I’ve followed Covenant Eyes blog for a long time and have seen lots of good stuff written there about pornography addiction. It’s a real issue, and is debilitating to many people. However, I take growing exception to the line of reasoning they use against pornography itself. I’m not going to argue one way or another about the morality of pornography here. Instead, my beef is with the way they argue. I just don’t think it’s very compelling when you take into account what we now know about how the mind works with regards to sex and sex fantasy. I feel like I’m being forced to throw out very plain sense conclusions from cognitive psychology in order to just jump on the morality train.
One of the recent articles embodies this. It’s entitled “Bringing Rape Culture to Light.”
The article doesn’t seem to follow any type of syllogism, so here is what I considered the thesis portion of the article:
For a moment, take these statements at face value:
- Normal porn decreases rape rates, but increases cultural tolerance of rape.
- Violent porn increases the likelihood of using violence or coercive measures.
- Early exposure to porn increases the likelihood of using violence or other coercive measures.
Now consider the known neurological impact of habitual porn viewing. The viewer is never satisfied with one image. Rather, as the brain becomes inured to a certain type of image (“soft-core,” consensual porn, for example), it increasingly requires more variety, which usually plays out in more sexually deviant materials, such as BDSM or rape porn.
Will everyone who views porn eventually get to child pornography, the lowest of the low? Certainly not. But if the seeds of addiction are planted in youth exposure to porn, and if 90% of boys are exposed to pornography before age 18, then it is likely that sexual violence will begin to rise…and at the same time, the victims will be blamed and the perpetrators protected. In fact, this attitude is already being adopted by high schoolers (see also “slut shaming,” or using someone’s private photos to brand them as promiscuous.)
–Lisa Eldred, Covenant Eyes Blog [links preserved]
The argument seems to be that porn desensitizes the mind to sexual violence over time. So, the earlier this process starts and the more widespread it becomes, the more likely it is that sexual violence will increase since the process will be given longer to proceed over a wider public body.
(If I’ve mis-characterized her argument it was certainly a mistake and I’d welcome a correction.)
She describes the “most chilling” example of this:
Perhaps most chillingly, in a study of 187 female university students, researchers concluded early exposure to pornography was related to subsequent “rape fantasies” and attitudes supportive of sexual violence against women. If the rise in porn has been correlated with a decrease in rape, then it’s possible that this is simply due to women themselves believing forceful coercion to be okay or normal.
Firstly, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any woman that actually “believe[s] forceful coercion to be okay or normal” in any area of life – not just sex. I don’t find this to be a compelling premise at all. Outside of random freaks in the news, who thinks being harmed or coerced is actually okay? If her argument leads to such a conclusion that defies logic then I’m skeptical of the whole line of reasoning.
Moving on, I wasn’t able to get a copy of the study she’s citing. It appears to be behind a pay-wall. But, I am immediately skeptical of the use of the term “rape fantasy” without disambiguating the word rape. To someone who isn’t familiar with the phrase “rape fantasy” in the way a psychologist would use it, it seems shocking. How could anyone have a fantasy of raping or being raped? Especially women themselves. Let’s explore this.
To start with, rape fantasies always need to be categorized. Some studies have broken them into 2 distinct types, while others have placed them on a continuum. This study of 355 college aged women (78% of whom were self-identified Christians) from 2009 concluded that such fantasies fall on a continuum with 3 broad types: exclusively erotic, erotic-averse, exclusively averse. Each one of these types are very different in tone and meaning – even though they all fall under the category of “rape fantasy.” The study explains:
As rape includes the use of force or incapacitation to coerce sex against a woman’s will, rape fantasy also includes each of these components. In this sense, rape fantasy is a behaviorally accurate descriptor for these types of fantasies. At the same time, this terminology can be misleading, as it may connote a realistic depiction of violent stranger rape, which in reality is not typical of most actual rapes (Koss & Oros, 1982). In addition, many rape fantasies are not realistic depictions of rape. They are often abstracted, eroticized portrayals that emphasize some aspects of actual rape and omit or distort other features (Kanin, 1982).
…results indicate that wording of rape fantasy items does make a difference. In this study, 52% of the sample reported having the fantasy, “being overpowered or forced by a man to surrender sexually against my will,” whereas only 32% reported the fantasy, “being raped by a man.” This 20% discrepancy could be partly due to the stigma related to the word “rape,” with some women not wanting to put their fantasy into this category even if it technically fit the criteria.
The study found that 45% of such fantasies were “completely erotic” in nature. This is how they describe it:
Erotic rape fantasies. Of all the rape fantasies written, 45% were completely erotic. In a large majority of these fantasies, the non-consent was feigned or token (85%); and in over three-fourths, the self-character’s level of consent changed during the fantasy from resistant to willing (77%). An informal evaluation of the erotic rape fantasies revealed that a “not right now” prototype scenario came up frequently. In this scenario, the self-character was excited by the idea of the potential sexual interaction but expressed non-consent for reasons, such as a fear of getting caught or not wanting sex with a forbidden partner (e.g., friend’s boyfriend).
In a large majority of erotic rape fantasies, the nonconsent was feigned or token (i.e., not a real attempt to end the sexual interaction in the fantasy).
The perpetrator in these fantasies was rated as highly physically attractive, more attractive than the perpetrator in the aversive rape fantasies. In nearly one half of the erotic rape fantasies, the perpetrator was perceived as being driven either by his physical or romantic attraction toward the self-character.
A majority of these fantasies were a positive experience for the fantasizer, and this positive reaction was more common for erotic than for the other types of rape fantasy. As these were erotic fantasies that were self-rated as not at all aversive, it is not clear why the percentage of those reporting a positive experience was not even higher. It may be the case that when the reaction here was not positive, this may have been due to guilt from having a fantasy that seemed socially inappropriate.
A further 46% of the women in the study had what were called “erotic-averse” rape fantasies. These are fantasies where there were elements of fear and eroticism both, and the willingness changed to, or from, un-willingness during the fantasy.
The amount of women that had completely fearful (i.e. almost realistic) rape fantasy was only 9%.
All of this presents a much clearer picture than simply using the phrase “rape fantasy,” which is obviously misleading, even if technically accurate. It would be more accurate to categorize the nearly half of such fantasies that are completely erotic as “aggression” fantasies or “ravishment” fantasies. And, it comes as no surprise that such high numbers of women (even, maybe especially, amongst Christians) have such fantasies. While it is often remarked upon how “over sexed” our culture is – that really only applies to the pseudo-world of media. The average person doesn’t feel over-sexed at all. Instead, most people feel sexually repressed. Especially women.
Most women in our culture grow up with a lot of guilt about their own sexuality. Especially in the Christian world, women are expected to be borderline androgynous. And, they are made to feel shameful for their own sexuality. It’s not surprising that a young woman under this burden of guilt would resort to such a “not my fault” fantasy as a way to justify an enjoyment of sex that seems forbidden. She certainly didn’t create such a fantasy through a conscious processing of the information. That’s not how fantasy operates. The fact that the aggressor in these fantasies is usually “highly physically attractive” and driven by intense desire for the fantasizer provides the fuel to temporarily overcome those feelings of shame and allow pleasure to happen.
The higher the shame and guilt level, the more drastic the fantasy has to be in order to get over the threshold to pleasure.
Rather than being disturbing, it just seems normal. It’s the way you would expect a mind to work. Have you walked through the romance section at the bookstore lately? It’s not small. And there’s a whole lot of ravishment going on, on those covers. Heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? It didn’t become the best selling book of all time because of a “rape culture” or moral depravity. It’s because of moral desperation on the part of millions of women(and men) to overcome sexual guilt and shame. We seriously need to stop judging and policing people’s minds in this way. Stop being threatened by fantasy, which is by definition not real.
