If you want to enliven your next dinner party, bring out this question: what was the subject of your last sexual fantasy?
Forks and jaws might drop, but only because almost everyone in attendance will be recreating the scene last played in their head, or claiming that they don’t fantasize, or claiming to only fantasize about their partner. However, chances are everyone at the table (assuming you’re not dining at a senior center) has erotic and illicit fantasies, and does so on a normal basis. But rarely, if ever, do we want to talk about it.
Sexually fantasies are something we rarely discuss, even among good friends. Our deepest sexual thoughts are often considered too weird, perverse, or just plain wrong to be shared amongst polite company; fantasizing might indicate there is something wrong with our relationships, or worse, ourselves. But research indicates that having sexual fantasies is an absolutely normal, if not necessary, part of being a sexual being. It’s not having them that is aberrant.
Large research studies indicate that almost everyone fantasizes and almost none of us talk about it. While researching his book, Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies, Brett Kahr, a psychologist based in the UK, anonymously surveyed 18,000 people in Britain and America. He asked them questions about the frequency and content of their fantasies and found that nine out of ten people have sexual fantasies. What’s more, he believes the remaining tenth person has them too, but is too embarrassed to admit it.
Even those of us that admit to fantasizing are reluctant to discuss what it is that gets us going. Ninety-five percent of the research subjects had never detailed their fantasies to another person. While some fantasies might be better left undisclosed—such as revealing to a new partner that you think about an ex while having sex with him—we don’t even talk about our imaginative sexual escapades with friends. Erotic fantasy is taboo.
Wine Me, Dine Me, 69 Me
Many people suffer shame and guilt about the perverse nature of their fantasies, even though what we think of as “perverse” may actually be quite common. Though a typical and unremarkable fantasy for both men and women is dreaming about sex with their current partner, Kahr also found that bondage, incest, sadomasochism, and voyeurism are also part of the varied fantasy life of “normal” people.
Shame regarding sexual fantasies may stem from earlier notions about the role of fantasy in our lives. In the 1900s, some psychoanalysts interpreted “kinky” sexual fantasies as being caused by “kinky” desires or wishes. Strange fantasies were often treated as pathology.
But we now know that fantasies are no more pathologic than masturbation. They allow us to think about doing something we would never actually do, or about things we’ve done before and would like to do again. (An ex-flame, for instance.) They allow us to sleep with celebrities. (You and me, Robert Downey Jr., just you and me.) Furthermore, fantasy may help our sex lives by increasing desire and arousal; those who fantasize frequently also tend to have more sex. And cerebral foreplay has certainly helped millions (billions? trillions?) of masturbations end in success.
Kahr also found that sometimes fantasy is a way of putting a positive spin on a negative childhood memory. For instance, he describes a happily married woman whose fantasies help turn memories of sexual abuse by an older brother into an arousing experience. In this way, fantasy can be a coping mechanism. However, even if you fantasize about abuse, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a survivor of abuse or want it to happen. Women may fantasize about being dominated by a stranger, but we are able to control every one of their actions. Our minds are a safe place to try new and risky deeds without ever getting hurt. In the book, Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, Michael Bader writes, “Safety is the concept that functions as the key to unlocking the meaning of our fantasies.” Being bound and gagged by a dominating partner may not seem safe, but somewhere in the unconscious, submission is desired.
All this is somewhat reassuring. Rather than feeling guilty about thinking about another person while having sex with your partner, we can see it as a way to help spice up the sex, without committing any transgressions. Just keep it in your head.