I wrote in my last post about the large numbers of people who have sexual fantasies about someone other than their spouse. This topic taps into something I feel passionate (ahem) about.
What should psychology be doing with sexual fantasies? Should we worry about them, or ignore them?
Currently, most psychologists approach sexual fantasy as something potentially dangerous that should be used, like alcohol, sparingly and carefully.
"Sexual fantasizing can be healthy, particularly for a reasonably healthy couple that uses their increased excitement to move toward rather than away from the partner." — Patrick Carnes
So fantasy is only allowable or healthy if you're doing it with a partner with the intent of coming closer together? And then, only if you and your partner are "reasonably healthy," whatever that is? This is sure to be surprising news to the large numbers of people who report frequently having secret fantasies about other people during sex with their spouse or partner.
We simply don't know enough about sexual fantasies, and their connections to personality, behavior, and sexuality, to make any such judgments. For decades, psychologists suggested the Freudian notion that there is a "central masturbation fantasy," a recurring fantasy that revealed aspects of one's personality.
One of my supervisors believed this and told me that I should know by the third session with a client what their masturbation fantasy was. It took me a long time to realize that I wasn't supposed to ask my poor clients about their masturbatory fantasies, but should be able to predict the elements of the fantasy, based upon what I knew of the person's personality and psychological functioning.
So, a person who craves attention might repetitively fantasize about the center attraction at an orgy, whereas another who has deep-seated feelings of shame and self-loathing might fantasize about being sexually punished and humiliated. An important piece of this is that the fantasies are consistent with the person's ego and personality state, and are not self-medicational. We might think that it would be nice and better if that person with self-loathing thought about fantasies of being loved and appreciated, but the key trigger for arousal in these sexual fantasies is NOT what might help the person, but what in the fantasy resonates, like a tuning fork, with the existing elements of the person's personality.
It's a great theory, and intuitively feels valid. I've seen many clients over the years who seem to reflect it. But, like much of the psychodynamic and Freudian theory, it is not very testable, and not supported by research. We simply don't know enough about people's masturbation fantasies, in comparison to their personality and individual psychology. Do disturbed, conflicted, problematic fantasies really reflect deep-seated psychological disturbance? The building evidence suggests that they do not.
Dan Savage, columnist, ran an article describing the sad story of a husband, writing to ask help for his concerns about his wife's sexual fantasy and roleplay. During sex, his wife asked him to pretend to be her father and to pretend to molest her. The husband was worried this might be based on a true event in his wife's past, and what was he supposed to do? How could he help his wife? Was this normal or healthy?
Being no psychologist, but with a wealth of experience viewing the sexual fantasies and behaviors people often don't even share with their psychologists, Savage suggested that the husband had a right to ask his wife about the origins of the pretty creepy and disturbing fantasy. But he also pointed out that this fantasy might be a way in which the wife was reestablishing control over her sexuality, and recovering from a history of trauma.
I like this point — let's flip the issue on its head. The fantasy is not a symptom of an illness, but is instead an adaptive effort to overcome a history of trauma and reassume control of one's mind and life.
In Brett Kahr's book, Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies, Kahr, a British psychotherapist, explores this same controversy. His work, based on extensive research with a nonclinical population, shows the surprising range of disturbing, frightening and challenging fantasies that exist in the heads of people that are living healthy, successful lives.
One of the most surprising was the tale of an older Jewish woman, whose parents had died in the Holocaust. And yet this grandmotherly woman revealed that her most powerful orgasms came to fantasies of her being sexually examined and abused by Nazis, while strapped nude to a surgical table.
Kahr argues that the fantasies he saw in the most disturbed people tended to be fantasies that were extremely simplistic and two-dimensional. He saw no relationship in his research on sexual fantasies, between disturbing and complex, fantastic sexual fantasies, and any level of mental disturbance.
