe’s argument. In the past, the rape fantasy was the staple of romance novels, which followed a strict formula: nubile virgin, threateningly sexy man, a rape scene where the virgin gets initiated into sexual ecstasies without having to take responsibility for her own choices, and a wedding at the end to make good on all this sexy time. I was hardly an aficionado as a teen, but the formula was so set you could basically skip to the “good parts,” and past all that blather about love and social circumstances or whatever was established to make the whole thing seem less pornlike.

What’s changed is that women feel less need to apologize for their sexual desires than ever before, thanks to feminism. Therefore, the traditional structure of a romance novel has become out of date. So much of that structure was about making sure that the female lead could in no way be construed as a slut, lest the audience of self-diddlers at home starts to feel a little too guilty about indulging their erotic imagination. That’s why heroines couldn’t have sexual pasts, why they had to be married off at the end, and most importantly, why the initiation had to be rape, because that meant that the character didn’t do something slutty like actually consent to sex. Now, women don’t need a lot of not-a-slut reassurance with their porn, and the diversity in fantasies and character types in romance has exploded, especially in terms of female characters taking charge of their own sex lives. Using the trends in romance publishing as a guide, it would seem that the rape fantasy is actually losing popularity as women make gains in the real world.

Not that I put much stock in that one way or another. I think the most fundamental error Roiphe makes is in blurring the distinctions between what turns someone on in their own headspace, what they want from partnered sex, what they want from relationships, and what they want from life. These can all be very different things. Women who enjoy rape fantasies alone may find them repulsive if acted out. And women who want to be spanked in bed often would be deeply hurt if their male partners bossed them around in life. Of course, Roiphe largely ignored that men often have fantasies of submission, or of giving up control of their lives. I’m unconvinced sexual fantasies are that much different from other fantasies. The relationship between the imagination and the personality is far more complex than Roiphe was really allowing. I like horror movies, after all, but it doesn’t mean I want to murder someone. I’m unclear why we should be more literal when it comes to sexual fantasies.