Swell’s October theme is Our Shadow Selves. During the liminal space between winter and harvest, what can we learn about our darker, unconscious impulses? How can we access our hidden desires and fantasies? This month, we’re inviting you to put aside your inhibitions, try on new roles, and tap into new sexual and emotional dimensions.
Ah, the sexual fantasy: a roaming, sexy series of erotic images that float into your conscious brain when aroused or looking to become aroused.
Chances are, you have a highly erotic fantasy right now deep in the back of your brain — but maybe you feel a little uneasy communicating it to a partner or, dare I say, acting upon it. And this is very normal. We have been exposed to the running narrative that anything more than “acceptable” sex is something to feel shame over and to keep hidden to avoid judgment. But the truth is: there is no such thing as normal sex — there is sex with consenting adults who are respectful to each other’s boundaries.
This month, we are embracing the inner, shadowy parts of ourselves to find connections and touch-points, as well as what imparts that glorious O to our bodies. And with that, taking steps toward learning more about what arouses us, why, and which ones we want to act out (if any) should fill us with excitement without any shame attached.
As we have learned from food, sex, work dynamics, pleasure chemicals, and anorgasmia, sex holds a lot of emotional weight. Sexual and erotic fantasies are excellent breadcrumbs that can lead us to deeper sexual experiences with our bodies, but also our brains. Got a sexual fantasy? Good. Let’s start exploring what it means, how it’s perfectly normal, how to communicate it, and how to explore it safely.
First: What is a sexual fantasy? A sexual or erotic fantasy is the mental picture that can prompt or enhance sexual arousal. While they can seem like frivolous thoughts that enter our brain for no reason, they are actually an incredibly important part of our psyche, the human imagination, and creativity! Think of fantasizing as a brainstorm. You start with one idea and that branches off to another, and then another . . . and then another. Until you find yourself with a multitude of ways to experience this one idea. We make the rules — and in turn we learn to be more focused and descriptive in our day-to-day life.
Step 1: Give Yourself Permission to Fantasize
You’re there in the fantasy. Where are you? Who is with you? What is the temperature? What are you wearing? Build out the fantasy and reach for something different every time you come back to it. Remember, this is exciting and completely normal to explore. As you do this more and more, it will become easier to silence any shame-thoughts that poke an opinion into your fantasy. We’re not consenting to being shamed!
Many researchers have found that there is a link between the attachment patterns that develop early on in our childhood and our adult sexual fantasies.
Just like a non-sexual fantasy, fantasizing can foster a greater sense of self all within the safe boundaries of our brains. We can go farther, explore deeper, and motivate ourselves toward a goal. While fantasizing might not be considered a productive use of time, or laden with rationality, or connected to external validation, they allow us to see ourselves in different ways that can help boost our confidence and self-esteem. And in the case of more forbidden or taboo sexual fantasies, we can jump-start our sex drive without crossing a line in our real lives. While our physical lives exist within the boundaries we set with ourselves and others, sexual fantasies have a safe spot in our minds to explore.
The term micro-cheating popped up a few years ago on Twitter, described as minor activities that stop short of having sex with another person — lumping sexual fantasizing into that category. While, yes, it’s super-uncool to DM another person erotic messages under a different handle so that you won’t get caught by your S.O. (shady), it’s also not okay to demand that our sexual partners only exist to pay attention to us. While communication and boundary-setting are prime goals within a relationship, it’s also important to understand why no-fantasizing-about-others requests are problematic.
It’s virtually impossible to find one person that meets all of your sexual and emotional needs. Monogamy is a social construct possibly created through the discovery of STIs, the inception of the agricultural movement to retain and gain land through marriage, and/or for male primates to protect their offspring. It also may have been established as a stabilizing counterpoint to the heavily researched Coolidge Effect, which finds that sexual arousal decreases for a partner over time, yet will surge as a response to a new sexual partner.
So, no: Sexual fantasies are not cheating! Our IRL lives are stressful, complex, and inundated with the collective sigh that is 2020. Because of that, it might be difficult from time to time to focus and get aroused when you’re with a partner, no matter how sexually or emotionally fulfilled you are. This is where that robust sexual fantasy can be a bridge to increase intimacy — and is perfectly normal to do!
Step 2: Put Your Sexual Fantasies in Context
One of the more interesting pieces of sexual fantasies is what they mean about our IRL personality. Of course, some things are just hot and really exciting to play and rewind in your head. But others have common themes that can lead to real-life realizations.
