There are many things that it would be wrong, illegal, dangerous or crazy to do in reality but which we enjoy thinking about doing in ways that are innocent, kindly, safe and very sane. This is very familiar outside of the sexual arena.
As a child one might have enjoyed imagining going to the South pole, wrestling and then making friends with a polar bear, adopting a pet penguin with a broken wing, feeding it chocolate cake, getting trapped in the worst blizzard of the century (for one and a half minutes), then spending the night (another 37 seconds) in a cosy, dry igloo before getting rescued by some outlandishly dressed but charming pirates cruising past in their four masted, nuclear powered, ship in search of a youthful captain. In the real world this would be by turns horrific, impossible, dangerous and in breach of maritime law. But in our heads it is lovely. Make believe is so enjoyable because it takes a scalpel to experience and cuts away everything that would be genuinely awful in the real world.
We understand make-believe when we read novels. It can be delightful to curl up on the sofa, munch a toasted sandwich and imagine being a cold-blooded hitman, an alcoholic spy in the process of betraying their country, the narcissistic, luxury-addicted mistress of a provincial French doctor, a power-obsessed tyrant or a member of a disorganised gang of drug-traffickers. As we enjoy these things we don’t worry that we’re about to turn into the character for real. We’re very good at seeing the difference – and the many safety-guards in our minds and in our society that make it impossible for us to do, or even to want to do, these things for real.
After a long, sensual soak, you are lying on the bathroom floor, touching yourself and getting more and more turned on. What if a thuggish character climbed through the window, aching with aggressive lust? They’d not care what you wanted or felt, they’d seize you roughly and force themselves on you; you wouldn’t be able to do anything; you’d try to scream but they’d clamp a hand forcefully over your mouth; you’d try to struggle free but they’d have your arms pinioned behind you. Your brain is on fire with excitement as you edge towards orgasm.
But once this story is finished, you might be struck by a wave of guilt and self-disgust. How could you get excited by this thing which in actual life would be abhorrent? When – sickeningly – you hear that anything remotely like this has happened for real you feel a savage anger and hatred towards the perpetrator.
But fantasising about being raped is profoundly different from the appalling reality. At any moment you could flick a switch in your mind (or just get distracted by noticing a cobweb on the ceiling) and the mirage would vanish. The character in your mind has no life or volition of their own, they are entirely your own creation. The nice things about being overwhelmed and giving up control and being forced are cut cleanly away from the horrors that would accompany them in the real world. The fantasy has nothing to do with sly approval or encouragement of sexual crimes (no more than enjoying a film about someone who wants to blow up the world means you secretly want the planet to explode).
From the other side, imagining forcing oneself on another person can be exciting precisely because one is so intensely conscious that it would be totally wrong (not to mention deeply traumatic) to do this for real. Imagining being wicked does not on its own suggest one has any desire at all to really do awful things. In playing this out with a partner one is entirely reliant on the fact that they are having a great time and if for a moment one even suspected that they were not deeply excited and thrilled, it would be a complete turn off. This is the diametric opposite of the mentality of an actual rapist for whom it is decisive that their victim is unwilling and unhappy.
Fantasies around rape gain much of their excitement because they provide a relief (in imagination) from caring so much about other people. Caring too much kills desire, because it makes us preoccupied with being nice to the other person which is at odds with the sources of sexual excitement. The erotic charge of the fantasy does not reveal that deep down we are callous to the suffering of others. On the contrary it depends on the profound, extensive commitment we already have to the welfare of other people. It’s because we normally care so much that it’s occasionally exciting to cast off this attitude and briefly imagine ourselves as cruel and heartless.