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Sexual fantasy

A sexual fantasy, also called an erotic fantasy, is a fantasy or pattern of thoughts with the effect of creating or enhancing sexual feelings; in short, it is "almost any mental imagery that is sexually arousing or erotic to [an] individual".[1] A fantasy can be a long, drawn-out story or a quick mental flash of sexual imagery; its purpose can range from sexual motivations, such as sexual arousal and reaching orgasm, to simply passing time or helping a person fall asleep.

As a nearly universal phenomenon, sexual fantasy is an important study topic. A fantasy may be a positive or negative experience, or even both. It can reflect past experience and influence future sexual encounters. A person may not wish to enact a sexual fantasy in real life, and since the process is entirely imaginary, they are not limited to acceptable or practical fantasies, which can provide information on the psychological processes behind sexual behavior. Fantasies are theorized to play an important role in sexual offenses; similarly, a lack of fantasy, or guilt surrounding fantasy, may contribute to sexual dysfunction.

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife by Hokusai is an artistic depiction of a sexual fantasy.


[edit] Methodology

For simplicity, many studies of sexual fantasy concern themselves with conscious fantasies when a person is awake. These fantasies are often measured using one of three techniques:[2]

  1. Providing anonymous respondents with a checklist of fantasies and asking them to indicate which ones they have experienced, how often, and in what context. This method relies on retrospective recall, which may limit its accuracy. A checklist may not be comprehensive, and as a result may be biased towards some fantasies.
  2. Asking anonymous respondents to write, in narrative form, their sexual fantasies. This method also relies on retrospective recall. Some studies limit the number of fantasies entered (such as only the most frequent ones), and respondents may not write down all of their fantasies anyway-—they may forget infrequent fantasies, not want to write too many down, or be more subject to social desirability bias than with a checklist.
  3. Having respondents record the fantasies they experience over a given period of time via checklists or diaries. This method requires a long period of time to be representative, and may be impractical.

Researchers may use vaginal photoplethysmography, penile strain gauges, or other tools to measure signs of physical arousal, such as genital pulse amplitude, genital blood volume, and heart rate.[3] These results can be matched against a subject's self-reported arousal to help gauge accuracy.[4] A 1977 study found that males judged arousal based on blood volume far better than females, and that males and females were equal when judging arousal based on pulse amplitude measures.[5] Additionally, females were better at judging low arousal.[6]

As with studies of sex in general, samples used in studies may be too small, not be fully random, or not fully representative of a population. This makes similarities between studies especially important.[7] Women may be prone to underreporting the frequency of fantasy because they do not realize that they are becoming aroused, or they will not say that they are; one common problem is that they will imagine romantic imagery and become aroused, but not report the fantasy because it is not sexually explicit.[8] Many studies are modern and are carried out in western society, which, through factors like gender roles and taboo, are not widely representative, raising the need for more studies in different societies and historical eras.[9] With regards to age, there is very little knowledge of sexual fantasies in children aged 5 to 12, and there is a need for longitudinal studies across a life span.[10] Sex is often a taboo topic, so conducting a truly honest and representative example can be difficult in some areas. For example, a 1997 study on South Asian gay men found that almost 75% were afraid of being "found out," which complicates studies.[11]

[edit] Purposes of fantasy

This piece by Édouard-Henri Avril depicts fantasy being used to aid masturbation

The content and goal of a sexual fantasy vary greatly between individuals and are subject to personal desires. These fantasies range from the mundane to the bizarre, and a person may have zero to full desire to carry out an imagined act; people often use fantasy to help plan out future sexual encounters.[12] Fantasies occur in all individuals and at any time of the day, although it has been suggested that fantasies are more common among frequent daydreamers.[13] Fantasies are frequently used to escape real-life sexual restraints and to imagine dangerous or illegal scenarios, such as rape, castration, or kidnapping.[14] They allow people to imagine themselves in roles they do not normally have, such as power, innocence, and guilt.[15] Fantasies present enormous influence over sexual behaviour (hence the phrase "the brain is the largest sex organ"), and can be the sole cause of an orgasm.[16] While there are several common themes in fantasies, any object or act can be eroticized.[17]

Sexual fantasy is frequent during masturbation,[18] although this may be truer for men than for women.[A]

During sexual contact, some people use their fantasies to "turn off" undesirable aspects of an act.[19] For example, a woman receiving cunnilingus may shut out thoughts about her body's odours or fluids in order to fantasize about her physical or emotional pleasure. Conversely, a person may use fantasy to focus and maintain arousal, such as a man receiving fellatio ignoring a distraction.[20] Men tend to be aware of only parts of themselves during sex-—they are more likely to focus on the physical stimulation of one area, and as such, do not see themselves as a "whole."[21]

Many couples share their fantasies to feel closer and gain more intimacy and trust, or simply to become more aroused or effect a more powerful physical response.[22] Some couples share fantasies as a form of outercourse;[23] this has been offered as an explanation for the rise of BDSM during the 1980s — in order to avoid contracting HIV, people turned to BDSM as a safe outlet for sexual fantasy.[24] Couples may also act out their fantasies through sexual roleplay.

