Three years ago psychotherapist Brett Kahr carried out an unprecedented investigation into the sexual fantasies of 19,000 British people. The data was published by Penguin in his book ‘Sex and the Psyche”. In this wonderful extract Kahr answers all the questions about fantasy that you have ever been afraid to ask. And then some…
The Ten Key Dimensions of Sexual Fantasy
Question 1: What is a sexual fantasy?
Sexual fantasy may be defined as an image, a thought or a fully elaborated drama, which passes through our mind principally during sexual activity, either coital or masturbatory, often resulting in orgasm. Sexual fantasies must be discriminated from sexual day- dreams or fleeting sexual thoughts. Sexual fantasies may be very simple or highly complex, may be tender or sadistic and may cause us psychological pleasure or psychological pain. In general, we keep our sexual fantasies hidden from our partners, and even from our psychotherapists or other confidants.
Question 2: What constitutes a ‘normal’ sexual fantasy?
Having now studied over 19,000 British sexual fantasies, I cannot identify a so-called ‘normal’ fantasy. It would be far too facile to describe as normal only those fantasies involving loving, genital intercourse with one’s long-term partner or spouse. I certainly interviewed many hap- pily married people who harboured very aggressive fantasies, often about their beloved spouses, in fact. On the basis of the data, I must conclude that the British mind contains much diversity and complexity, and, therefore, speaking about a ‘normal’ fantasy may well be meaningless.
Question 3: Why do we have sexual fantasies in the first place?
We do not actually know how and why sexual fantasies first de- veloped. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that sexual fan- tasies contribute to the facilitation of sexual arousal, which, in turn, facilitates procreation. Thus sexual fantasies may play an important, previously unrecognized role in the continued propagation of the human species. Freudian psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, by contrast, have speculated that our fantasies may have developed as a means both of gratifying wishes and of conquering intrusive memories of early traumatic experiences.
Question 4: What purpose do our sexual fantasies serve?
I have already enumerated fourteen separate reasons as to why we might fantasize, ranging from wish-fulfilment and mastery of trauma, to self-medication against pain, to the elaboration of childhood play. For many, fantasies remain an unending source of fun and enjoy- ment; for others, a constant reminder of early injuries. For a large percentage of individuals our fantasies will provide pleasure and pain simultaneously. Sexual fantasies serve, no doubt, a multiplicity of interrelated functions.
Question 5: Does everybody have sexual fantasies?
According to psychoanalytical clinicians, everyone has unconscious fantasy structures; in other words, subterranean tendencies to have certain preferences or to act in certain predictable ways (whether sadistically, masochistically, depressively and so forth). In most adults, these unconscious fantasy structures will find representation in our conscious sexual fantasies, which occur during masturbation or dur- ing intercourse with a partner. According to the British Sexual Fantasy Research Project, at least 90 per cent of all British adults will experi- ence daydreams, which may or may not be of a sexual nature. As for sexual fantasies, the data reveals that approximately 96 per cent of British adult males report having sexual fantasies, and approximately 90 per cent of British adult females do so. It should be noted that these might well be conservative figures, as I have met many individuals over the years who profess, on first questioning, to have no sexual fantasies at all, but later on, often during the course of psychotherapy, will admit to fantasizing in a sexual manner.
Question 6: Should we be worried if we have no fantasies at all?
A separate study would be required to assess the personality character- istics of the non-fantasizers. At the present time, we cannot make a reliable differentiation between those people who report sexual fan- tasies and those who do not. On the basis of my clinical experience, however, I have noted, albeit informally, that many of those who claim to have no sexual fantasies may well be struggling with strong feelings of shame and guilt around sexual matters, and might utilize the defence mechanism of repression as a means of banishing all sexual thoughts from the mind.
Question 7: Should we ever share our fantasies with our partners?
As I have already indicated, I cannot provide a definitive answer to this most complex of questions. I have reported cases where partners seem to have benefited from having discussed their sexual fantasies with one another; but, similarly, I have also identified some couples who experienced great distress upon learning of one another’s truest fantasies. Some couples have claimed that risking self-disclosure about such intimate matters promotes further emotional trust and union. Much will depend, of course, on the pre-existing strength of the couple’s attachment to one another. Above all, one must proceed with thoughtfulness before deciding whether or not to share one’s most private sexual fantasies.
