City Paper is not for tourists
The recession has been good to Ayn Rand. And why shouldn’t it be? Rand created objectivism, a philosophy that champions laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, and utter selfishness—a powerful opposition ideology at a time when government is growing and welfare for everyone is on the agenda. Almost 30 years after Rand’s death, her casket marked by a gigantic floral arrangement in the shape of a U.S. dollar sign, her economic ideas are gaining plenty of traction.
But what about her ideas on sex?
Not every passage in Rand’s works speaks to her campaign platform, which is abridged in her 1,000-page 1957 allegorical novel Atlas Shrugged: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Rand’s heroic man is also into some pretty coercive sex. Consider this scene, from Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead:
She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades.…She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound.…Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.
Kate first read that scene when she was 12 years old. “I read all of [Rand’s novels] when I was in middle school,” says Kate. Now 22 and a student at Georgetown University, Kate spent her tween years a committed objectivist. “I was really, really into them. I read them all at least twice. I had pages dog-eared. I would go back and read over the best parts. I kept a journal that I would fill with quotes I liked from the books, the stuff that struck me as meaningful.”
But Kate’s very favorite lines never made it into the diary. “I’ll be honest. The first time I read The Fountainhead, the courtroom scene—that long soliloquy where she goes on and on about her philosophy—I skimmed it. I was really more interested in the sex scenes.”
When Kate first discovered Rand, “Sex wasn’t even a part of my vocabulary,” she says. Rand’s involved, fantastical rape scenes quickly filled the void. After reading her next Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, Kate became obsessed with heroine Dagny Taggart, an idealistic capitalist who conquers the railroad industry—and submits to the violent sexual conquests of three men along the way. “That was the big draw for me as a teenage girl,” says Kate. “It was my first exposure to pornographic kind of materials. But the really fucked-up thing was that I didn’t realize back then that those scenes were rapes.”
It’s not unusual for readers to turn to Rand at a formative time in their lives. “It happens at all ages, but I think it does happen more commonly among young people,” says Joshua Zader, creator of the Atlasphere, a social networking Web site that connects objectivists around the world. Zader says that many Randians experience their first contact with her books between the ages of 14 and 21. “Her books appeal to youthful idealism, to people who are at the point in their lives where they’re trying to figure out what’s important,” Zader says.
It’s also when they’re trying to figure out sex. Rand’s influence on young people can’t be overstated—her fans have described her books as “life-changing,” “my Bible,” and “hot.” “I know that your sexual inclinations can be kind of stamped into you when you’re going through puberty,” says Kate. “So it’s a little disconcerting that at 12, 13 years old, I was stamping myself with this complete and total interest in submission, when I didn’t have any experience with sex at all,” she says. “It’s an interesting seed to plant in a teenager’s mind that that’s how sex operates.”
Even those teens who aren’t particularly obsessed with Rand’s erotica have picked up long-lasting sexual cues from her books. Angela Huynh, 24, is another Randian who got hooked as a teenager. “The Fountainhead changed my life,” says Huynh, who first read the book at age 19. “I…loved that whole philosophy of being who you want to be and doing whatever the hell you want to do in the most selfish way possible,” she says. “Who gives a shit about what people think or expect from you? …It became my Bible for life for a while.”
And the sex? “I know that many view it as a rape scene, but I definitely did not see it that way,” says Huynh of the Fountainhead scene. “Yes, there are elements of nonconsensual sex in that scene, but I was aware of Dominique’s feelings towards Roark and to me, she internally agreed to it,” she says. “I guess in the way that a lot of females may enjoy ‘rough’ sex and want domination behind closed doors.” And Huynh’s view of the scene hasn’t evolved in the five years since her first reading. “I will always feel this way about sex in the novel,” she says. “It changed the way I viewed men. The way they are supposed to be. Their motivations. It also made me look for raw dynamics when it comes to relationships.”
Rand reportedly had this to say about the scene: “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” But for young people with no practical experience with sex, Rand doesn’t provide any instruction on how exactly to seal the note. If your sex partner is biting you and beating you in the face, how can you be sure they’ve consented “internally”? Between Rand’s idealized heroes and heroines, why is the ideal sexual scenario a violent rape that the woman only privately desires? And for Rand, who was fond of invoking the tautological principle that “A is A,” when is rape not rape?
Zader was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of New Mexico when he first consumed The Fountainhead. “I didn’t get off the couch for three days until I was done with it,” he says. Twenty years later, Zader has had plenty of time to mull over the sexual dynamics at play there. “It was a welcomed rape is what it was,” he concludes. “It was a rape where both people wanted that sort of contact.…Now, one hopes that not too many people would actually go out and treat a woman that way.”
Perhaps it’s a concept that can only be understood by a fellow Randian. In 2003, Zader created the Atlasphere; soon, he added an online dating component to aid objectivists in finding “someone to fall in love with.” Today, 11,644 Randians and like-minded singles are looking for love—and sex—through the Atlasphere. The majority are men; currently, 96 men and 36 women in D.C. are enrolled in the service.
Despite all having an interest in novels that lean heavy on the rape fantasy, Atlasphere users rarely spell out their sexual inclinations on the site. Not one of the Atlasphere’s dating profiles includes the word “rape.” Only nine Atlasphere users have clicked a box signaling an interest in “erotica.” Many Atlasphere users express an interest in “domination”—world domination. The only woman with the word “submissive” in her profile is seeking a relationship and/or business partner to team up with her for her dream venture, “Pizza Tomb.” Pizza Tomb is a theme restaurant where “the gimmick is that the pizza is served on a hollow pyramid-shaped platter placed atop the customer’s head, requiring the customer to eat his or her way out,” she writes. The Pizza Tomb is currently lacking a dominant male figure: “Overly-effeminate and submissive men sicken me,” she writes.
Zader says sexual cues used on the site can sometimes be discreet. “People who are into dominance and submission tend to have their own vernacular,” says Zader. “Some will say, ‘I’m a sub, and if you don’t know what that means, you don’t need to contact me,’” he says. “Some people are more explicit about it and some might not come right out and say it.” Not that every Randian is into the rough stuff. Zader says the objectivist reaction to Ayn Rand’s sex scenes falls about like this: “I’d say a third of them, it turns them on; a third are neutral; and a third are really bothered by it.” For the most part, the Atlasphere isn’t about sex—it’s about rational self-interest. “What it signals most is that you want a relationship with someone who has similar values,” he says.
As for Kate, she never got the chance to apply her peculiar obsessions into some Randian role-playing. Kate fell out of love with objectivism before she ever got around to having sex in the real world. “People I meet now in college who are really into Ayn Rand—I can’t relate to them,” says Kate. “They’re just unpleasant. There’s no nuance.”
“I would never go back to read her philosophical rants in those books,” Kate adds. “I would probably go back to read the sex scenes—just purely for the pornographic effect.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery