Recently, a man came to me feeling guilty about a lot of things. He felt guilty about the fact that he does not pray properly (which meant, evidently, that he gets distracted sometimes when he prays before going to sleep). He would like to be able to control his thoughts. Also, he feels guilty that he sometimes thinks of other women when he has sex with his wife. By coincidence, I saw another patient a few months previously—a woman—who got angry at her husband when he made a similar confession to her. He sometimes pictured in his mind the wife of a neighbor while he and his wife were having intercourse.
It is hard to know how to respond to those persons who feel bad about doing or thinking things that are commonplace and might, therefore, be presumed to be normal. Certainly, there is no evidence that having sexual fantasies during sex or at other times leads to any sort of untoward or abnormal behavior. (Let me say that again: Sexual fantasies have not been shown to lead to sexual crimes. More on this later.) On the other hand, it seems injudicious to comment about every sexual fantasy that pops into mind. This man’s wife, my patient, now thinks of the woman next door when engaged in intercourse with her husband—or at least, she thinks about him thinking about her, or she thinks about what he is thinking about what she is thinking about him. None of this is conducive to enjoying sex—yet sexual fantasies are engaged in precisely because they make sex more enjoyable.
People fall into two groups: those who have sexual fantasies and those who do not—and those in the second group are likely incredibly rare. Given the extraordinary diversity of sexual thoughts and behavior, there will always be some people who do not fantasize. Certainly, there are some who do not have sex at all, as well as those who do not desire it, so it is not unthinkable that some of them have no sexual fantasies either.
More importantly for the discussion, however, is that like the two people mentioned above, there are a number of men and women who think they ought not to be having sexual daydreams. It is possible to construe certain religious precepts so that those rules argue against such thoughts, which means that certain religious individuals may convince themselves that no such thoughts occur to them.
Psychiatrists (such as myself) are in a somewhat privileged position in that even these men and women sometimes admit confidentially to their therapists what they would not own up to to others. One psychiatrist has commented to the effect that there are usually four people having sex at the same time: the two people occupying space in the bed and the two people they're thinking of. But by that standard, I think the number is likely much higher. Many people have fantasies of orgies of one sort or another. Some sexual fantasies involve crowds; evidence for that is demonstrated by the crowd scenes in many X-rated movies.
A sexual fantasy is a story in which the person fantasizing has a starring role. These stories are extraordinarily varied. It is thought that the specifics of each fantasy draw on experiences the individual had growing up. They may be short stories, such as watching someone else have sex or imagining that someone is looking at them while they have sex. These particular erotic daydreams are given names: voyeuristic fantasies or exhibitionistic fantasies.
There may be very complicated storylines which center on certain iconic figures: the teacher, the nurse, the maid, for instance, or the mother or father of a friend. These are individuals that appear in everyone’s life and may have become the object of childhood fantasies of sex; these fantasies then live on into adulthood.
The action in sexual daydreams may involve different themes—for example, danger or dirtiness. Some people imagine having dirty sex, literally, with unkempt vagabonds. Some women fantasize about being raped. Similarly, heterosexual men may imagine having sex with rapacious women. Other closely related variations on these themes are expressed in the ideas of being tied up, or tying someone else up. Other sexual fantasies involve inflicting violence. These are a pure distillation of the fact that sex sometimes is associated with aggression. Even briefer, more evanescent thoughts of sex might bubble up when glancing at an attractive man or woman; but these are so brief, they hardly justify the term "fantasy." The simple urge to grab someone is not what is usually meant by the phrase “sexual fantasy.”
Of course, homosexuals tend to have homosexual fantasies. What is slightly more surprising, perhaps, is that some strictly heterosexual individuals also have homosexual fantasies. Sometimes the case is made that these men and women are “latent” homosexuals. But some individuals also have fantasies of sex with children, which is a long way from actually being a pedophile. In fact, it cannot be argued from someone’s sexual fantasies just how that person behaves in real life, although I think the reverse may not be true. Someone who is exclusively homosexual, for instance, may turn out to have only homosexual fantasies.
Sexual fantasies can erupt at any time, but they are conjured up purposely in certain situations. Sex is never experienced in the abstract. Sexual thoughts accompany sexual behaviors. When men and women masturbate, invariably they are thinking of some sort of sexual encounter. These are likely to be similar to the sexual fantasies imagined at other times, including those mentioned above. At still other times, sexual fantasies can crop up unpredictably and inconveniently. Adolescent boys are embarrassed sometimes by giving obvious evidence of sexual excitement.
