Here’s why ‘rape porn’ isn’t as bad as we think it is

girl sitting in window, british flag background

Punishing women for their desires isn’t pleasurable for anyone.

Many women have rape fantasies, and this is mine.

I’m at a party. As is the case with most of my dreams, I’m back in high school, and I’m at my friend Sophia’s house. I’m waiting in line for the bathroom, and I start making small talk with a dude in line. The conversation is just OK and he’s not super attractive—for some reason, he is also always wearing a polo shirt—but the exchange is non-committal and pleasant enough.

When it’s my turn to go in, he follows me in and locks the door behind us, saying something to the creeptastic effect of “I’ve been waiting all night for this.” Before I can scream or fight back, he pins me to the floor, and we proceed to have the craziest, most decidedly non-romantic and decidedly non-consensual sex ever.

There are two things I would like to make clear right off the bat. The first is that dreams like mine are incredibly common. Studies have shown that an estimated four in ten women, or between 31 to 57 percent of women, have confessed to having fantasies about coercive, violent, or non-consensual sex with a median frequency of at least once a month. That’s an awful lot of women fantasizing about sexual assault, regardless of how abhorrent or horrifying they find the prospect of it happening in real life.

This brings me to the second point, which might seem obvious but is one that many have difficulty grasping: It’s a fantasy, and I do not want anything like this to happen to me in real life.

Like most women embedded in rape culture, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in sheer terror that anything like this will ever happen to me, and if it ever did, I would scream, snarl, cry, bite, kick, and do everything in my power to make it stop. I’m a feminist who is not remotely attracted to rough or aggressive men, nor do I even particularly enjoy rough and aggressive sex. Yet for whatever reason, the idea of having non-consensual sex with a polo-shirted stranger is not nearly as repellent to me as it would be in real life.

Like Nora Ephron famously considered in her own piece about rape fantasies, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I’m turned on by something that is so obviously antithetical to my personal political or sexual preferences, and I haven’t come up with a satisfying answer. But I do know this: As a feminist and a sex writer, I will fight to the death for the end of rape culture and a woman’s right to say no. And as a feminist and a sex writer, I will fight to the death for a woman’s right to masturbate to whatever the hell she wants to, whenever the hell she wants to, even if that fantasy involves her saying no and meaning yes, or even if she’s not saying no at all.

This is why I am so angry about a provision in a report from the British Parliament last week, which would criminalize the possession of extreme “rape porn” (NSFW). In the report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said it “welcomes” a proposal that extends the possession of “extreme pornography” (which includes zoophilia, necrophilia, and “an act threatening a person’s life”) to possession of “pornographic images depicting rape and other non-consensual penetration.” If convicted, a person accused of possessing such “rape porn” could face a sentence of up to three years in prison.

At face value, the provision, a culmination of Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to crack down on “violent and misogynistic” pornography, seems just dandy: After all, we can all agree that violence is bad, misogyny is bad, and rape is even worse, as are people who perpetuate rape culture by jerking off to images of rape. And it’s true that a lot of even the mainstream porn that’s being made nowadays attempts to, put mildly, blur the line between consensual and non-consensual sex acts. Even the most sex-positive feminist will likely be rankled by some of the acts depicted in the average Pornhub clip, which can include women being bitten, punched, choked, spat on, peed on, spanked, and having their breasts and genitals slapped.

Yet the provision is problematic in the sense that it doesn’t make any clear distinction between simulated and non-simulated non-consensual sex acts. The provision merely states that an image is illegal “if it portrays, in an explicit and realistic way…an act which involves the non-consensual penetration of a person’s vagina, anus or mouth by another with the other person’s penis.” (It neglects to mention whether a sex act qualifies as non-consensual if it’s committed by someone who doesn’t have a penis, like a woman or a trans person, because I guess Parliament thinks that women and trans people can’t be rapists? But anyway.)

Of course, the argument could be made that a law against the possession of even simulated non-consensual sex acts is a step toward curbing rape culture, by criminalizing the porn that ostensibly promotes rape culture. This seems to be the reasoning behind the bill, with the Joint Committee for Human Rights writing that the provision is “human rights enhancing, given the evidence of cultural harm done by such pornography,” adding that such harm ultimately provides a “strong justification” for “this proportionate restriction on individual rights.”

There’s just one problem with that, though: There isn’t actually any evidence of the “cultural harm done by such pornography.” (In this context, I’m using “pornography” to refer to “simulated acts of non-consensual or violent sex.”) In fact, there is a pretty strong argument to be made for its therapeutic benefits for those who actually harbor violent and sexually aggressive tendencies.

Take this study from Clemson professor Todd Kendall, who says that the incidence of sexual assault decreases in countries that have more access to online porn. Or the book Sexual Science and the Law by Imperial College London professor Richard Green, which suggests not only that sex offenders watch less porn than non-sex offenders do, but that porn provides an outlet for deviant sexual desires, which in turn prevents them from actually acting on their impulses.

Of course, none of these studies are conclusive, and the actual relationship between pornography and violence against women is probably far more complex than either “porn prevents rape” or “porn breeds rape.” But here’s the thing: The British government may be able to stop people from watching porn that simulates rape, but they can’t stop 34 to 51 percent of women (and an untold number of men) from fantasizing about it. And while most of these desires are perfectly healthy and restricted to the realm of fantasy, if there is no outlet for people to explore their sexual desires, some of them might not be.

The British government might think that the harm that rape porn does is a “strong justification” for the “proportionate restriction on human rights.” But I really don’t think so. I think the British government thinks porn is bad and sex that falls outside the realm of normalized desire is bad, so both should be contained under the guise of trying to prevent “cultural harm.”  I think that if we let the British government invalidate our sexual desires, there is no telling what other fetishes or fantasies they’ll find unsavory in the future, and which ones they’ll let us keep and which ones they’ll find dangerous enough to merit “the proportionate restriction on human rights.”

And I think the British government, like most of us, is a little scared and confused about sex, and the enormous chasm between what we privately desire and what we actually want in bed. The only difference is that they’re trying to impose their confusion on the rest of us, without letting us figure it out and untangle the mess on our own.

I said earlier that I didn’t know why I find the idea of having non-consensual sex with a polo-shirted stranger exciting, despite the fact that I loathe the very idea of anyone being forced against their will to have sex (not to mention the idea of anyone wearing a polo shirt unironically) to my marrow. But here’s what I do know: When we’re talking about sexual fantasies, it is both stupid and unnecessary to discuss their real-life implications. That’s like telling someone you dream about owning a yacht and that person saying, “But wait, what about the maintenance costs?”

I will never own a yacht, so I don’t feel guilty about not worrying about its maintenance costs. I feel the same way about having unorthodox or politically incorrect fantasies. And I hope against hope that the British government will ultimately come to the same conclusion. 

Photo via craigCloutier (CC BY 2.0) | remix by Jason Reed

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson

EJ Dickson is a writer and editor who primarily covers sex, dating, and relationships, with a special focus on the intersection of intimacy and technology. She served as the Daily Dot’s IRL editor from January 2014 to July 2015. Her work has since appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mic, Bustle, Romper, and Men’s Health.