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Rape fantasies and knowing what's real

Rape porn is a very dangerous area - people shouldn't feel ashamed of their fantasies, but how do we tell the difference between fantasy and reality?

When it comes to rape porn, it's impossible to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Photograph: Getty Images

Friday’s Guardian announced the UK publication of a book 45 years after it was written. Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy “follows the sexual adventures of a woman who sleeps with both men and women, commits incest and murders a nun, and […] was considered at the time too shocking for readers.” Of course, it’s all different now, not shocking at all. Hard to imagine how repressive things were back when murdering nuns was illegal.

I don’t think much - or in fact any - of the porn I’ve seen is realistic, morally edifying and/or an appropriate template for long-term human interactions. I’m not sure whether this is particularly problematic. All the same, very recently, and particularly in light of the campaign to ban the ownership of rape porn, I’m starting to realise I have greater issues with some types of porn than I thought. I’m still cool with gratuitous nun slaughter, obviously, but it’s the other stuff that’s getting to me.

I hate feeling like this. It makes me feel a failure of a feminist, as though I’m aligning myself with arguments I don’t really support. I don’t hate all porn, I don’t claim to speak on behalf of those who work in the industry and I have no desire to police other people’s fantasies. To be honest, it’s not as though all my fantasies are particularly PC. Even so, the availability of porn depicting images of rape - which I always assumed were illegal up till now - terrifies me.

According to Nick Cohen’s in yesterday’s Observer, it’s incredibly difficult to demonstrate with any certainty that seeing images of staged rape prompts men to rape:

Sex offenders are more than eager to tell researchers that pornography turned them into criminals. They can shift the blame and refuse to accept responsibility. Psychological tests on the effects of sexual images on male aggressiveness are little better. Put crudely […] if a psychologist shows young men pornographic videos and then makes them answer questions instead of allowing them to go home to masturbate, those young men are likely to turn aggressive.

To be fair, it’s not as though this disproves a link. I’m not sure how much more proof we can expect to get if we’ve already decided not to believe sex offenders on the very basis that they’re sex offenders. Many of the comments that follow Cohen’s article make fatuous points about how viewers of violent films don’t generally go on shooting sprees immediately afterwards. That may be true, but I think porn is different. I for one have never “just” watched a porn film without going on to do something bearing some vague similarity to what the rude people on screen have just been up to. Isn’t that what it’s there for? It prompts an active physical response. Of course, you don’t literally copy what you’ve just been watching (thank god, otherwise I’d be banned from several offices and car repair shops) but it’s not a passive experience.

Within this, rape porn seem to me an especially dangerous area. Rape fantasies can be experienced by men and women, even rape survivors, and I think it’s important to stress that this shouldn’t become a focus of criticism. Why make people ashamed of their own imaginations? A couple of the Black Lace books I own contain rape fantasies, told from the perspective of the victim (with perhaps an odd kind of repositioning - and re-empowerment - provided through the narrative perspective and later responses). However, I don’t think rape fantasies excuse the proliferation of uncontextualised rape photographs that can be found online. There - confronted with real bodies in real positions - I don’t see how it’s possible to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if we lived in a world in which committing rape was always believed to be wrong, but we don’t. We excuse it all the time. Commentators always follow lines such as “of course, rape is an abhorrent/terrible/evil crime …” with a “but”. Some men rape in packs, recording the evidence, celebrating it. In such a world photographs of apparently “staged” rape can’t claim to be representing some outlandish fantasy or playacting that no one would ever dream of bringing into real life. The status of women is not so elevated as to make images of degradation and abuse shockingly distant from the truth. We’re just not there yet. Why shouldn’t young people see these images as merely another thing on the rape culture continuum? After all, it’s not as though they get a day off from it. It’s not as though for one wank session only, rape is allowed to be definitely wrong in real life but especially arousing because it’s just a weird forbidden thing. Rape is constantly normalised and half-excused.

Of course, I also worry that the pictures are not staged. How can we be sure they're not? What does it mean to a young person who finds them and responds to them - is it the crossing of a particular barrier, the start of complicity? And if there is the slightest chance that some are not staged, isn’t failing to criminalise possession of the images effectively protecting abusers and allowing them to profit from abuse? That said, I am unsure how criminalisation would work in practice. I imagine rape images would be renamed and if anyone were to start deciding what was and was not worthy of prosecution, he or she would err on the side of caution, hence creating a situation in which something only counted as a rape image if it “looked like rape” - something as meaningless as it is dangerous.

It seems to me, therefore, that as long as this type of porn exists - and I think whatever happens, it always will - we need to work especially hard at obliterating the everyday rape culture that persists. Regardless of what my children see online, I want them to have grown up in an environment that supports the belief that women are complete human beings and that sexual assault is always wrong. Irrespective of their own private fantasies, I want them to live in a world in which this is firmly the reality.

This post originally appeared on glosswatch.com and is reposted here with the author's permission