And why SO many people have them.
One of the hardest presentations I've ever given was at a conference on treating sexual assault.
My presentation set the stage by inviting people to consider the broad range of sexual behaviors which fall under the concept of normal. In that context, I explored the issue of the female rape fantasy, how it presents in therapy, and its relation to the effects of assault.
During the presentation, I recall looking cautiously towards several women in the audience whom I knew were there as advocates for rape victims.
My hesitance was because I was presenting that the rape fantasy is exceedingly common among women, with as many as 25-40% of women having had some form of this fantasy at least once in their lives.
Some women who've experienced the tragedy of sexual assault go on to be tormented by tremendous psychological turmoil over sexual fantasies of rape and forceful sex. They describe being angry and upset with themselves, confused that they and their bodies are responding with sexual arousal to a fantasy similar to an event that was so traumatic and devastating.
Many people I've spoken to over the years have disclosed to me their personal fantasies of being forced to have sex, usually with embarrassment, shame, and fear.
They struggle over what this fantasy means about them as a person, as a woman or a man, and as a victim.
Women have told me they struggle with being a feminist, yet still getting aroused at the idea of being taken by a man against their will.
Here are 3 commonly believed myths about rape fantasies I believe do far more harm than good:
1. Victims of sexual assault who fantasize about rape are experiencing some form of mental pathology.
There is a general assumption among people, including advocates and therapists, that for a victim of sexual assault to fantasize about being violated there must be something wrong — this fantasy must reflect some pathological process.
I disagree. Given the prevalence of rape fantasies among women and men who have never experienced such events, sexual assault survivors may well experience rape fantasies independent of having experienced a traumatic event.
2. Fantasies of forced sex reflect the concept of "eroticization of fear."
Are such fantasies a way for sexual assault survivors to manage their anxiety by unconsciously turning their rape into a sexual situation? Perhaps, but I don't think so.
The situation they endured was already sexual in the first place. Though rape and sexual assault do contain much violence, there is sex there already, in the mind and body of both victim and offender.
Child victims I treat often a struggle as they enter adolescence and sexual development, because the "model" for sexuality they have encountered was often based upon assault. Perhaps, if anything, this fantasy reflects their recovery of eroticism FROM the effects of fear.
3. This fantasy by a victim represents "identification with the aggressor."
Again, I don't believe this to be true. In such fantasies victims rarely put themselves in the mind or place of the aggressor. Instead, they play the role of the victim, but in a manner in which they themselves are actually in charge — it's happening in their head, in their control, under the power of their imagination.
This can make for a powerful reclaiming of personal sexuality.
So what DOES the rape fantasy mean?
Lots of things. And perhaps, in that way, nothing at all.
Our society romanticizes rape and violence in complex and disturbing ways, from the Beast pounding on Beauty's door in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, to the contents of thousands of romance novels where women "swoon" and "succumb" to male passion and dominance.
Fantasies of forced eroticism may, in some cases, be the result of social programming.
Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill argues convincingly that rape has occurred throughout human history, and thus, these fantasies may reflect evolutionary adaptations.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has proposed that the fantasy of submission reflects a desire to escape from the burden of self, from the chore of being responsible and in charge of your own existence.
I don't believe that women in general, or sexual assault victims specifically, are retraumatizing themselves by revisiting these experiences and fantasies.
For many, I believe that, like any fantasy or daydream, it's a way for a person to mentally assert control over a situation in which they were powerless.
We must remember that the great majority of sexual assaults go unreported, that the majority of victims move forward in their lives, and labels such as "powerless" and "traumatized" may actually harm more than they help.
People do better when they move forward after trauma, maintaining a sense of personal autonomy and power — developing a narrative that they, not the event and situation, nor the perpetrator, are in charge of their lives and actions.
I suggest that sometimes clinicians have to pull back and give up our disease model thinking.
We shouldn't automatically characterize this fantasy as a symptom of an illness, resulting from a history of rape or sexual assault. Instead, we may need to consider the possibility this fantasy represents a normal, even healthy, attempt by a person to regain some control over their sexuality and the way in which their traumatic history affects them.
When such fantasies are distressing, we should help people to recognize that the more energy and attention they give this fantasy, the harder they resist it — like a Chinese finger trap — the harder it fights back and the more power it gains.
Ignore such fantasies. Dismiss them.
When they occur, if they are distressing to you, change your fantasy to something else, or get up and drink a glass of milk, and try again later.
Take a time-out.
After my presentation, one of the women I had been cautiously watching came up to me.
She had presented earlier the same day on her own experience as a victim of rape.
She hugged me, and thanked me for my presentation. She shared that she also had experienced such fantasies, and had struggled with them and her own reaction to them.
She told me my thoughts had helped her by giving her permission to free her mind, her body and her sexuality — and to stop tearing herself up over her fantasies.
I am so glad to give her one less thing to worry about.
This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.