Michael Bader says it this way:
The function of sexual fantasy is to undo the beliefs and feelings interfering with sexual excitement, to ensure both our safety and our pleasure. Our fantasies convince us that we’re not going to harm or betray anyone, and that if we get fully aroused, no one will suffer.
Sexual fantasy, then, has the challenge of surmounting these emotions in order for excitement to take place. Because shame and rejection are common experiences, many common sexual fantasies function to negate them. Characters must be drawn, details chosen, scenarios plotted, and roles defined to this aim.
It is an extraordinary testament to the creative and adaptive capacity of the human imagination that it is able to weave together exactly the right story to overcome obstacles to arousal. Getting turned on involves transcending the past, counteracting dangers, disconfirming beliefs, undoing traumas, soothing pain, and finally, finally, laying claim to pleasure.
–Dr. Michael Bader, Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasy
When seen from this lens, the fantasies that Lisa Eldred is so worried about do not constitute the beginning of an acceptance of sexual violence in society. And trying to suppress them just seems cruel. When the mind works so hard to finally overcome obstacles to pleasure are we just going to heap on more guilt? These women feel robbed of sex already. Are we now going to rob them of their fantasies as well? Is it necessary to eradicate every vestige of sexual pleasure – even from their minds?
So, what are my take-aways from this? What am I trying to say? Three things:
- The presence of a “rape fantasy” does not mean that a woman wants to be raped, or that she thinks rape is ok. It is more likely that it simply means she wants sex without the shame and guilt that she feels unable to escape. That is a rational thing to want.
- The fact that so many women have rape fantasies is not an indictment of these women. It’s an indictment of the Victorianism that is rampant in our culture, and the church in particular. Shame and guilt are not required for a healthy sexual outlook.
- Pornography is not a cause of sexual dysfunction. It’s the mind’s attempt at a solution. It’s being used as a tool to overcome a mental feeling of helplessness over the shame and guilt people feel for having sexual desire in a very sexually repressive culture.
The three things she wanted us to take at face value only work on a purely mechanistic model. They also seem somewhat contradictory:
- “Normal porn decreases rape rates, but increases cultural tolerance of rape.” – How can an increased tolerance of rape and a decrease in actual rape be caused by the same thing? And, even if that were the case, why does rape tolerance matter if actual rape decreases? Targeting attitudes toward rape over rape itself is akin to political correctness and hate-think legislation. What ultimately matters is whether actual rapes decrease.
- “Violent porn increases the likelihood of using violence or coercive measures.” – It seems more plausible that someone inclined to view violent porn brings his or her violence with them, rather than getting it from the porn. Such people have a history of childhood trauma that drives them to such material. Michael Bader’s work has shown how this operates based on actual clinical cases.
- “Early exposure to porn increases the likelihood of using violence or other coercive measures.” – I never saw her prove this outside of an appeal to the rape fantasy study she refers to. But, we’ve seen that using “rape” fantasies as an indication of violence tolerance is misleading. The resistance involved in such fantasies is usually token. It’s an erotic device that serves the fantasy’s purpose.
It’s widely known (by those at Covenant Eyes especially) how rampant pornography usage is amongst men (and women increasingly) in the church. The ever-increasing nature of pornography addiction should be taken as a clear indicator that the way we handle sex overall needs to change. Simply indicting pornography and fantasy will change very little.
No amount of pornography is going to result in culture accepting rape as legit. Look at India, which is one of the oldest societies on Earth – and is literally the birthplace of pornography (Tantra, Kama Sutra). After thousands of years their people still rose up in outrage over the Amanat rape case last year.
So, I don’t believe that we live in a “rape culture” as Lisa Eldred put it. Instead, I believe we live in a sexual pressure cooker, where husbands and wives never talk openly about their sexual desires. They are too ashamed and fearful. In that milieu, it’s much easier to retreat to pornography than to risk the self-rejection that comes with being open and honest with one another. If that doesn’t change, pornography addiction will only get worse.