Fantasies may also be used as a part of sex therapy. They can enhance insufficiently exciting sexual acts to promote higher levels of sexual arousal and release. A 1986 study that looked at married women indicated that sexual fantasies helped them achieve arousal and orgasm.[25] As a part of therapy, anorgasmic women are commonly encouraged to use fantasy and masturbation.[26]

[edit] Common fantasies

Oral sex is one of the most common fantasies among men and women

Sexual fantasies are nearly universally experienced.[27] They can vary by gender, age, sexual orientation, and society; because of reliance on retrospective recall, response bias and taboo, there is an inherent difficulty in measuring the frequency of types of fantasies.[28] In general, the most common fantasies for men and women are: reliving an exciting sexual experience, imagining sex with a current partner, and imagining sex with a different partner. There is no consistent difference in the popularity of these three categories of fantasies.[29] The next most common fantasies involve oral sex, sex in a romantic location, sexual power or irresistibility, and forced sex.[30] According to a 2004 United States survey, the incidence of certain fantasies is higher than the actual performance:[31]

Fantasy Carried it out (%) Fantasized about it (%)
Infidelity 16 30
Threesome 14 21
Sex at work 12 10

[edit] Gender differences

Male fantasies tend to focus more on visual imagery and explicit anatomic detail, whereas women's fantasies tend to contain more emotion and affection. When compared to homosexual and heterosexual women, homosexual and heterosexual men are consistently found to be more interested in visual sexual stimulation and fantasies about casual sex encounters.[32]

Since numerous variables influence sexual fantasy, the differences between gender can be examined through multiple theoretical frameworks. Social constructionism predicts that sexual socialization is a strong predictor of sexual fantasy and that gender differences are the result of social influences. In contrast, sociobiology (also called evolutionary psychology or evolutionary theory) predicts that sexual fantasy is predisposed to biological factors.[33] For example, some studies have found that women prefer fantasizing about familiar lovers. A social constructionist explanation may say that this is because women are raised to be chaste and selective with men; a sociobiological theory may state that ancestral women preferred the reproductive security of having one partner, which is still ingrained in modern women.

[edit] Sexual orientation

In 1979, Masters and Johnson carried out one of the first studies on sexual fantasy in homosexual men and women, though their data-collection method is unclear. Their sample consisted of 30 gay men and lesbians, and they found that the five most common fantasies for gay men were images of sexual anatomy (primarily the penis and buttocks), forced sexual encounters, an idyllic setting for sex, group sex, and sex with women. A 1985 study found that homosexual men preferred unspecified sexual activity with other men, oral sex, and sex with another man not previously involved. In both studies, homosexual and heterosexual men shared similar fantasies, but with genders switched.[34] A 2006 non-representative study looked at homosexual men in India. It found that when compared to straight male fantasies, gay males were more focused on exploratory, intimate, and impersonal fantasies, which is a possible reflection on their lifestyles. There were no differences in sadomasochistic fantasies. In general, there was little difference in the top fantasies of homosexual versus heterosexual males. At the time of the study, homosexuality was illegal.[35]

A 2005 study compared straight and lesbian women in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and found some differences in the content of their fantasies. In gender-specific findings, lesbians had more fantasies about specific parts of a woman (face, breasts, clitoris, vagina, buttocks, arms or hair), while straight women had more fantasies about specific parts of a man's body (face, penis, buttocks, arms or hair). Lesbians also had more fantasies of "delighting many women"; there was no significant difference when subjects were asked if they fantasized about delighting many men. There was no significant difference in responses to questions that were not gender-specific.[36]

[edit] Force

Being forced or coerced into a sexual activity is a common theme in sexual fantasy. In particular, some studies have found that women tend to fantasize about being forced or coerced into sex more commonly than men. A 1974 study by Hariton and Singer found that being "overpowered or forced to surrender" was the second most frequent fantasy in their survey; a 1984 study by Knafo and Jaffe ranked being overpowered as their study's most common fantasy during intercourse; and a 1988 study by Pelletier and Herold found that over half of their female respondents had fantasies of forced sex. Other studies have found the theme, but with lower frequency and popularity. However, these female fantasies in no way imply that the subject desires to be forced into sex in reality—the fantasies often contain romantic images where the woman imagines herself being seduced, and the male that she imagines is desirable. Most importantly, the woman remains in full control of her fantasy. The fantasies do not usually involve the woman getting hurt. Conversely, some women who have been sexually victimized in the past report unwanted sexual fantasies, similar to flashbacks of their victimization. They are realistic, and the woman may recall the physical and psychological pain involved.[37]

The most frequently cited hypothesis for why women fantasize of being forced and coerced into some sexual activity is that the fantasy avoids societally induced guilt—the woman does not have to admit responsibility for her sexual desires and behavior. A 1978 study by Moreault and Follingstad was consistent with this hypothesis, and found that women with high levels of sex guilt were more likely to report fantasy themed around being overpowered, dominated, and helpless. In contrast, Pelletier and Herold used a different measure of guilt and found no correlation. Other research suggests that women who report forced sex fantasies have a more positive attitude towards sexuality, contradicting the guilt hypothesis.[38] A 1998 study by Strassberg and Lockerd found that women who fantasized about force were generally less guilty and more erotophilic, and as a result had more frequent and more varied fantasies. Additionally, it said that force fantasies are clearly not the most common or the most frequent.[39]

[edit] Social views of sexual fantasy

St. Sebastian has historically been depicted as both a religious icon and a figure of covert sexual fantasy

Social views on sexual fantasy (and sex in general) differ throughout the world. The privacy of a person's fantasy is influenced greatly by social conditions. Because of the taboo status of sexual fantasies in many places around the world, open discussion — or even acknowledgment — is forbidden, forcing fantasies to stay private. In more lax conditions, a person may share their fantasies with close friends, significant others, or a group of people with whom the person is comfortable.

The moral acceptance and formal study of sexual fantasy in Western culture is relatively new. Prior to their acceptance, sexual fantasies were seen as evil or sinful, and they were commonly seen as horrid thoughts planted into the minds of people by "agents of the devil."[40] Even when psychologists were willing to accept and study fantasies, they showed little understanding and went so far as to diagnose sexual fantasies in females as a sign of hysteria.[41] Prior to the early twentieth century, many experts viewed sexual fantasy (particularly in females) as abnormal. Sigmund Freud suggested that those who experienced sexual fantasies were sexually deprived or frustrated or that they lacked adequate sexual stimulation and satisfaction.[42] Over several decades, sexual fantasies became more acceptable as notable works and compilations, such as "Morality, Sexual Facts and Fantasies", by Dr Patricia Petersen, Alfred Kinsey's Kinsey Reports, Erotic Fantasies: A Study of the Sexual Imagination by Drs. Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, and Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, were published.[43] Today, they are regarded as natural and positive elements of one's sexuality, and are often used to enhance sexual practices, both in normal settings and in therapy.[44] Many Christians believe that the Bible prohibits sexual fantasies about people other than one's spouse in Matthew 5:28. However, this interpretation is disputed (especially as applied to non-married persons) because the passage attacks not fantasies but the lust that often precedes them. Others believe that St Paul includes fantasy when he condemns works of the flesh such as "immorality" or "uncleanness." Again, this is a subject of debate. Despite the Western World's relatively lax attitudes towards sexual fantasy, many people still feel shame and guilt about their fantasies. This may contribute to personal sexual dysfunction,[45] and regularly leads to a decline in the quality of a couple's sex life,[46] and an unhappy relationship.[47]

[edit] Guilt and jealousy

Guilt can be described as a self-imposed punishment for a moral infraction in which a person believes that they should have felt, thought, or acted differently in some situation.[48] Guilt about sex is associated with guilt about sexual thoughts. While most people do not feel guilty or disgusted by their fantasies, a substantial minority do. In general, men and women are equally represented in samples of those who felt guilt about their fantasies. The most notable exception was found in a 1991 study that showed that women felt more guilt and disgust about their first sexual fantasies. In women, greater guilt about sex was associated with less frequent and less varied sexual fantasies, and in men, it was associated with less sexual arousal during fantasies.[49] Women also reported more intense guilt than men; both sexes reported greater guilt if their arousal and orgasm depended on a fantasy.[50]

Studies have also been carried out to examine the direct connection between guilt and sexual fantasy, as opposed to sex and guilt. One study found that in a sample of 160 conservative Christians, 16% of men and women reported guilt after sexual fantasies, 5% were unhappy with themselves, and 45% felt that their fantasies were "morally flawed or unacceptable." Studies that examined guilt about sexual fantasy by age have unclear results—Knoth et al. (1998) and Ellis and Symons (1990) found that younger people tended to feel less guilt about their fantasies, whereas Mosher and White (1980) found the opposite.[51]

