Horror Movies and Rape Fantasies

I’ve wondered why horror-movie fans like myself enjoy being disturbed, and in researching the subject I was drawn to the somewhat related study of rape fantasies. Interestingly enough, research on rape fantasies and horror movie consumption, done independently of each other, point to similar conclusions.

Rape fantasies are common, but intuitively make no sense. How does one get pleasure from imagining a degrading assault on oneself? Most fantasies depicting something bad happening to the fantasizer are no more pleasant to imagine than to experience in reality. If I imagine getting in a car accident, it’s an unpleasant fantasy. If I imagine getting cancer, it’s unpleasant. If I imagine getting mugged at gunpoint, it’s certainly not arousing. But if I imagine getting raped (whether by a man or woman, given my flexible orientation), that can be a pleasant fantasy, even in the knowledge that it would be repugnant — or emotionally traumatizing — if it actually happened as imagined. Why is this the case?

Joseph Critelli and Jenny Bivona have outlined different theories which attempt to explain heterosexual female rape fantasies — that is, women who daydream, masturbate, or have sex with a partner while fantasizing being raped by a man. The gender/orientation bias is limiting, though some of these findings would seem to translate into other combinations (men fantasizing being raped by men, women by women, men by women) easily enough. As many as 20 studies conducted over the last 30 years show that between 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (between 9-17% say rape is their favorite fantasy), so again the phenomenon is a common one.

Before considering the theories, it’s worth noting two kinds of rape fantasies distinguished by specialists: erotic and aversive. Erotic fantasies involve an attractive and aggressive male whom the woman resists, but he overpowers and rapes her with minimal violence. Aversive fantasies involve a male who is usually older and unattractive, and who uses coercive and painful violence to terrify the woman — typically throwing her to the ground and ripping off her clothes while she fights desperately and futilely to prevent the rape. There is often overlap between aversive and erotic fantasies (9% of reported rape fantasies are aversive, 45% are erotic, and 46% are on a continuum somewhere between aversive-erotic). One might question making the distinction at all, since rape is rape, and real-life victims of “erotic” rapes are just as easily left traumatized as those of “aversive” rapes. But the distinction can be useful depending on which theory is being advocated to account for fantasies.

Here are the eight theories considered by Critelli and Bivona, plus another (#6) which they omit. I list them roughly in ascending order of explanatory power (worst first, best last), not necessarily shared by the authors of the article, and the numerical ratings on a scale of 0-5 are my own.

(1) Masochism. Rape fantasies are an expression of a woman’s innate desire for suffering and pain. The weakest theory on this list, (unless one is honestly prepared to claim that 31-57% of women are masochists), relying on dated psychoanalysis which assumes that rape fantasies are pathological. At best the theory accounts for fantasies of true masochists, who are few and far between. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(2) Male Rape Culture. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of male-dominated culture. Another weak theory. The idea is that women are conditioned by society to believe (or find attractive the idea) that they are unable to resist the advances of an aggressive male and should display vulnerability. Promoted in the ’70s by feminist Susan Brownmiller (see halfway down this post), who believes that rape fantasies are pathological. The glaring problem with it is that it ignores many strong-willed feminists who have rape fantasies (not to mention men who have fantasies of being raped by either men or women). Gender roles have changed dramatically since the ’70s, but rape fantasies remain consistent. Rape culture is real (especially in honor-shame societies), but it doesn’t explain fantasies like it does real-world rape. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(3) Blame Avoidance. Rape fantasies allow women to avoid blame or responsibility for expressing their sexuality. The most frequently cited theory. It states that women who are raised in sexually repressive environments and feel guilty about sex are prone to fantasize being taken against their will, thus absolving them of blame. Not only does the empirical data show no correlation between repression and rape fantasies, the theory has an Achilles’ heel: most women who have rape fantasies have just as many consensual fantasies, reducing the likelihood that they’re trying to “avoid blame” for expressing sexuality. This theory may have wide intuitive appeal, and is a politically correct way of explaining a controversial phenomenon, but like the above two needs to be removed from the literature as an explanation for rape fantasies. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(4) Openness. Rape fantasies are part of a woman’s generally open and accepting attitude toward sex. The opposite of blame avoidance: instead of being driven by repressed sexuality, other women are driven by libertinism. This one is as correct as blame avoidance is wrong: it’s true that women who engage in multiple sex partners, and/or seek out a variety of sex acts, and/or are bisexual, are more likely to have rape fantasies than other women. But this is descriptive and predictive rather than explanatory. It leaves unanswered the important question: however libertine a woman is, why choose a particular fantasy (rape) that would be repugnant if it happened in real life? Explanatory power: 0/5; descriptive power: 4/5.

