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Why People Have Sexual Fantasies They'd Never Act Out

Exploring a revulsion, or recognizing the consequences.

Key points

  • Sexual fantasy can help an individual explore a sexual curiosity or a repulsion.
  • It’s normal to have sexual fantasies that you don’t want to act upon.
  • Some sexual fantasies should not be realized, such as those involving issues of non-consent.

Just because an individual has a sexual fantasy doesn’t mean that they have an interest in acting it out. Part of having a fantasy is to explore an interest, a curiosity, even a repulsion. If someone hears about a sexual act that triggers disgust in the person, they may not full-stop ignore what they heard; they may briefly entertain a scenario in which they are a participant in the act they find repulsive. This may be done in part to validate that they have no interest in such a sexual act and in part to try to understand what others find enticing about it.

The same applies to curiosity. There is the fantasy to decide whether this is something of interest for the individual. If it is, they may be motivated to act on the desire. If not, the motivation will be blocked.

We can see a process in this with George Herbert Mead’s concept of “I” and “Me.” There is an ongoing internal negotiation between the “I” and the “Me.” The “I” is an impulse. A desire, in this case. The “Me” weighs the impulse against social engagement and normativity.

For instance, “I” want to cheat on my wife with another person. The “Me” notes that, in doing so, I will hurt my wife, likely bring an end to the marriage, end up feeling guilty, and be stigmatized by family and friends. Despite the impulsive desire of the “I,” the “Me” disrupts the transfer from a desire to behavior. Such conversations between the “I” and the “Me” occur continuously in our internal realm throughout our waking hours.

It is completely normal to have sexual fantasies that we will not act upon.

Just as a person may fantasize about having sex with someone other than their spouse, but not act upon it due to not wanting to hurt their spouse or face stigmatization or shame, they may also fantasize about what it would be like to engage in sadomasochism, but would not want to experience it due to not actually wanting to feel pain or humiliation. The fantasy may even involve non-consent, which shouldn’t be realized. Anyone browsing through porn sites on the internet may come across something new that sexually arouses them. They may be aroused, but that does not mean they want to play it out in real-time with others. Sometimes the private thrill is enough. Sometimes a perfectly good fantasy is spoiled when reality does not meet the ideal of the fantasy.

Vanessa Garcia/Pexels
Source: Vanessa Garcia/Pexels

A research participant of mine, Oliver (age 56), retains a cuckold fantasy. He is aroused by thoughts of walking in on his wife having sex with another man. This is a consistent sexual fantasy for Oliver and one that never fails to sexually excite him. It is also a fantasy that Oliver does not want to realize. He has not imparted the fantasy to his wife for the very reason that he doesn’t want even the thought of it to exist external to his mind.

Oliver: What do you call it when you want to catch your wife with someone else?

Interviewer: Cuckold fantasy.

Oliver: Is that it? I don’t want it, though I still think about it.

Interviewer: Have you told your wife about this fantasy?

Oliver: No. I have no interest in really doing it so there’s no need.

Interviewer: If this is something that arouses you, why don’t you want to pursue it?

Oliver: Are you kidding? I don’t want my wife [having sex with] someone else. I think it’s fun to think about […] If it was real, I might punch him in his [expletive] face…

(Wahl, 2020:145)

Oliver recognizes the negative impact that may come with the realization of his sexual fantasy. This is not necessarily about sexual suppression in the sense of denying what one wants sexually—that is a matter for another time. What I’m discussing here is the entertaining of a sexual fantasy that arouses the individual, but it’s just that—an entertaining thought. One can be sexually aroused without wanting the object of that arousal to be a reality.

In his landmark book, Tell Me What You Want, Justin Lehmiller (2018) notes that it’s important to acknowledge your desires and not run and hide from them. However, according to Lehmiller, “Not all fantasies can or should be acted upon, and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to act on yours—I don’t want to give you the impression that you have to be a slave to your own desires” (2018:231).

Key takeaways

There are few topics in human sexuality as complex as sexual fantasies. Living out sexual fantasies can greatly improve one’s sex life and contribute to increased sexual well-being. There are many benefits to acting on your sexual desires. But that does not mean you need to flip the switch from desire to behavior.

Sexual fantasy allows us to consider what we may like or what we certainly do not. Sexual fantasy also allows us to better understand the sexual predilections of another person. And sexual fantasy can just be fun, in and of itself.

In the mind, you control the fantasy. You have the final say in what happens, how, where, when, and with whom. You construct the fantasy in such a way that the scenario is perfect for you. There are no such guarantees in the real world.

Facebook image: bart78/Shutterstock


Lehmiller, Justin. (2018). Tell Me What You Want. New York, NY, Da Capo Press.

Wahl, D.W. (2020). Speaking through the silence: Narratives, interaction, and the construction of sexual selves. Iowa State University. Proquest Publishing.

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