A 2006 study examined guilt and jealousy in American heterosexual married couples. It associated with guilt with an individual's fantasy ("How guilty do you feel when you fantasize about...") and jealousy with the partner's fantasy ("How jealous do you feel when your partner fantasizes about..."). Higher levels of guilt were found among women, couples in the 21–29 age range, shorter relationships and marriages, Republicans, and Roman Catholics; lower levels in men, couples in the 41–76 range, longer relationships, Democrats, and Jews. Higher levels of jealousy were found in women, couples in the 21–29 range, Roman Catholics and non-Jewish religious affiliations; lower levels were found in men, couples in the 41–76 range, and Jews and the non-religious.[52]

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Leitenberg and Henning charted multiple studies of men and women who fantasized during masturbation. More than half found that at least 80% of men claimed to have had fantasies during masturbation, and at least 67% of women reported the same.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 470
  2. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 470
  3. ^ Heiman 1977, p. 266
  4. ^ Heiman 1977, p. 271
  5. ^ Heiman 1977, p. 271-272
  6. ^ Heiman 1977, p. 272
  7. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 470
  8. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 475
  9. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 491
  10. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 491
  11. ^ Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 206
  12. ^ Wilson 1978, p. 9
  13. ^ Wilson 1978, p. 29
  14. ^ Scott 1994, p. 153
  15. ^ Scott 1994, p. 163
  16. ^ Rathus et al. 2005, p. 106
  17. ^ Scott 1994, p. 155
  18. ^ Rathus et al. 2005, p. 206
  19. ^ Fisher 1989, p. 275
  20. ^ Fisher 1989, p. 274
  21. ^ Fisher 1989, p. 151
  22. ^ Scott 1994, p. 163
  23. ^ Rathus et al. 2005, p. 463
  24. ^ Scott 1994, p. 157
  25. ^ Nicholas & 2004 38
  26. ^ Rathus et al. 2005, p. 398
  27. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 469
  28. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 470
  29. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 481
  30. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 481
  31. ^ ABC News 2004, p. 27
  32. ^ Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 198
  33. ^ Davidoff 2005
  34. ^ Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 199
  35. ^ Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 206
  36. ^ Girolami 2005, p. 35-36
  37. ^ Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, p. 404-405
  38. ^ Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, p. 405
  39. ^ Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, p. 416
  40. ^ Rathus et al. 2005, p. 225
  41. ^ Scott 1994, p. 153
  42. ^ Frostino & 2006 9
  43. ^ Wilson 1978, p. 10
  44. ^ Frostino & 2006 9
  45. ^ Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 198
  46. ^ Scott 1994, p. 82
  47. ^ Scott 1994, p. 101
  48. ^ Frostino & 2006 10
  49. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 478-479
  50. ^ Frostino 2006, p. 9-10
  51. ^ Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 478-479
  52. ^ Frostino 2006, p. 152-178

[edit] References

Journal articles


  • Fisher, Seymour (1989), Sexual Images of the Self: The Psychology of Erotic Sensations and Illusions (First ed.), Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., ISBN 0-8058-0439-0 
  • Friday, Nancy (1998). Men In Love. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 0-385-33342-0.
  • Rathus, Spencer A.; Nevid, Jeffrey S.; Fichner-Rathus, Lois; Herold, Edward S.; McKenzie, Sue Wicks (2005), Human sexuality in a world of diversity (Second ed.), New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, ISBN 1-205-46013-5 
  • Scott, Gini Graham (1994), The Power of Fantasy: Illusion and Eroticism in Everyday Life (First ed.), New York, New York: Carol Publishing Group, ISBN 1-55972-239-8 
  • Wilson, Glenn Daniel (1978), The secrets of sexual fantasy (First ed.), London, England: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., ISBN 0-460-04309-9 

Theses and dissertations

  • Davidoff, Orion (2005), Social Influences As A Mediator Of Gender Differences In Sexual Fantasy, Sexual Desire, and Sexual Behavior , presented to the Department of Psychology of the University of South Carolina.
  • Frostino, Andrea Taylor (August 2006), Guilt And Jealousy Associated With Sexual Fantasies Among Heterosexual Married Individuals , presented to the Faculty of the School of Human Service Professions, Widener University.
  • Girolami, Lisa (August 2005), A Comparison Of The Content Of Sexual Fantasies Of Lesbian And Heterosexual Women , presented to the Department of Educational Psychology, Administration, and Counseling, California State University.


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