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Fantasies of abuse

(54 Posts)
Tortoiseonthehalfshell Wed 11-Jun-14 03:45:29

Not a pervy thread, I promise! I'm posting here because I'm really, really struggling to articulate what I mean, and if anyone can put this into better words it's you lot. It's a really delicate area, so if I'm coming across as victim-blaming or dismissing experience, please tell me off because that's not even slightly where I'm coming from.

(For full disclosure, I'm also trying to write a blog post about this)

Okay. So here are some disjointed thoughts.

Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, etc. Romanticising abusive relationships. Classic literary trope, actually - the idea of the dominant/stalky boyfriend as true love object. Wuthering Heights, and all that.

Lots of feminist critique of these books/media. Blaming Hollywood plot lines, lazy storytelling, etc., for teaching women that controlling relationships are actually romantic. Very useful stuff, glad it exists. Important to teach young women that this is not a healthy model.

BUT. Popular culture is descriptive as well as prescriptive. And these books are targeted at, and - to our communal chagrin, I'm sure - devoured by women. So they strike some sort of chord.

There's a bit, early in The Women's Room, where young Mira is described as conjuring up elaborate sexual fantasies involving torture and rape. Which struck a chord with me, in a 'it wasn't just me!' way - and this is back when I was 12, 13, already a self-identifying feminist without any abusive or patriarchal models in my life (I was raised by an awesome single mother, with no male relatives on the scene in any significant way).

So. I guess I'm thinking that there is something about that abusive/controlling/dominant relationship model which is darkly attractive to a lot of women. Not because we're confused about consent, or because we've been lied to by Hollywood, although maybe we are those things as well. But underneath that. Why?

I mean, who knows. Chicken/egg, products of patriarchal culture, etc. I'm certainly not about to run an evo-psych argument here. But ... does anyone know what I'm trying to get at? That the reason that these storylines are so popular is not because we're confused that this is real love, but because on its own level, they tap into something that a lot of women actually do fantasise about?

DonkeySkin Wed 11-Jun-14 20:35:28

I've never been convinced by the Nancy Friday theory that women have rape fantasies because it gives them 'permission' to have sex, and I think it's even less convincing the further we move away from Victorian/religious sexual mores.

And while I agree with Beach that girls and women are groomed by the culture into masochism/submission, I find this an insufficient explanation as well, in that it centres the notion of society as an outside force acting upon us (we receive these ideas and absorb them), whereas I think rape fantasies and Jane Eyre/50 Shades of Grey type stories are better seen as expressions of women's psychology under patriarchy; that is, they are the products of our own psychological response to the actual conditions we live under, where male violence is a ubiquitous threat, and viewing this as simple masochism misses the fact that this is a survival response that is also expressive of the desire to be loved and valued and safe.

I think the concept of adversary transformation sums up this psychological response well:

(9) Adversary Transformation. Rape fantasies are an effective means of creating dramatic tension in a story that will ultimately have a positive ending. As in trashy romance novels (which account for 40% of paperback sales in the U.S., 54% of them involving the rape of the heroine) the woman/heroine envisions herself winning over her rapist in the end: having him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transforming his cruelty into love. The rape is a dangerous piece of excitement and momentary evil that she will prove capable of transcending, analogous perhaps to a man's fantasy of being temporarily crushed by an evil foe. The theory is plausible, because people love to reinvent themselves in unrealistic fantasies. In this light, consensual fantasies can become mundane and boring, like novels and movies which lack dramatic conflict.

The above definition is from a website discussing horror movies and therefore leaves out any political analysis of the phenomenon of adversary transformation (going for a purely dramatic one), but 'transforming his cruelty into love' is the key insight here I think.

Men are cruel to women. They inflict violence on us. And we can't escape from them - indeed, we are forced to live intimately with them. These facts form the materials conditions under which girls and women grow up, and it would be deeply weird if this didn't shape our psyche and sexuality. When women create fantasies of men being cruel and violent to them, they are incorporating these actual conditions (and what they reflect about the nature of men) into narratives that allow them to transform the situation into one over which they have control, and even one that is advantageous to them.

