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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.