Question 8: Should we ever share our fantasies with our friends?
Often, it might feel rather less exposing and rather more manageable to share fantasies with friends than with partners. I know of many men, for example, who would not hesitate to talk about extramarital affairs or rape fantasies with their buddies at a Friday-night poker game, but who would never dream of discussing such fantasies with their female partners, for fear of causing outrage or offence. Similarly, I have interviewed a number of women who have shared fantasies with their girlfriends, particularly those involving men with extremely large genitals, but who would not impart this to their husbands or boyfriends for fear of promoting feelings of inadequacy. Although entrusting one’s fantasies to a friend may be an act of great faith, and may serve to enrich the friendship, one must remember that friend- ships can, and often do, sour, sometimes promoting paranoid anxieties that promises of confidentiality will be broken along with the friendship.
Question 9: Would it be wise to act out our sexual fantasies with our lovers?
Acting out fantasies requires a great deal of compassion, creativity and trust on behalf of the partnership; and I have seen a number of marriages founder when such role plays have gone awry. Certainly, psychotherapists would recommend much consideration before enacting a sexual fantasy scenario, bearing in mind that a fantasy and a reality might be experienced rather differently. One must also be prepared for some surprises. I recently interviewed a woman who indulged her husband’s wish to spank her and call her a ‘bitch’. When the husband described the potential scenario, the wife became excited, and offered her consent. But when the couple actually brought this fantasy to life, the wife felt ‘cheapened’ and ‘revolted’, and she deeply regretted her decision. For many, the fantasy excites precisely because it will never be enacted.
Question 10: Can our fantasies ever be damaging or dangerous?
In some instances, sadistic fantasies can serve as stepping-stones to sadistic actions. My colleagues and I in the forensic mental health field certainly know of many cases of patients whose criminal career began in their own minds. Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to interview a psychotic serial killer in a maximum-security setting. I learned that, before his incarceration, this man could make love to his wife only if he fantasized about clutching a switchblade knife. Some years previously, he had embarked on a killing spree, using a knife as his weapon, causing much carnage. Of course, not all examples will be nearly as dramatic as this, but in many instances fantasies can still, none the less, damage us by reinforcing self- destructive patterns of behaviour and thought.
Question 11: If we fantasize about ‘ordinary’ sex, does this mean that we must be boring?
I remain deeply struck by the number of people that I have met who feared that they might have ‘boring’ fantasies, especially those which involved making love to their boyfriends and girlfriends, or their husbands and wives. As yet, I can find no formal, documentable correlation between richness of fantasy life and richness of external life (as measured by conversational fluency, academic achievement and a host of other variables). Clinically speaking, however, I did find quite a number of the interviewees who shared rather simple, non-elaborate sexual fantasies to be also rather simple and non- elaborate in their general demeanour; therefore, subsequent research may perhaps establish a link between the richness of one’s fantasy content and the richness of one’s social, professional or domestic life. As yet, I can offer no definite pronouncement on this matter.
Question 12: If we have very outlandish fantasies, does this mean that we must be mentally unbalanced?
Those individuals who presented with very elaborate and complex fantasies seemed to come from every walk of life. Among the clinical interviewees whose fantasies could be described as ‘outlandish’, I detected no traces of formal mental illness. In fact, the most psycho- logically troubled participant in the interview cohort had, in fact, the least complex and least intricate fantasies of all the many research participants.
Question 13: If we fantasize about our partners during sex or during masturbation, does that mean that we have a good relationship?
Men and women who provide evidence of having a high fidelity quotient – in other words, those who do fantasize about their spouses or regular partners as a matter of course – will often, though not invariably, have a very good, strong relationship. However, I know of many securely attached marriages in which neither partner fantasizes about the other, thereby offering evidence of a low fidelity quotient. Similarly, I know of couples with a high fidelity quotient, fantasizing frequently about their spouses, who also engage in multiple extra- marital affairs, and who report very bitter and strained marriages.
Question 14: If we fantasize about someone other than our partners during sex or masturbation, does that mean that our relationship might be in trouble?
If we find ourselves in the grip of an intra-marital affair, this does not necessarily prove that our relationship must be in trouble; however, the intra-marital affair may often be a harbinger of subsequent marital difficulties. By fantasizing about someone other than our regular partner, our unconscious mind will have generated an opportunity for us to examine our relationship – an opportunity to inquire privately and honestly whether there may be difficulties which will have propelled us into the arms of a fantasied lover. We may conclude our self- examination delighted by the knowledge that our relationship remains intact, and that our intra-marital affair represents no more than a playful indulgence.
Question 15: If we fantasize about something ‘illegal’, does this mean that we may be at risk of acting it out?
Fortunately, fantasy often exerts a hugely containing function for the human mind, and, as a result, we manage to encapsulate some of the more aggressive and destructive aspects of our personalities into the fantasy content itself. I certainly talked to many doctors, priests, social workers, nurses and other members of the ‘caring professions’ who have had very violent fantasies, which they have never enacted, and will never enact. If, however, the fantasy becomes perverse, in other words, unmitigatedly sadistic, repeated compulsively and unceasingly, then one would represent a somewhat higher risk for ultimate enactment. However, mercifully, even those with compelling perverse paedophilic fantasies, for example, will often refrain from ever harming any children in real life. If one finds oneself struggling with ‘illegal’ fantasies about cruelty and torture, this may indicate a severe difficulty with aggression, owing to earlier childhood trauma; and in such instances, it might be prudent to consult a qualified mental health professional, especially if one has worries about the likelihood of an eventual enactment.
Question 16: Do our fantasies represent just a bit of private fun, or do they have implications for how we lead our lives?
In Chapter 24 on the so-called ‘bedroom–boardroom’ phenomenon, I advanced the hypothesis that our fantasies may determine not only how we approach our intimate relationships, but also our working lives. I suspect that the bedroom spills into the boardroom more dangerously in those individuals with unprocessed and untreated his- tories of trauma, but this may not invariably be the case. For many, the fantasy remains safely encapsulated or integrated in the mind, so that it can function with a reasonable degree of non-conflictualness.
Question 17: How can we explain the range of fantasies experienced by human beings – in other words, why do some people prefer to be kissed and cradled while others enjoy the infliction of often agonizing physical pain?
I have two answers to this particular question. In large measure, the content and the structure of our fantasies will depend on the nature of our infantile and childhood experiences. Those individuals who have experienced a great deal of childhood trauma will be more prone to regular fantasies of sadism. However, some individuals with horrifically abusive histories have rather tender fantasies, but only because, in my estimation, they enact their abusiveness in real-life, destructive activities. I have, however, met many people with relatively stable histories who have, none the less, quite lurid fantasies, and here one must allow for the possibility that aggressively tinged fantasies can result not only from primary trauma, but also from creativity and from the capacity to allow oneself to regress to a more primitive mental state, without becoming fixated at an infantile level of func- tioning. In other words, most aggressive and destructive fantasies stem from early abuse, but in some cases these fantasies might actually represent a developmental achievement, having acquired the capacity to expand one’s mind to encompass all variety of human experience, without actually acting out such experiences.
Question 18: Can we ever change our fantasies?
For the most part, my clinical data indicates that fantasy structures remain reasonably constant throughout adult life; however, I do know that changes in the emotional state of one’s intimate relationship can either fuel or quell particular fantasy constellations. One of my patients, a law-abiding male, had very aggressive masturbatory fan- tasies about raping women; yet, these fantasies became prominent only when he fought with his wife. During periods of marital content- ment, the patient seemed to have much less need to masturbate to his rape fantasies. One should also mention, perhaps, what I have come to call the ‘Krakatoa Complex’, a phenomenon whereby some external or internal event will serve as a trigger, opening up a whole new world of fantasy possibilities which have lain dormant, often for many years. As yet, we have few case reports in the clinical psychotherapeutic literature about structural changes in the nature of masturbatory fantasies and coital fantasies to draw any substantial conclusions. Most case reports of long psychoanalytical treatments do not chron- icle or explore the changes in sexual fantasy content or frequency over time, because hitherto most mental health professionals have refrained from investigating this area in a sustained manner.
