Zizek on the Paradoxes of Rape

There is something erroneous about Zizek’s logic on the paradoxes of the rape fantasy. Here are the two steps in his argument: (1) he claims that the fantasy of rape meets a traumatic moment when it is performed in real life, and (2) he claims, with the help of a David Lynch clip, that there is a devastation when the man in the scene arouses the rape fantasy in the woman and then declines to perform that function.  


So, let us produce a table to illustrate the problem. Let “Fantasy” indicate where the rape fantasy is present, “Reality” indicate that the rape has been performed, and “Trauma” indicate that there is a trauma present.


Fantasy | (1) No   (2) No  (3) Yes   (4) Yes
Reality  | (1) Yes  (2) No  (3) Yes   (4) No
Trauma | (1) Yes  (2) No  (3) Yes   (4) Yes


In case (1) we can see that the fantasy is not present, the reality is present, and therefore, without much surprise, the trauma is inflicted. In other words, we know that if somebody is raped, without them secretly desiring the rape, that it may provoke a trauma. Let us describe this as the “common understanding.” This is not the understanding that Zizek is providing.


In case (2) we can see that there has been no rape fantasy, no actual rape, and no trauma. We can describe this as the “commonplace preference,” a description I am happy to change. Zizek is also not outlining this position.


The final two positions are Zizek’s. In case (3) we can see that the fantasy is present and it is precisely because the fantasy is present that the reality of the rape is all the more traumatic. We might describe this position as “the violence of achieving our fantasies.” This is summarized well by Zizek when we wrote:


The ultimate point of irreconciliable difference between psychoanalysis and feminism is that of rape (and/or the masochist fantasies that sustain it). For standard feminism, at least, it is an a priori axiom that rape is a violence imposed from without: even if a woman fantasizes about being raped, this only bears witness to the deplorable fact that she has internalized the male attitude. The reaction is here one of pure panic: the moment one mentions that a woman may fantasize about being raped or at least brutally mishandled, one hears the objections: ‘This is like saying that Jews fantasize about being gassed in the camps, or African-Americans fantasize about being lynched!’ From this perspective, the split hysterical position (that of complaining about being sexually misused and exploited, while simultaneously desiring it and provoking a man to seduce her) is secondary, while for Freud, it is primary, constitutive of subjectivity. Consequently, the problem with rape for Freud is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of such brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So when Freud writes, ‘If what [neurotics] long for the most intensely in their phantasies is presented them in reality, they none the less flee from it’, his point is not merely that this aversion occurs because of censorship, but, rather, that the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us. (Of course, this insight in no way justifies rape along the infamous lines ‘she just got what she fantasized about…’ – if anything, it makes it more violent: what could be more brutal than to impose on someone the traumatic core of his/her fantasy?)

It is the final, fourth, position which seems odd to me. If, in the third position, Zizek has claimed that rape is all the more traumatic if we fantasy it and then get it. Why is it that, in the fourth position, it is fantasizing about it and not getting it that is traumatic and brutal? In other words, Zizek claims that rejecting the fantasy results in psychological devastation. Within the clinic, psychoanalysts have long noted the prevalence of the rape fantasy – particularly among women. Unfortunately, the evidence on this is undeniable. Some people, many times these people are women, really do fantasy about being raped. However, these fantasies are not for them always traumatic or devastating. Why, then, does Zizek suggest that they are?

Here, I think Zizek may have made a slip.

There are times when simply having a rape fantasy is not troubling in of itself. Even after careful and prolonged analysis we might find that the rape fantasy was not at all the core of the problem, and neither did it contribute to any particular trauma. Indeed, many women who have rape fantasies are not at all victims of a trauma.

Yet, at the same time, if the rape fantasy has become dominant within the sexual life of a person then having that fantasy thwarted can indeed produce anxiety. For example, there is plenty of clinical evidence which suggests that some women who are in relationships with men who are do not ‘take charge’ in the bed room are unhappy sexually. On the other hand, there are plenty of women who do not want a man to ‘take charge’ in the bedroom and would not at all be put off if a man was more tender and humble while love making.

So, where does that leave us?

The man in the film may have imposed or triggered a rape fantasy within the woman but in his declining it we are supposed to or indeed permitted to understand that this was devastating for the woman. But was it more devastating than indeed achieving in reality the fantasy which was brought out in the woman? In other words, which is more traumatic: to achieve one’s fantasy in actual life or else to have it thwarted?

This is the question that was not addressed by Zizek.

This question is a much more difficult one to answer. Truthfully, there are cases when it is much more traumatic to achieve one’s fantasy than it is to have that fantasy thwarted, and yet there are also cases when it is much more traumatic to have a fantasy thwarted rather than to achieve it in reality. To answer this question we need to pay particular attention to the structure of the individual.

This is why we can say that trauma is a universal category of suffering even while the way in which this trauma is produced is not at all universal.


2 thoughts on “Zizek on the Paradoxes of Rape

  1. Hillman’s essay in Pan and the Nightmare is an invaluable resource for the psychology of rape. I cannot summarize what he says here other than to say he does see it as the “privilege” of the psyche to retreat, or withdraw, from the real, and that rape, as literal forced genital juxtaposition, is also a figurative forced juxtaposition of psychic space and the traumatic real.

    I don’t think Hillman would agree that it is equally traumatic to fantasize about rape and have the fantasy elicited and then rejected–but I’m not sure this is what Zizek is really saying. To me, it seems like Zizek is saying, once you are in the situation where it is implied you will be raped, and once you’re convinced you will be raped, it is still traumatic even if it does not occur. That’s how I read it, anyway.

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