The novel Fifty Shades of Grey is selling faster than a Harry Potter book right now. The book is about sexual domination in a contemporary setting, including the career woman who has everything, including a hot, successful boyfriend.

The big news is that we have enough data to show that the majority of women buying Fifty Shades of Gray are in their 20s and 30s living in urban areas, according to the publisher’s data, and the Atlantic. To be clear, these women are incredibly powerful. In urban areas, more women than men graduate college, women out earn men in their 20s, and we are almost to the point where women in their 30s are outnumbering men as breadwinners. Which means that it is the women who have tons of power who are also having tons of rape fantasies.

None of this should surprise you, because there is a tradition of sexual domination literature being popular with women. For example, The Story of O is a college reading list mainstay for women reading way off the syllabus. And rape fantasies have such a long history of being shockingly ubiquitous among women that we have a euphemism invented by the queasy: fantasies of sexual submission.

So we know that the majority of women who read this blog have a college degree, live in a urban setting, and are in their 20s and 30s, presumably out earning men, if not the men in their immediate surroundings, then at least the men in their theoretical surroundings. Which means that the majority of women who read this blog have lots of power in their lives and also have lots of rape fantasies.

Katie Roiphe has a phenomenal article in Newsweek about why this type of  woman fantasizes about sexual domination. She writes that women must be desperate to read rape fantasies because they are reading Shades of Grey: “Millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like ‘In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,’ you must really, really want to get to the submissive sex scene.”

So I am admitting now that I have rape fantasies, too. I have known since I was in college that this is not weird because I was a girl who read everything, and I read so much about rape fantasies that by the time I was teaching creative writing at Boston University I had to make announcements at the beginning of my course that students could not write about masturbation or rape fantasies because it was so common in an intro creative writing class and also so difficult to write well.

There’s something really liberating about being able to own the rape fantasy. First of all, it reflects a lot of self knowledge. It reflects that you know that your fantasies are just fantasies and it’s okay to have them. It reflects that you do not feel the need to have all PC thoughts all the time in order to be an intelligent, educated person. And it reflects the knowledge that you do not lose your power by harboring fantasies of powerlessness—your power is much more stable, and hard-won than that.

If you can do all that, then other things become easy.

For example, it’s easy, then, to also harbor the fantasy of telling everyone at the cocktail party to fuck off when they ask you what you do and you are doing nothing because you know you’re going to get pregnant in four months and you don’t want to get a job and then leave it in a year. Because let me assure you that this is what most women want to do: work part-time after they have a baby. So of course they don’t want to hunt for a full-time job right before they have a baby.

It also becomes okay to say that you are only dating men who earn a lot of money. Because I simply don’t believe that women harbor the fantasy of being responsible for putting food on the table for their family. Women do it because it’s practical. They fall in love with the intoxicating nature of earning money, or they fall in love with a guy who is terrible at earning money. But the number of women who want a full-time, high-powered job is very slim.

Honestly, it’s easier for me to admit that I have rape fantasies than it is for me to admit that I wanted to marry a guy who makes a ton of money. If nothing else, I have control over both, and I’m only getting what I want for one of them. I have a huge collection of rape fantasy books leftover from when I was too scared to tell the guy I’m with what my fantasies are. And I have a mate who is unfazed by the fantasies: he’s heard it before.

But I did not get the guy who earns more than I do. I tried, but mostly what happened is that I hated those guys and when they asked me out on a third date, I wrote blog posts instead.

Admitting to rape fantasies is so liberating because now I can admit to all the other un-PC things I’m feeling. I want to stay home with my kids because of guilt and I don’t care. I think it’s guilt built into my DNA and I’m not going to fight it.

And I want someone to take care of me and I don’t care if you know. Sure, I like that I can take care of myself. But most educated, city-raised women can take care of themselves and their kids. It’s not that difficult. Finding a guy who will take care of me is much harder.

I’m probably not going to read Fifty Shades of Gray, because, as an ex-creative writing instructor, I need to tell you that Elizabeth McNeil and Marquis de Sade are much stronger writers of the literary rape scene.  But I am done having closeted fantasies. I don’t want to be told by the feminists what’s okay for me to want. I am done hiding what I really want because what is really liberating is for women to be able to want whatever we want.


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  1. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    Hi Penelope!

    Have you heard of Clarisse Thorn? She is a sex positive feminist/activist who is (usually) based in Chicago and she also self-identifies as BDSM. I worked with her on her recent book, and she has a lot of very thoughtful blog posts in her archives about being a feminist and also wanting to submit that I think you might enjoy. If you would like me to put her in touch with you, I would be happy to do that (her website is


  2. Tell it like it is
    Tell it like it is says:

    Penelope it is frightening how self-hating you have become.

    The difference between your good posts and the ones where you launch in to this stuff – my guess is because you are experiencing abuse, don’t want to leave, and are rationalizing it – is obvious.

    Example of a blog written about this subject with the clear lens of analysis and minus the self-hatred:

    Shame on you.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      Thank you so much for the link. I have spent my morning reading her work…..I am hooked.

  3. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    I thought 50 Shades of Grey was insulting and weird. I felt like I was cheating on my husband just reading it. Let’s just say I put this book down almost immediately. What a waste of money. I can think of better ways to fill my time…and if I was action – I’ll look no further than my own bedroom, with my own husband. I think women need to get active in their “own” lives for a change, instead of reading about everyone else, or heaven forbid watching reality TV. Hello, be the star in your own show!

  4. Truth
    Truth says:

    As a former exotic dancer, I can honestly tell you that a great number of men harbor rape/submission fantasies as well. Why else would professional dominatrixes be able to make a living? It’s not female customers who allow them to bring home the bacon.

    I disagree that women don’t seek high-power careers. It’s unfortunate that because many of us have been diverted into other fields at a young age (like artsy stuff, psychology, sociology & other “soft” subjects), we never learn until we are much older that such fields of study are less likely to lead to high-powered careers.

    Best choice I ever made: not having kids. Now THAT’s how to get ahead, not waiting for a financially-secure man to rescue you. What if he wants to trade his wife in for a younger model when she gets “too old” for his sexual tastes? That’s the reality.

  5. Zac
    Zac says:

    It takes a lot of vulnerability to be able to talk about this stuff so publicly and I respect that. Owning up to who you are and letting yourself be yourself is an important part of being a human being.

    I’m sure I’m not saying anything that most people don’t already know but I’ve always guessed that rape fantasy had a lot more to do with the the concepts of desire and submission instead of any actual interest in being raped. It makes sense to me that women would fantasize about sexual experiences that completely lack control. Don’t most people want to get completely lost in themselves and another person?

    I’ve noticed a lot of people discussing this book lately and I think it’s good that the dialog has been opened. People need to understand themselves and others better and too often we hide from what we think and feel. Again, it’s refreshing to see someone being so honest about this stuff.

    I hear a lot of women saying it’s “a shame” or “disgraceful” to want to be dominated in bed. I don’t understand where they are coming from. What is so shameful about wanting to fully give yourself to someone. I’m not talking about rape here at all so please don’t get me confused. I’m just saying that why wouldn’t you want to completely surrender yourself to the passion of another being?

    I don’t think that means that you have to take your day to day life and be submissive to someone but why wouldn’t you want to just be completely free in the moment?

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