Question 19: How often do we lie about our sexual fantasies?
In retrospect, I wish I had included a question of this nature as part of my computer-administered survey for the British Sexual Fantasy Research Project. I do not know the answer to this question, although, on the basis of my clinical work, I suspect that human beings lie quite regularly about their fantasies. In an extremely large number of cases, both in my psychodiagnostic interviewing and in my psychothera- peutic practice with patients, I remain impressed by the number of times that men and women have prefaced their discussion of sexual fantasies with the qualifying phrase, ‘I’ve never told this to anyone before,’ or ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you this.’ Certainly, I have noted a distinction between ‘true fantasies’ and ‘pub fantasies’. As I mentioned previously, a man in a pub sharing a fantasy with his friends may well be telling the truth when he reports a wish to have sex with Britney Spears, but in most instances his report of the fantasy will stop at this point, devoid of the more revealing details of what he wishes to do to Britney Spears, or with Britney Spears or vice versa. Sexual fantasy still remains a relatively taboo area of discourse, and because of the ignorance, shame and secrecy that still surround the topic, many people do lie about the content of their fantasies, unsure of what response a more honest revelation would elicit.
Question 20: Do our sexual fantasies differ from our daydreams or night-time dreams?
Sexual fantasies differ from daydreams and night-time dreams in that most sexual fantasies involve explicitly sexual material and culminate in an orgasm, whereas most daydreams and night-time dreams do not concern quite such overtly sexual matters, and do not result in climax. Of course, the line between daytime and night-time cognition, and conscious and unconscious cognition, can readily become blurred, and many teenage boys will sometimes experience an ejaculation or ‘wet dream’ at night more powerfully than one during waking coitus or masturbation. A more extensive, comparative analysis of the differ- ences between these varying states of mind would be a most welcome contribution to psychological studies.
Question 21: Is there a difference between the fantasies that we have during sex with a partner and the fantasies that we indulge in during private masturbation?
One striking difference does exist between coital fantasies in the pres- ence of a partner and masturbatory fantasies in the absence of a partner – principally, the fidelity quotient. In other words, we will be much more likely to fantasize about our partners during intercourse than during masturbation. The complexity of a fantasy may also depend upon the duration of the lovemaking session. Those who have quick intercourse may not have sufficient time for a detailed fantasy to unfold, whereas those people who devote a longer, more luxurious period of time to masturbation may be surprised at what might emerge. Likewise, prolonged intercourse may produce more intricate fantasies, and quick masturbation may not require much fantasy stimulation at all.
Question 22: Do we control our fantasies, or do our fantasies control us?
In many ways, this could be described as the $64,000 question, the subject of much contention and controversy in psychological and sexological circles. As a psychotherapist, I have met too many people over the years whose fantasies have troubled them (because of religious prohibitions, parental prohibitions, repetitions of early sexual abuse or any combination thereof), and who have desperately attempted to erase these sexual fantasies from their minds; but in virtually every case, the fantasies continue to erupt into consciousness, Krakatoa-style, and cannot readily be avoided. Certainly, highly traumatized individuals have very little conscious control over their fantasies. Another one of my patients, who claimed to be able to fantasize about ‘anything and everything’, described himself as an ‘erotic sculptor’. As he remarked, ‘Give me a topic, and I can turn it into a fantasy, just like a sculptor takes a piece of clay and can turn it into anything.’ Undoubtedly, some people have more control over the direction of their fantasies. But, on the whole, I have found that in the majority of instances we may not be the ultimate architects of our sexual fantasy lives, much as we may wish to be. As a young gay male patient once reported, ‘If I could be straight, I would. Life would be so much easier, and my parents would be cooler about everything. But I can’t. I just can’t fantasize about women. So that’s that.’ One should allow for the possibility that, while some Britons may be able to sculpt their erotic lives, for many the erotic propensities will sculpt them.
You can buy Brett’s book from the Penguin Website