(5) Desirability. Rape fantasies are a testament to a woman’s sexual power. The woman envisions herself as so desirable that a man will lose control and break the bounds of moral decency to have her, thus enhancing the woman’s self-esteem. While studies show that the need for desire accounts for some rape fantasies, they show no correlation between self-esteem (or body satisfaction) and rape fantasies. Also, as a general rule desirability seems artificial. Women can just as easily imagine themselves desirable in consensual fantasies. Why not fancy a man relentlessly pursuing her until she finally consents? Why is the fantasy of rape so essential to experiencing desire? Explanatory power: 2/5

(6) Reaction to Trauma. Rape fantasies are a way of gaining control over a real-life traumatic experience. This one isn’t on Critelli & Bivona’s list of eight, but Matthew Huston adds it. Since many masturbatory fantasies are attempts to transform early difficult experiences into pleasure, women who have been raped may attempt to master their trauma by taming the experience. This theory is based on the largest survey of sexual fantasies ever conducted, but also on more general observations about “early difficult experiences”, rape being one possibility. Explanatory power: 2/5.

(7) Biological Predisposition. Rape fantasies reflect a biological need to surrender to male dominance. Male dominance & female surrender is a basic pattern in the animal world, originating from primitive brain regions that have evolved to insure successful mating. This isn’t a predisposition to indiscriminate rape — which would have surely reduced the reproductive success of ancestral human females by making them vulnerable to impregnation by men with inferior genes — but rather to rape by a selected dominant male. This theory has something going for it, particularly for erotic rape fantasies (which involve an attractive male) but as with the male rape culture theory, it doesn’t account for those who have fantasies of being raped by women. Explanatory power: 3/5.

(8) Sympathetic Activation. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of enhanced sexual response owing to fear and anger. Increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension prepare the way for genital arousal and vaginal lubrication. As with biological predisposition, this is understandable: ancestral women who didn’t have an automatic vaginal response to rape would have been prone to penetrative injury resulting in illness and infertility, and would have less likely passed on the trait to offspring. For protective reasons, the emotions of fear and anger triggered by a rape can provide a “jump start” for sexual arousal. This is a promising avenue, especially for aversive rape fantasies (which involve high levels of fear), and has been confirmed by real-life rape victims who recount these physical responses, as well as the results of laboratory research showing surges of vaginal blood flow as women listen to descriptions of rape scenes. Explanatory power: 4/5.

(9) Adversary Transformation. Rape fantasies are an effective means of creating dramatic tension in a story that will ultimately have a positive ending. As in trashy romance novels (which account for 40% of paperback sales in the U.S., 54% of them involving the rape of the heroine) the woman/heroine envisions herself winning over her rapist in the end: having him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transforming his cruelty into love. The rape is a dangerous piece of excitement and momentary evil that she will prove capable of transcending, analogous perhaps to a man’s fantasy of being temporarily crushed by an evil foe. The theory is plausible, because people love to reinvent themselves in unrealistic fantasies. In this light, consensual fantasies can become mundane and boring, like novels and movies which lack dramatic conflict. Explanatory power: 4/5.

