Sexual fantasy - What is “normal”?
Happy Monday, and welcome to my bigger better blog! In this entry I want to talk about an important facet of human sexuality that is still wrought with misunderstanding: sexual fantasy.
First, let’s clarify what a “sexual fantasy” is. One team of authors put it this way: “Any mental imagery that is sexually arousing or erotic to the individual.”* Basically, fantasies are impressions or stories having an erotic component. The definition is broad on purpose, because fantasies vary greatly between individuals. They could be stories with complete plots, or simply an image, picture, or particular scene - pretty much anything that helps trigger erotic feelings.
Who has sex fantasies? Well, nearly everyone! Based on the broad definition of fantasy, this make sense... However, many people have a particular idea of what a fantasy “should” look like. For example, some think it should have a complete plot, or include another person, or explicitly involve the genitals. Because of this, some people don’t realize that the erotic thoughts they have actually ARE fantasies!
Here’s another interesting fact: some folks have internalized our social messages that shame sexuality to the point that they either don’t acknowledge that they have fantasies, or they block awareness of them completely! Sometimes this results in erotic dreams which might include an orgasm. During the sleep state, control of sexual fantasy is more difficult as our autonomous systems take over.
Why is it important for people to know they have fantasies? Because fantasies serve some important functions.
For one, they aid and abeit or allow us to function, sexually. Three themes are common in the functional uses of fantasy:
- to get in the mood for sex,
- to return to focus when distracted during sex
- and to allow yourself to fall over into orgasm
Maybe you’re not really feeling sexy but it’s a special night and/or you just really want to connect to your partner; maybe you are in the middle of things but you can’t help but think of the massive workload waiting for you. Maybe you begin and feel that orgasm potential starts slipping away from you. Fantasies can be used to help with all of those.
Another common function of fantasy is to allow us to connect to the erotic while substituting for an actual partner. Perhaps you are abstaining - perhaps you have never had partnered sex - but you imagine what the experience would be like. Or, perhaps fantasy is used for mental rehearsal of that sexual experience.
Fantasy also allows exploration without the real-life consequences. Sexual fantasy can provide a safe way of experimenting, especially with things that are taboo. Maybe you haven’t had sex with a partner of the same gender, but wonder what it would be like. Maybe you would like to engage in a particular sexual activity that feels morally incongruent, such as sexual domination.
Now to address some common concerns about fantasy...
Is having a sexual fantasy cheating?
While some people might consider having a sexual fantasy cheating, most people acknowledge the usefulness of fantasies in FACILITATING their sexual interest and response with a partner. Most people use fantasy sometimes at those 3 points mentioned earlier. If a person always uses a fantasy when with a partner, that’s when there may be a problem.
Am I likely to act on a sexual fantasy that is incongruent with my morality?
Many people fear that having a taboo sexual fantasy will lead to acting it out. There is no evidence that that is true. In fact, for most people, acting out the fantasy (e.g., having sex while tied up) may lead to the loss of the eroticism of that fantasy. For a small segment of the population who have had difficulty with sexually compulsive behavior, acting out a fantasy may have the opposite effect, meaning they may engage in the behavior compulsively afterwards.
My next blog entry will discuss specifics on sex fantasy content, including common themes in different populations. Stay tuned!
* Source: p 470 of Leitenberg & Henning’s 1995 article “Sexual fantasy,” published in the Psychological Bulletin