50 Shades, remember, is about a man with cruel instincts and a taste for inflicting violence who is transformed by the love of a woman into a caring partner. Similarly, Jane Eyre is about a brusque and secretly brutal man who keeps a woman imprisoned in an attic, and it is only when he meets another woman (the 'right one') that his true and loving nature comes out. Both of these stories are about adversary transformation. As long as men wage war on women, we'll keep creating these narratives I think.

Psychologist Dee Graham writes extensively about female masochism as a survival response in her book Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men's Violence and Women's Lives. It's such an important piece of feminist analysis.

Beachcomber Wed 11-Jun-14 22:34:57

I would agree with that DonkeySkin, that rape fantasy, etc is a survival strategy and a way of coping with the stress girls and women live under WRT sexualized violence. A way of grappling some sort of control no matter how tiny. A way of processing the constant assault we are under.

Tortoiseonthehalfshell Thu 12-Jun-14 00:38:53

You guys are fabulous, thank you! I'll maybe come back and talk more when I've read this stuff, since I feel like I'm sounding idiotic at the moment.

DadWasHere Thu 12-Jun-14 08:38:01

...but 'transforming his cruelty into love' is the key insight here I think.

Hmmm. Beauty and the Beast.

AskBasil Thu 12-Jun-14 08:55:07

Transforming his cruelty into love.

Another light bulb moment from Mumsnet FWR.


DadWasHere Thu 12-Jun-14 10:59:32

Transforming his cruelty into love. Another light bulb moment from Mumsnet FWR.

I agree, but what makes it a hook over a man who is not cruel to begin with? I watched a David Attenborough documentary on possible behaviours of early humanoids in social interactions. While it was flawlessly executed it was still pure speculation and the parts on mate selection, they seemed very quaint and optimistically kind, at least to me, considering that reproduction in the wider biological world has no basis at all in being 'kind' or 'thoughtful', which are evolved human conceptual ideas that have more to do with evolved empathy and the personal security of a full stomach next week.

Is this social re-parroting of abuse/rape/redemption fantasy with powerful figures like Grey and The Beast just a hangover of a base human survival mechanism formed millennia ago where a female was required to attempt to form a bond with an ideally strong as possible male in order to best ensure the chances of personal survival of herself and offspring? Behaviour that became entrenched in human thinking through evolution?

Sillylass79 Thu 12-Jun-14 11:14:36

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

almondcakes Thu 12-Jun-14 12:16:27

'Is this social re-parroting of abuse/rape/redemption fantasy with powerful figures like Grey and The Beast just a hangover of a base human survival mechanism formed millennia ago where a female was required to attempt to form a bond with an ideally strong as possible male in order to best ensure the chances of personal survival of herself and offspring? Behaviour that became entrenched in human thinking through evolution?'

No, because you just made up a description of the past based on no actual evidence and stated it as a fact, and then made up your own explanation of how human evolution works, and stated that as fact.

Donkey, that book is both amazing and disturbing. I haven't even got on to the chapters about how this applies to society yet, but have just been reading the law enforcement guidance on how hostages should behave. It is so similar to descriptions of Feminity that I was shocked. The research in the book indicates Stockholm syndrome is as likely to happen to men as it is to women - that is very telling about femininity.

AskBasil Thu 12-Jun-14 12:40:42

"a base human survival mechanism formed millennia ago where a female was required to attempt to form a bond with an ideally strong as possible male in order to best ensure the chances of personal survival of herself and offspring? "

Was a female required to attempt to form a bond with a male?

What evidence is there of that?

AskBasil Thu 12-Jun-14 12:41:17

The strongest chance of survival would surely be to bond with a group, not with one individual.

turbonerd Thu 12-Jun-14 12:50:18

Have to come back and Read thread properly. Struck a chord aswhen young, christian background,wanted not to be "atfault" instigati g sinful sex. I know that sounds twisted. After abusive relationship and time to think, no more of that. Only want decent,equal sex. So Will throw my lot In with those who say it is learnt behaviour.

Tortoiseonthehalfshell Thu 12-Jun-14 13:15:23

My OP specifically excludes evo psych explanations for a reason!

DadWasHere Thu 12-Jun-14 13:20:27

No, because you just made up a description of the past based on no actual evidence and stated it as a fact, and then made up your own explanation of how human evolution works, and stated that as fact.

If I wanted to state it as facts I would not have bothered with question marks. It was something I thought about after I watched the doco on early human socialisation and thought Attenborough was crediting males as being far kinder to females than I imagined they might have been.

AskBasil Thu 12-Jun-14 13:22:23

Seems a bit harsh.

No reason to assume men weren't "kind" is there?

Why wouldn't they be?

Chachah Thu 12-Jun-14 13:26:19

Tortoise, out of curiosity, what are these reasons exactly?

I don't particularly want to believe in evo-psych stuff, but thinking about it, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that something like sexual arousal would be partly socially determined, and partly biologically determined.

I guess my question is, is the emphasis on cultural explanations evidence-based, or is it that we discard biological explanations because we don't want them to be true?

almondcakes Thu 12-Jun-14 13:36:09

Okay, but that isn't clear in your question. If someone asks is A caused by B, C and D, it is isn't clear whether or not they think B and C are facts or whether the existence of B and C are being questioned.

If I ask is there is a link between many fatal accidents and feather decorated unicycle displays on main roads, it strongly suggests I think that feather decorated unicycle displays on main roads factually exist.

In your case - are abusive fantasies (A) caused by a preference for strong men (B), who are more likely to have surviving offspring (C) and this can evolve into entrenched human thinking (D) around abuse.

Where is the evidence for B,C or D, before we even start to answer the question of if they are related to A, the actual topic?

Beachcomber Thu 12-Jun-14 17:40:52

Thanks from me also for The book link donkeyskin have downloaded and will definitely read.

DonkeySkin Thu 12-Jun-14 19:44:18

Dadwashere's evo-psych hypothesis shifts the premise of the thread, which is specifically about fantasies, not behaviour.

If you want to argue that women have evolved an instinctive preference for violent and abusive mates, you need to have evidence that women do indeed prefer such men as partners. The evidence from the past 40 years suggests that the opposite is true. Most divorces are initiated by women, and services to help women escape from abusive men are typically over-stretched by demand. Female-on-male domestic homicides have dropped dramatically since the establishment of women's shelters, because battered women now have another option for escape beyond killing their abuser. This indicates that the vast majority of women prefer not to be hit or violently controlled by their partners.

I also fail to see how a preference for a male who is violent towards herself and her offspring could possibly give females an evolutionary advantage.

DonkeySkin Thu 12-Jun-14 19:49:17

You're welcome Beach. Graham's book was one long lightbulb moment for me. Her development of the concept of Societal Stockholm Syndrome is a crucial contribution to feminist thought.

DadWasHere Fri 13-Jun-14 01:06:43

DonkeySkin. I have no intention of making a case that human women, as a gender in our species, have 'an instinctive preference for violent and abusive mates' as you project. But I would make the case that, given context of how badly human females seem to have been treated as a gender by human males through recorded human history, that there is plenty of reasonable evidence to infer that, pre recorded history, females had to co-exist with one hell of a lot of males who wanted to have sex with them and kill other males, with consent in the back seat not the front. You want to talk human preferences of the past 40 years, sure, I see all that. Its also true that almost any complex species under less stress reduces hostility within its ranks and that could be applied to humanity on a global scale as, pound for pound, there are far less global conflicts now than in centuries past.

But I do not see evolution ever serving the preferences or desires of individuals in a species, its pretty clear male spiders 'prefer' to escape the web of a female after they mate with her, because that’s what they try to do. Some species its common to escape, others a 50/50 shot, for others its a suicide mission to reproduce.