The ability to fantasize, to daydream, to explore internal worlds of imagination, is a valuable, even critical component of the human mind. It reflects our ability to manipulate thoughts, ideas, perceptions and reality, all within the private confines of our own minds. Brett Kahr suggests that without fantasies, our minds would be sterile, "bleak" places. He views sexual fantasies as inherent "extensions of our capacity for creativity, the very imaginal creativity" that is present in the worlds of artists, painters, and composers.
What does it mean that some of our own fantasies and thoughts frighten us? Disturb us? We simply don't know. Do people who have these thoughts and fantasies ultimately act upon them? Do these fantasies become burning desires that must be satiated? Do they take over a person's mind and life, such that eventually, fulfilling the fantasy becomes the most important thing to them?
We just don't know. I frankly suspect not. Elsewise, from reading the research by Kahr, Nancy Friday, Seymour Fisher and others, works that reveal the large level of socially-unacceptable, and often frightening and disturbing fantasies that live inside the heads of the normal people around us, there would be extraordinary amounts of infidelity, incest, bestiality, group sex, homosexuality, and other behaviors, going on every day, amongst almost everyone in society, as opposed to the relatively low actual frequency of these behaviors. (I've received several thoughtful comments from folks who suggested that lumping homosexuality in with these other desires was pejorative — it's not. I'm speaking about frequency, but I can see the value in the comment. It's not my intent to pathologize or stigmatize these fantasies — I'm just saying that they are very normal as fantasies, and in many cases, stay fantasies.)
Fear of rejection and stigma leads people to keep these fantasies secret from everyone, often even their wives, husbands, and therapists. Friday has described that she has received numerous letters from people, all saying that they believed they were the only ones with such fantasies and that her works have led them to accept that they are not as sick or disturbed as they secretly feared. Seymour Fisher's 1973 work on the female orgasm also asserted that there was no relationship between any types of sexual fantasies and life characteristics, including health, sickness, education, or life success.
In fact, Kahr, who, as part of his research examined over 23,000 sexual fantasies (What a job! I clearly chose the wrong topic for my dissertation), suggests that "On the basis of the data, I must conclude that the minds of American and British citizens contain much diversity and complexity, and therefore, speaking about a ‘normal' fantasy may well be meaningless."
He goes on to describe how fantasies are contained within one's mind, and do not command they be enacted in reality. He offers examples of the frightening, violent, dangerous, and disturbing fantasies he has heard from doctors, therapists, priests, and nurses, fantasizing about what they'd like to do to, or with, their patients, but these fantasies were never enacted, and probably never would be for the overwhelming majority of healthcare professionals.
The fantasy of the "threesome" with two women is regarded as ubiquitous among men, with some prevalence rates as high as 85 percent of males acknowledging a fantasy about such an event. It is so common a fantasy that no one regards it as strange. But how many men actually have such sexual experiences? Fewer than 6 percent.
In fact, many people report that when they have attempted to fulfill a fantasy, they end up disappointed by the mundane reality of real-world sex with real-world people. In the real world, one cannot manipulate reality to create large, ever-responsive penises and cannot provide an endless wardrobe of costumes. In the real world, one must deal with the pesky realities of other people's needs and feelings, and the issues of our bodies and their biological and physical capacities. Kahr quotes a patient, saying "Sometimes, a mindf**k is better than the other kind."
I believe that the fear of sexual fantasies reflects a fear of our inability to fully control even our own minds and thoughts. How can it be, that we can have thoughts pop into our minds, that we can have fantasies that trigger enormous sexual arousal, at the same time that they trigger shudders of revulsion? It is a scary thought, that we live inside our own minds, and cannot control even them. Reaction to this fear drives the belief that we must suppress and avoid these fantasies.
Instead, perhaps it is as Brett Kahr suggests, that our private sexual fantasies, kept secret, serve a role of maintaining a sense of control over the uncontrollable aspects of our lives and minds. "Perhaps we all do need to have some arena of absolute privacy or secrecy in order to feel more fully in control of our mind."