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Barbara Kay: Rape culture vs. Rape fantasyland

For the lowbrow masses, Harlequin romances once served the insatiable appetite for 'bodice-rippers'.

I’m so old I can remember when Feb. 14 wasn’t Vagina Day, so named for the play, The Vagina Monologues, productions of which are mounted every Feb. 14 on campuses continent-wide.

Vagina Day co-opted “Valentines Day,” a nice occasion when it was customary for a man to give a woman candy or flowers as a token of love. (Nowadays a tradition-oriented but canny university student might think twice about the candy and flowers, wondering if retrospectively they’d be entered into evidence that he’d premeditated sexual assault.)

Celebration of the heart cannot coexist in harmony on the same day with celebration of the vagina. Unlike hearts, vaginas do not “love” or seek commitment. A vagina has no individuality. It has one function, pleasure, and one duty: giving or denying consent to being entered by an equally depersonalized penis. This is the sad, reductionist vision of female empowerment that obsesses radical feminists.

But just as the swelling hearts of Valentines Day and the swelling labia of Vagina Day present two different versions of womanhood, Vagina Day itself presides over two incompatible versions of vagina-centric womanhood: rape culture and rape fantasyland. Rape culture, largely confined to campuses, theorizes that all women are vulnerable targets for misogynistic male brutality. But out in the real world, rape fantasyland is a boom market response to the (embarrassing but demonstrable) phenomenon of women’s fascination with sexual submission to powerful, but pleasure-dispensing men.


How fitting it is, then, that the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey is opening on the very eve of Vagina Day. It’s almost as if rape fantasyland were exercising revenge on rape culture for what rape culture did to Valentines Day.

Rape fantasyland is a staple of literature. Standard rape fantasies in literature feature a young virginal woman of little power in willing or unwilling thrall to a man of superior class/wealth/influence/manly (high-risk) achievement. The trick to assuaging women’s guilt for their complicity is to associate “being taken” with love.

Gone with the Wind was written by a woman, but Margaret Mitchell knew her (patrician-born) scoundrel Rhett Butler’s not-seriously-resisted rape of impoverished and war-weary Scarlett O’Hara would go down well with her female readers, because they understood it as an extreme expression of romantic love. Similarly, the extended, torrid rape of Dominique by Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead augmented rather than diminished Roark’s appeal in readers’ eyes. As for his “victim,” this independent woman is thrilled by Roark’s assault, which she interprets as love but also (this being a political novel) as acknowledgment that she is an intellectually worthy consort for Rand’s ideological god figure.

For the lowbrow masses, Harlequin romances once served the insatiable appetite for “bodice-rippers.” Rape lite. Even today, the romance-genre paradigm remains: competent but still-vulnerable women wooed and won by powerful, protective men find happiness. They are no longer rape fantasies, but do endorse manliness as a virtue, a notion some radical feminists would find “rapey.”

Ana would rather lie on a mattress of her own psychological making, powerless but happy, than walk around carrying one, empowered but bitter

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana, a senior-year college woman, who is a virgin (we’re in fantasyland already!), enters into an arrangement with a powerful, wealthy man (named Christian: really, was that necessary?) where she agrees to play “Sub” to his “Dominant” and allow him to control every facet of her life, including beating her and then, daddy-like, soothing her pain, which adds to their mutual pleasure.

According to rape culture rubrics, Ana is being abused in this controlling, humiliating “relationship.” Her life should be ruined. She should be walking around with a mattress on her back like Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who claimed a former friend/lover got away with raping her (and was believed, until information surfaced that cast doubt on her story). But Ana would rather lie on a mattress of her own psychological making, powerless but happy, than walk around carrying one, empowered but bitter.

The millions of female fans of Fifty Shades are not victims of “false consciousness.” Many are high-achieving career women, happily married and living the bourgeois lives they freely chose. They are schooled in feminist principles and in thrall to no man. And yet, for entertainment, (for no self-respecting woman actually wants to be raped), they choose to set their imaginations loose in safe-rape fantasyland.

Women do not enjoy murder fantasies. But when it comes to sex, it seems women may prudently order healthy Yes-means-Yes for dinner, but occasionally secretly linger over descriptions of No-means-Yes dessert.