Many researchers have found that there is a link between the attachment patterns that develop early on in our childhood and our adult sexual fantasies. In the 2013 edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Gurit E. Birnbaum described these styles as mental models for how our caregivers treated us in those formative years:
- Secure Attachment: Have positive views of themselves, their attachments, are comfortable with intimacy, and independence because of warm and responsive interactions with caregivers from early childhood.
- Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: Often uncomfortable with close relationships and have a sense of anxiousness associated with untrusting actions from their caregiver.
- Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: Connected to fearing rejection or suppressing their feelings in order to not be hurt.
- Fearful Avoidant Attachment: Wanting a close relationship but avoid attachment because of negative views of themselves, viewing themselves as unworthy of that affection.
In the study, Birnbaum found that people with avoidant attachment fantasized with aggressive and emotional distancing themes whereas anxious attached people fantasized about the security of their relationship with nurturing acts. While not the same, there are connecting points between attachment patterns in adults and children’s fantasy bond, i.e. a defensive mechanism that provides an illusion of safety from caretakers that isn’t actually there. Adults who have experienced the fantasy bond tend to internalize that fantasy connection into negative self-image, an overactive inner saboteur, or recreating past negative family dynamics — and this feeds into an individual’s attachment style.
If you’re looking to enact a fantasy in the flesh, we recommend that you get to know the fantasy first on your own terms.
That said, while all of this can be helpful and fascinating, it’s difficult to make grand statements about one’s sexual fantasies when human sexuality and needs are so complex. Two people can have the exact same fantasy for completely different reasons. Without understanding the motivation, it’s difficult to pinpoint what it means about you in the IRL. However, common fantasy themes do link us to certain emotional needs that we humans are seeking.
Step 3: Analyze Common Themes
If someone were to ask you what were your top five sexual fantasies, would you be able to connect any attachment patterns or themes? How does power, control, submission, emotion, playfulness live in your sexual fantasies? Take some time to write down your fantasies and their common themes. It’s a great way to get more attuned to what you might be craving in your day-to-day life, but also a perfect, tiny step to embracing those inner fantasies.
Taking ownership over your sexual fantasies doesn’t mean they need to go further than your brain if that’s not what you want. Fantasies are our own to covet or share as we see fit. However, if you’re looking to enact a fantasy in the flesh, we recommend that you get to know the fantasy first on your own terms. That means giving yourself permission to fantasize, ridding yourself of shameful thoughts when considering it, and writing it down to perfectly understand what is happening. That way, when you’re communicating with your sexual partner, we can stay without our boundaries and really dive into the fantasy.
So, you might be thinking, I have to speak to my partner about this? I hate to break this to you but your partner can’t read your mind — though, that would be beyond helpful. In order to clearly communicate your wants and needs, we do have to have a conversation with the person (or people) who are making these fantasies come to life, not only to make this scene feel real but also so that they are keeping within the boundaries of your fantasy and their own limits. Similar to mutual masturbation or even talking about porn with your partner, this is a great opportunity to have a real conversation about the things you’re interested in, maybe research the topic together, or discuss how others can be incorporated into the play. You never know what you both will have in common!
Sexual fantasies are to be loved, considered, explored — and having the agency to explore further allows us to develop a stronger comfort with these fantasies, thus releasing any kind of odd or shameful feelings we have about them.
Step 4: Act Out the Fantasy
Need some help starting? Trying this little step-by-step to acting out a fantasy.
- Name The Fantasy. What is it? How do you want it to go? Write it out and understand what your boundaries and limits are.
- Talk To Your Play Partner. Talk about what you’re interested in over dinner — find space away from the bedroom (or play area) to understand what is needed from both (or more) parties.
- Safe Words. Act on safe words whenever the scene feels too far past your boundaries.
- Set The Mood. Dress up, put on makeup, play music, create a backstory. The more you feel it, the easier it will be to give into the sexual fantasy.
- Go With The Flow. Are we not sticking to the bulleted script of this fantasy . . . but it still feels good? Go with it and see where it takes you. Your safe words are there for you!
It’s easy to think about sexual fantasies as permanently hidden in the back of our brains or things that need to be far removed from our personalities — but we are our sexual fantasies. They are part of us and how we have experienced or will experience this world. Embracing them gets us one step closer to embracing ourselves.