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?

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

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

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR