Jim was hiding between two bushes in the back yard, but lack of space was the least of his concerns. Standing next to a window so that he had a perfect view into a woman's bedroom—where, dressed in a thigh-length pink negligee, she was masturbating to porn—Jim had one main worry: that the woman's neighbors would see what he was doing, or worse, what he was about to do.
Jim (not his real name), a 40-year-old Bay Area aviation manager, wasn't an ordinary Peeping Tom: The woman inside the house—let's call her Tina—had given him her address and told him when to show up. She'd also left the back door unlocked so that he could easily get in. Her instructions, however, were more explicit than that: He was to slap her across the face, throw her against the wall, and tie her up with rope she'd left for that very purpose. Jim, you see, was there to fulfill her sexual fantasy—or to try to.
"After we'd been out maybe four or five times, she'd e-mailed me a very detailed and explicit rape fantasy that she said she wanted us to act out," Jim says of the attractive single mother he met on the S&M chat group called bondageagogo. "Reading it was a turn-on, because it was very sexual, but I wasn't turned off by the violence, either: She made it clear that her reactions to violence were positive. I was only apprehensive because I wasn't sure how realistic I could be for her."
Although Tina said she was pleased with Jim's performance ("Her only complaint was that it was too short," he says) and the two of them took a post-rape shower together, Jim never felt comfortable making this particular dream come true for her again, and they amicably parted ways a few months later. "I was happy to help her out, but this was never my thing," says Jim, who describes himself as "not exactly your typical alpha male." "I knew that if it got to the point where I started to think of that as normal, it would affect my personal life."
While the definition of normal is subjective, the popularity of fantasies like Tina's is not: In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Sex Research that evaluated female undergraduates at the University of North Texas, 62 percent of the women admitted to having rape fantasies, and 91 percent of those said their fantasies were either wholly or partially "erotic." Even in a mainstream movie like When Harry Met Sally, Sally told Harry that she dreamed of a "faceless guy" ripping off her ever-altering clothes. But just as there's a difference between Harlequin daydreams and full-on rape fantasies, there's a difference between knowing your girlfriend is turned on by sexual-assault scenarios and being asked to act one out.
Obviously—and thankfully—the vast majority of men learn early that forcing themselves on women is wrong. But pretending to rape a woman in order to get her off is a far cry from actually raping her. "This fantasy has little resemblance to her real desires. Nor does it mean that she's actually been abused or raped," says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and the author of The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life—which says that rape is the most common female sexual fantasy. The primary appeal for women, as Saltz sees it, is the concept that "someone would take them at all costs—the idea that 'I'm so unbelievably desirable that he just loses his mind.'" Many experts believe that women use the fantasies to alleviate guilt. "The common theme is that these women somehow feel bad about being sexual," says addiction specialist and radio host Dr. Drew Pinsky. "These fantasies give them license to say, 'I couldn't help myself—I was being raped' as an excuse."
Laura (not her real name), a 26-year-old author of young-adult fiction, was drawn to play out rape fantasies because they offered an escape from her over-ordered life. "I'm so on top of everything all day, so it's a release to have someone else take control and dominate," she says. She's never used safe words or laid out the specifics of what she wants from the role-playing, and one of the three men she's had "rape" her went too far. "He pushed me really hard and pulled my hair, and I wanted him to stop and he wouldn't," Laura recalls. "I wasn't sure if it was still a scene we were acting out or not." According to experts, it's crucial that couples establish boundaries and agree on safe words before attempting to re-create a rape fantasy. Just ask 25-year-old T.J., a stay-at-home dad in Texas, who began regularly acting out these scenarios with his wife. One night she told him that she wanted him to go further, so "I grabbed her from behind and shoved her down," T.J. says. "She was pretty much fighting me tooth and nail." In the process, T.J. (not his real name) found he had tapped into memories of being molested by a couple when he was 12. "I really lost it. A lot of anger and bitterness and rage came up," he says. "And it actually really turned me on to get in touch with that rage. And then I got dependent on it: Now I can't keep it up for regular sex." The good news for T.J. is that his inability to perform has been pretty much a nonissue. The bad? The reason is that his wife "got completely freaked out by what happened—we didn't even talk to each other for a few days afterward," and their sex life has dropped off precipitously.
Like with most psychological phenomena, there's no direct explanation for why some women are turned on by the notion of force while others are aroused by the idea of making love in a field of daisies—only speculation. "I believe it's related to childhood experiences of being reprimanded or controlled or overpowered," Saltz says. "Early, primitive feelings of aggression are often wrapped up with libido." That might explain the case of 34-year-old Nicole (not her real name). "When I was growing up, my parents really made me feel like my emotions made me unlovable," she says. The rape fantasy appeals to her because, she says, "it's like someone's angry or unhappy with you but still paying a lot of attention to you—as opposed to in real life, when, if you're acting unlovable, people just leave you alone."
Regardless of what gives it allure, the rape fantasy is a powder keg of sexual politics. Common sense dictates that you always consider worst-case scenarios when deciding whether or not to duct-tape a woman's mouth shut as she begs you to stop. Although Josh (not his real name), a 28-year-old from Mississippi, didn't end up in cuffs after he followed his then girlfriend's directions to break into her house and hold her down during rough sex, he's aware that he could have. "About a year after that, she attacked me when I tried to stop her from going after her mom with a kitchen knife," he says, adding that his ex was bipolar. "When I was fulfilling her fantasy, I was in that early, puppy-dog-love stage, where I would have done anything to please her. It was only later that I realized I could have really gotten into trouble."
Ironically, according to some experts, it's an increasing problem that many men are not educated about their right to draw the line. "You don't want to be in a position where you're going to be doing something that's really horrifying to you," Saltz says. "Keep in mind that you can always say, 'Let's go carefully' or 'No.'" Now men who understand that no means no just have to hope that women do too.