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What you need to know about sexual fantasies

What you need to know about sexual fantasies

Sexual fantasies are a normal part of sexual functioning, yet we often shy away from talking about them. We ask the experts about what triggers specific fantasies, what you should know if you decide to act one out for real, and what to do if you're worried by your fantasies.

Many people indulge in sexual fantasies as a regular part of their sex lives. Yet our scientific understanding of the subject is surprisingly limited. More recently though, researchers have begun to explore this area of our psyche in more depth.

"Normalising sexual fantasies is important," says psychosexual therapist Clare Faulkner. "Shame can be experienced when the subject matter strays from the perceived social norm. Fantasy offers the opportunity to explore sides of ourselves we wouldn't necessarily explore in normal life. It's important to emphasise that fantasy does not equate to reality."

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Common sexual fantasies and why we have them

The content of our sexual fantasies can be deeply connected to our personalities and our sexual histories. Early sensual experiences as children or adolescents may 'imprint' on our psyches and then play out through our sexual preferences and fantasies.

Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller recently surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about the content of their sexual fantasies for his book 'Tell Me What You Want' and found that seven major themes emerged. Faulkner also notes some of these common areas.

"The most common fantasies I see tend to relate to power, control and domination, multiple partnered sex, breaking taboos, novelty and adventure," she adds.

"Fantasy serves to create a cognitive space to induce and increase arousal and reduce anxiety. It may provide a space for escapism so the person can show up fully as their sexual self. Fantasy may allow the exploration of themes such as power in a healthy and controlled manner. As the author you get to decide what happens, when and how. From a psychological perspective, some fantasies may reveal an unmet or unfulfilled emotional need."

What influences our fantasies?

Psychotherapist Silva Neves was a featured therapist on the BBC's recent documentary series, Sex on the Couch. He explains that people's sexual fantasies are often influenced by pop culture, mass media and popular world events.

"When pornography website Pornhub released its annual review for 2019, an interesting and surprising category emerged as a top search - 'alien sex'! These statistics are useful because they give us a window into people's sexual fantasies. They confirm that fantasies aren't necessarily related to anything people would want to do in real life, it's just whatever lurks in the subconscious."

Sexual fantasies can be about transcending ourselves, and feeling creative and liberated in a completely different world, free from any of the constraints of everyday life.

"They can also help us to integrate our fears and issues," says Neves. "Sometimes fantasies are driven by violating prohibition, that is a very potent driver. If a person feels that something is perceived by society as bad, edgy or not politically correct, even if it's legal, it can be liberating to play it out in secret without judgement."

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Playing out fantasies in real life

Interestingly, another of Pornhub's top searches last year was for 'amateur' sex, so it seems people are also looking for more realistic depictions of sex. And some will choose to play out a favourite fantasy in real life.

"I don't prescribe couples to share all of their fantasies, but exploration of themes might be a space for play," advises Faulkner. "When fantasies are shared the couple may choose whether or not they want to act upon them."

Neves adds that sharing a fantasy with a partner can add excitement and bring something new to a relationship.

"You don't have to act it out, but just having a chat and a laugh about it can be a source of erotic fun," he suggests. "But be sensitive to your partner. You don't want them to feel inadequate or unable to live up to your fantasy world."

Patient picks for Sexual relationships

If you do want to try out a fantasy for real it's important to be mindful about consent. And to remember that consent can change quickly from a 'yes' to a 'no' as a sexual scenario develops. If this happens, you should stop immediately.

"If one partner wants to actually try out a fantasy, they need to explain clearly what is involved so their partner has all the information to make an informed decision before trying it," advises Neves. "And reassure your partner that you can stop at any time if they withdraw consent. You need to be saying, 'I love our sex life together, but I've got this fantasy I'm curious about trying. What are your thoughts and feelings about it?' Then it becomes a conversation."

He points out that a common mistake people make is to manipulate the situation because they feel uneasy talking about what they want to try.

"They bring in elements of their fantasy to sex without their partner’s consent," he explains. "For example, they might suddenly bring in some dominant play during sex which was not discussed. This can leave the other partner feeling that their consent has been breached and they might feel humiliated, shamed or violated. Talk to your partner and listen before rushing ahead."

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What if my fantasies aren't compatible with my partner's?

For some people kink and fetish are part of a broader palette of sexual fantasies and turn-ons. Whereas for others these behaviours are a more central feature of their sex lives.

"For some it's normal for a kink to be a dominant colour on their sexual palette. This means it is something they need to do regularly to become sexually aroused," explains Neves. "That could be problematic if the other partner isn't as turned on by it. They might be up for trying it now and again, but not all the time."

He suggests finding other 'erotic colours' on your partner's 'sexual palette' to engage with what you may be turned on by.

"Or you just have to accept that they may not be compatible as a sexual partner," he adds. "Remember though that some people have sexual fantasies and fetishes that they really don't want to play out in real life, so that's an important conversation to have with your partner."

When sexual fantasies are a cause for concern

Unusual fantasies are common. However, if a sexual fantasy becomes all-consuming and compulsive then it is important to seek professional help from a psychosexual therapist. Particularly if acting on it would breach the consent of others, or they are unable to give consent.

"For example, if someone becomes preoccupied with the fantasy of sexual contact with children, they might have some kind of pathology in terms of their sexuality," cautions Neves. "And it is important to seek support from a therapist who specialises in this area before they feel compelled to commit an offence. The therapist will provide a confidential space to assess them."

For support with issues of this nature, Neves suggests contacting the organisation StopSO which provides confidential advice and can make referrals to specialist therapists.

For other issues relating to sexual fantasies, or sexual functioning, your GP can refer you to a psychosexual counsellor or sex therapist. However, these services are not available on the NHS in all areas. Also, an NHS clinic may only offer a limited number of therapy sessions.

To find a qualified therapist privately, you can visit the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT) or the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine websites.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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