You want to talk fantasies rather than behaviour, ok, but it need not be about fantasy in things as extreme as 50 Shades, what about Twilight? Safe for teens to read, apparently. Have not read the book myself, even though I saw it when it came out as a first edition- just another book on a shelf, not a pop culture sensation. Synopsis: Girl falls for powerful man-creature who desires her but could just as easily kill her if he loses control and fucks her. She is empowered because she wants him too but endangered by her own desires and his at the same time. Another man-creature wants her, he seems much kinder but.. oh oh... she discovers he has a darker side and his type are prone to rip the faces off the women they love if they get pissed at them. So in the movie the heroine gets to meet the facial scarred 'wolf girl' and they have a moment to empatheticly communicate to each other the ecstasy and pain of loving difficult men. Is that an accurate synopsis of that pop-culture fantasy? Mums swooned over Twilight in their droves, including my wife and a female relative who writes professional horror-erotica for... surprise... a female audience.

You bring up Societal Stolkholm Syndrome. More power to you. But which society did that first appear in? The society back in the 70s capable of engineering feats that built multi story skyscrapers, the higher intellectual society that invented the term and a better educated population that were capable of understanding its reason and explanations? Not a chance, it was not a discovery of something new, it was the recognition of something far older. Its clearly ancient and pre-history and 'evo-psyche' was all over it with theories of evolutionary survival-imperative trauma bonding.

'Under patriarchy, women are taught to eroticise their own oppression.' is what calmet wrote in this thread. I agree. The question is, to what end and to what extent and for how long has that been kicking around, because the patriarchy seems pretty old to me, damn ancient in fact. As a simple control mechanism manufactured through social intent in modern times? I doubt its that simple and neat. Even if it is 'taught' is it a lesson that women resist learning or one they easily absorb, and what are the implications of that? No facts, I can explain exactly why ice is slippery when you stand on it because that science is known and absolute, but for human psychology and behaviour the only things that can ever be put forth by anyone, as far as I know, are ideas.

CaptChaos Fri 13-Jun-14 07:32:44

God, how I hate evopsych bullshit.

BillnTedsMostFeministAdventure Fri 13-Jun-14 07:53:14

Dad, I think most men are physically stronger than most women, so a man being strong enough to rape you wouldn't give good data as to whether he was strong enough to protect your family from - what? Other men? Predators?

EBearhug Fri 13-Jun-14 08:18:28

It's not just about men, is it? You can fantasise about women being abusive, too.

Beachcomber Fri 13-Jun-14 08:32:00

Thanks DonkeySkin, I have come across the concept of Societal Stockholm Syndrome, and it makes perfect sense to me - I didn't know the concept was laid out in that book however. I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Beachcomber Fri 13-Jun-14 08:52:47

This evopsych bullshit is just victim blaming.

You might as well blame a woman for being in an abusive relationship. I mean, rather than blame the man for being abusive.

The question I ask as a feminist is not so much why do women end up with abusive men or have fantasies about abusive situations, but; why do men as a class abuse women? Why have they historically abused us and why do they continue to abuse us and when are they going to stop?

It's obvious why women put up with it and why we attempt to shed positive light on it - as has been outlined on this thread; survival, internalized misogyny, socialization, thousands of years of conditioning via male conceived sadistic customs and rituals, trauma reenactment, processing, attempting to grapple a semblance of control, fear of male violence, fear of rape, fear of pregnancy, fear of ostracization, fear of escalating male violence particularly towards one's offspring. Because we don'y have a choice. Because we don't have another viable option.

I'm sure there are more.

Someone mentioned horror films on here earlier which was interesting. What makes people watch horror films and read crime fiction? Do we think they are fantasizing about being some psycho's victim and that means that they are attracted to psychos? Or do we think that the world is a dangerous place, full of horror and that this is a way of processing that fact?

Living as a woman in a male dominated world is rather like living in a horror film. You never know when your luck is going to run out. No wonder that fucks with women's heads and has us making horror films in our own heads about male violence and abuse.

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