Again, the explanatory power ratings are my own, based on my understanding of the evidence. Most agree that the first three theories should be discarded for lacking evidence, and for assuming rape fantasies are pathological based on false correlations — that women are psychologically masochistic, socially conditioned to be abused, or sexually repressed. The fourth theory is largely correct, but doesn’t explain rape fantasies. The fifth and sixth theories account for some fantasies but not enough to serve as a general rule. The seventh makes sense but as an evolutionary theory is hard to test. The last two seem to have the best explanatory power, and are compatible with each other. Like the seventh, the eighth addresses biological desire, explaining how women can be inclined to surrender and become angrily aroused. But as William Saletan notes, in real-life that’s the body saying one thing while the brain is saying quite another. What happens in a fantasy that makes the brain agree with the body?

The ninth theory addresses that psychological desire: the need to reinvent ourselves in escapist narratives. Saletan prefers the fifth theory, but desirability doesn’t seem to require a rape scenario as much as adversary transformation.

The last two theories could be subsumed under a more general one: Rape fantasies owe to the paradox of being able to experience negative and positive feelings simultaneously. And this returns us to the subject of horror movies.

Horror movie consumption is almost as puzzling as rape fantasy. Why will people pay for (let alone fantasize about) emotional experiences that involve heavy levels of terror and depravity? Why do people (like myself) enjoy being scared and disturbed by such films? In a recent study, Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen provide an answer to this question. They start by addressing two traditional theories:

(1) Intensity. Horror-movie fans are actually not afraid or revolted by the movies they watch, only excited. One person’s terror is another’s excitement, in other words. But while it’s true that people are frightened at different levels and by different things — and can become increasingly desensitized to fear and disgust — experiments don’t confirm that horror fans aren’t generally scared by the films that excite them. (It’s certainly not true of me: I’m genuinely frightened by a good horror film, and the more fright, the more thrill.)

(2) Aftermath. Horror-movie fans are willing to endure terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end when the horror is alleviated. This sounds plausible, but as experiments demonstrate, the aftermath relief of horror-movie watchers isn’t as great as the relief experienced by people who avoid exposure. “Those who avoid the experience are able to attain the greatest award from it.” (p 36)

Andrade and Cohen suggest, instead, a theory of

(3) Coactivation. Positive and negative feelings can co-occur when people are exposed to aversive stimuli. Intensity and aftermath theories assume this is impossible, but experiments show that people can experience distress and pleasure simultaneously, especially when they feel secure in a safe environment. Horror fans are thus “happy to be unhappy”: the most fearful or repulsive moments of the film are also the most emotionally pleasant.

This squares with my experience. When I saw The Exorcist as a kid I was so frightened I was near traumatized, and yet I wouldn’t have stopped watching it. Recently I had a similar experience with Eden Lake. During parts of it, I got so uncomfortable I wanted to stop the DVD, but I also really wanted to keep going, and one feeling seemed directly related to the other. I can only describe these experiences as simultaneous assaults of terror and exhilaration, but never gave much thought to the science behind it.

As Andrade and Cohen explain, their findings don’t address exactly how the interaction between positive and negative affect comes about, thus leaving unanswered the question of why people are willing to consume negative along with positive feelings. Why not restrict oneself to purely positive feelings? Wouldn’t that be even more satisfying than a mixture of the two? They speculate as follows:

“One possibility is that negative affect represents a reliable source of arousal which can be continuously converted into positive affect, as long as people place themselves within a given protective frame… A second possibility is that coactivation and a certain level of uncertainty within a protective frame provides individuals with an overall more pleasurable experience than, for instance, a pure and predictable positive experience…in other words, experiencing mixed feelings within a protective frame may be more fun.” (pp 38-39)

These possibilities are confirmed by two of the most plausible rape fantasy theories we looked at: sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from bad feelings), and adversary transformation (dramatic excitement provided by bad feelings). So independently of each other, studies of rape fantasies and horror-movie consumption suggest similar things, though there is plenty more testing to be done in these areas.

Sympathetic activation and coactivation show the biological dynamics of bad feelings which produce — or convert into, or co-occur with — good ones. Adversary transformation points to the way we crave dramatic excitement in novels and films, and even reinvent ourselves in unrealistic (rape) fictions. And on this last note, let’s not forget David Livingstone Smith’s important lesson that human beings require strong doses of self-deception to stay mentally healthy.


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