Emily Jamea, Ph.D., is a sex therapist, author and podcast host. You can find her here each month to share her latest thoughts about sex.
Have you ever dreamt of what it would be like to win the lottery? I know I have. It feels good to imagine who you’d share your winnings with, where you’d go on vacation and what you’d do with extra leisure time.
Have you ever allowed yourself to imagine how it would feel to take revenge on someone who betrayed you? I’ll admit — I’ve done that too. Of course, you’d never actually do the things you envision, but a certain satisfaction, a respite from the pain, comes when you imagine the feeling of seeking vengeance on someone who’s done you wrong.
Most people don’t think twice about lottery or revenge fantasies, but for some reason, when it comes to sexual fantasies, one question comes up over and over again — am I normal?
This was Tara’s question when she sought therapy with me. It was a cold January morning, and my old office was chilly. Tara, however, was flushed and red-faced.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud,” she started. “I have fantasies about things I’d never want to do in real life. I imagine myself at a sex party. I’m wearing a masquerade mask so that my identity is concealed. At this party, anything is possible. I let multiple men have sex with me, one after the next, and I love it. Sometimes I’m tied and bound. Other times, I’m the one moving from one person to the next. I feel like I’m normal in real life, but in these fantasies, I’m totally sex crazed. I don’t get it. I adore my husband, and I have no real desire to be with anyone else.
But for some reason, these images pop into my head when he and I are making love. Shouldn’t I be focused on him? What’s wrong with me?!”
Our ability to concoct mental imagery is one of the many things that makes humans superior to any other animal species. Imagination helps us problem-solve, reduce stress, set goals and foster empathy. Typically, it’s a quality that’s encouraged. Early childhood educators collaborate with young children in imaginative play. Fortune 500 companies give preference to candidates who demonstrate an ability to think outside the box.
When it comes to sexual thoughts, however, people tend to police their own minds. This is in part because of cultural and religious teachings. The United States is still very puritanical when it comes to sexuality. Women seem especially plagued by the fact that they have sexual thoughts. Culture around gender norms tell us that men think about sex all the time. It’s normal for them. But women, on the other hand, must only daydream about a bed of roses.
“I understand your concern,” I told Tara. “I’m hearing two parts to your story. One is that you feel disturbed by the nature of your fantasies and the second is that you feel ashamed that you have them while making love with your husband.”
“That’s right,” she replied.
“Let me address your first concern. The truth is, it’s more unusual for people not to fantasize than it is for them to fantasize. One of the largest surveys on sexual fantasies surveyed 4,175 American adults of all income brackets, races, religions, political affiliations, and sexual and gender identities who were involved in an array of relationship styles (single, dating, married, polyamorous) and found that 97% of them reported having sexual fantasies.
The researcher, Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., defined sexual fantasies as “any mental picture that comes to mind when you’re awake that ultimately turns you on.” He found that most sexual fantasies fall into seven broad categories. The top three are multiple partners, BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism; think 50 Shades of Grey), and sexual novelty and adventure. The remaining four categories are taboo/forbidden sex, nonmonogamy, passion and romance, and flexibility/gender-bending.”
“Wow.” Tara sat with her mouth agape. “I’m shocked to hear this. But what does it mean? There must be some significance. I can see working to accept my fantasies — at least I don’t feel so abnormal. But how do I stop them from happening when I’m with my partner?”
“People have sexual fantasies for all kinds of reasons. First, there is no indication that having fantasies means you’re unhappy with your relationship or sex life. For most people, it’s fun and pleasurable to imagine doing things you’d never actually do. Just because you imagine it doesn’t mean you’d enjoy it in real life. Sometimes there’s a deeper emotional or psychological element to fantasies. For example, it’s not uncommon for people in positions of power to fantasize about being forced to submit to someone else’s control. You described being turned on by the idea that so many men desire you that they can’t control themselves. Who doesn’t want to feel irresistible? Some people who have trauma in their past may find that sexual thoughts help them regain a sense of control over a situation they didn’t have control over in real life.
Now, to your point about fantasizing while with your partner. You have a few options. One, you can practice sexual mindfulness. Now that you know your fantasies are normal, my guess is you’ll be less emotionally worked up when you have them, which will make it easier to refocus on your body and your partner. Another option would be to create some space for them during partnered sex. Perhaps you can call on them to help build arousal, but then refocus on your partner when you feel sexually charged. Another option is to invite your partner to share in the experience. It might be fun to engage in some dirty talk that aligns with your fantasy with your partner from time to time. But at the end of the day, your fantasies are yours to share or keep private.”
Feeling more relaxed, Tara sat back and let the information sink in. No longer flushed, she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders.
Every human being deserves the pleasure they can get from sexual fantasies. And no matter what your fantasies are, they’re always safe, free and accessible — so, enjoy!
Names have been changed to protect privacy.