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The 4 Styles of Sexual Fantasies

Research on indifferent fantasies, romantic scenarios, and more.

Key points

  • Sexual fantasy is core to the human experience.
  • Sexuality is self-contradictory, built into our day-to-day lives, a source of public obsession, and shrouded in secrecy and shame.
  • Identifying the four classes of sexual fantasy helps individuals and couples and provides insight into human sexuality.

Sexual fantasy is, for many people, part of the fabric of everyday life. Highly personal and private, a potential source of embarrassment, shame, or even reprobation, sexual fantasy is shared in direct personal interactions sparingly, if at all.

Sexual material is increasingly unacceptable in any open interpersonal setting, more recently given the needed attention to reducing sexual harassment and exploitation in personal and professional relationships. The circumstances in which people can express sexual fantasy in appropriate, bounded ways are therefore narrow.

Yet even when appropriate and possibly necessary—such as within the bounds of romantic relationships—many people are reluctant to discuss their inner sensual realities with others who may desire to meet their needs, leading to deprivation and dissatisfaction and ultimately contributing to relationship issues.

Behind Closed Doors and Digital Screens

In the media and private settings, sexual fantasy runs free. The sky is the limit, from vanilla depictions to hot novels and television shows, movies and theater, erotica, and pornography, to certain clubs and parties. For the general public, within mass media, sexuality is vicariously enjoyed and becomes an obsession of displaced desire and fuel for the fire of private passion.

Clinicians and researchers who work with sexual problems recognize the importance of healthy openness around stigmatized and uncomfortable subjects. Groundbreaking research such as the Kinsey Report can move the needle on social mores, typically evoking controversy. In this tradition, researchers Canivet, Bolduc, and Godbout (2021) sought a finer understanding of the varieties of sexual fantasy through discrete surveys of North American adults.

Understanding Categories of Sexual Fantasy

As described in their study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, they recruited an online sample of 566 participants who completed an approximately 45-minute survey. About half were women, and 44 percent were men, with the remainder in different categories. With an average age of 26, 43 percent said they were heterosexual, 22 percent homosexual, 22 percent bisexual, and the rest in additional categories. About half were in relationships, and the rest were mainly single; about half were students and the remainder were mainly in the workforce. Demographics on ethnicity and culture were not reported.

The survey looked at sexual fantasy by asking participants to rate four different narratives: of romantic fantasy, dominance, submission, and sexual violence. Participants were asked about sexual arousal and discomfort after each narrative. The survey also assessed sexual compulsivity, childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and romantic attachment style. To identify meaningful patterns, the data were analyzed for overall statistical trends and correlations among study measures (“latent class analysis”).

In terms of basic scenario ratings, sexual arousal percent/low discomfort percent, they found the following: romantic 58/89; submission/masochism 54/77; domination/sadism 40/66; and sexual violence 22/25. Thirteen percent of participants reported childhood sexual abuse history, and 82 percent met cutoffs for insecure attachment style (14 percent detached, 24 percent preoccupied, 44 percent fearful) with 16 percent secure.

The latent class analysis, looking for underlying categories among the variables, found the best data fit for a 4-class model, as reported:

  1. Indifferent. The largest class, almost 40 percent, was characterized by lower arousal and discomfort toward all scenarios.
  2. Romantic. Covering about 22 percent, those in this group reported low arousal and higher discomfort to all the scenarios except the romance narrative, for which averages were 68 percent aroused and 79 percent low or absent discomfort. There was a higher proportion of women here (~60 percent).
  3. Enthusiastic. About one-quarter were in this group, with higher arousal and lower discomfort toward all scenarios. There was a statistically significantly higher proportion of CSA survivors than the other classes (23 percent versus 12 percent in Romantic and Indifferent, and 20 percent in Dissonant). There were somewhat higher rates of sexual compulsivity but overall not highly elevated.
  4. Dissonant. While this group favored the romantic scenario, their sexual arousal and discomfort appeared potentially contradictory (depending on how you think about it). For example, they tended to be both aroused and uncomfortable with sadistic fantasies. There was a higher proportion of women here (~60 percent), and there were somewhat higher rates of sexual compulsivity but overall not highly elevated.

These results are intriguing and useful for anyone interested in human sexuality. They make intuitive sense and help frame discussion of sexual fantasy: Indifferent, Romantic, Enthusiastic, and Dissonant classes seem to cover the possibilities. While the proportions are notable, it’s important to recognize that this sample is a convenience sample of whoever responded to the survey. It would be helpful to repeat this study with a methodology designed to get a representative sample and include ethnic and cultural factors.

The Future of Sexual Fantasy

Regardless, for anyone interested in sexuality, this is intriguing work. For people experiencing sexual problems and clinicians who may be helping them, this work helps break the ice and get into the details. For those interested in sexuality in general, it’s fascinating work that gives a window into our inner lives. Follow-up work can further map out sexual fantasies, looking at additional measures and following up on the role of key factors like developmental experience, attachment style, personality, and heredity.

Facebook image: Roman Chazov/Shutterstock

References

Canivet, C., Bolduc, R. & Godbout, N. Exploring Variations in Individuals’ Relationships to Sexual Fantasies: A Latent Class Analysis. Arch Sex Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02136-z

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