Some sexual fantasies strike most people as at least a little strange, and there are some that seem downright bizarre. I remember years ago, before pornography was widely available, finding a magazine in a convenience story that was dedicated exclusively to enemas—that is, the sexual satisfaction that comes from enemas. There were two such magazines, and that is why I remember seeing them. I would have thought that the number of people excited by enemas was not so large that more than one magazine would be required to satisfy the demand. I remember also seeing in a medical magazine an x-ray of a man’s inguinal area where he had inserted long needles, presumably for sexual purposes. I have never encountered a patient with such an unimaginable (to me) desire in my practice; based on that, I suppose it is rare.
If someone actually acts out in real life certain fantasies that are repugnant to most people, that person may be said to have a perversion. These are, by definition, deviant, and usually engaged in obsessively. They may involve pieces of apparel, such as socks or underwear, or animals, or particular acts, such as washing with or even drinking urine. Plainly, some perversions, such as pedophilia or rape, injure other people and are, therefore, criminal. But I want to say again that these are overt acts and do not usually grow out of engaging in such fantasies. Behaviors can be said to be ethical or unethical, but thoughts cannot be treated the same. Sexual behavior is wrong when someone is hurt.
What About Pornography?
Like other interests or behaviors which are viewed by some with disapproval, pornography is described with euphemisms, such as “adult” or “X-rated.” Pornography can be regarded as a “sexual aid”—that is, something in between sexual fantasies and overt sexual behavior. Recorded X-rated movies are extremely popular, particularly now that they can be readily accessed online. They are consumed by normal individuals who, for various reasons, require more sexual stimulation. Some of these men and women have come to rely on these aides as they have grown older.
There is an ongoing controversy about whether or not pornography contributes to the likelihood of sexual misbehavior or other difficulties, such as a lack of interest in "ordinary" human sexual interaction. This dispute has been going on for decades and will probably not be decided definitively simply because the subject is so charged. However, I think it is fair to say that, as of now, there is no convincing evidence that pornography is bad for anyone. Watching pornography does not seem to contribute to violent sexual behavior, for instance. Pornography involving children is condemned, obviously, because it is harmful to the children being exploited in such a way. Anyone watching child pornography is and should be held responsible for it being produced. Some people insist that acting in pornographic movies is necessarily demeaning for the women involved, but many of the women themselves vehemently disagree; in my experience, the few women whom I have known who actually did perform in these movies did not think it was demeaning.
Fantasy vs. Reality
Still, there is something to be said for reality. In general, most people find it more satisfying to have actual sex with another human being than to fantasize about having sex. On the other hand, sexual fantasies can range over the whole gamut of human interaction in ways that would not be acceptable in real life. There is an appeal to sexual fantasies, which is why people have them. Reality can seem unexciting. At the same time, certain fantasies are best left as fantasies. There are hidden aspects of certain sexual daydreams that become apparent when an attempt is made to fulfill them. Putting it differently, reality interferes.
I remember a man who joined a swinging group with his wife. A swinging group is made up of couples that switch partners. Switching partners, or “wife swapping,” is not an uncommon sexual fantasy. It involves elements of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Most couples leave these groups within one or two years because they prove unsatisfying. My patient looked forward to the initial encounter with another couple, but then found himself listening to his wife making love in the next room. This proved unexpectedly upsetting. He began to think that his performance might be inferior.
Similarly, I remember a young married man who always wanted to tie up a woman and have sex with her. His wife, by coincidence, had fantasies of being tied up. There seemed no reason not to give it a try. But the experience turned out to be unsatisfactory for both of them. When I asked why, he told me the ropes chafed. I often think of “the ropes chafing” when I warn someone that the unforeseen details of a sexual fantasy could possibly spoil it.
I expect the controversy about pornography will flare up all over again when the new, three-dimensional, virtual reality devices that are being designed are finally constructed. Sexual portrayals will prove very popular, I think. Someday, in the not far off future, pornography will reach its theoretical limit when a sense of touch is added to whatever medium is extant at the time. I am reminded of Woody Allen’s portrayal of the “orgasmatron” is his movie Sleeper, in which sexual fulfillment was obtained after a few minutes of bouncing around in what looked like a telephone booth. I don’t believe we’re headed that way, though. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
(c) Fredric Neuman