The Psychology Behind Your Sexual Imagination

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mating in Captivity" by Esther Perel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do sexual fantasies tell us about ourselves? What do they symbolize? And why do we keep them to ourselves?

Our sexual imagination is a gateway to our sexuality—erotic fantasies reveal a lot about our inner sexual worlds. According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, sexual fantasies are unlike regular fantasies in the sense that they are symbolic, not literal. Further, sexual fantasies are often in contradiction with our self-image which is why people tend to keep them to themselves.

Keep reading learn about the psychology behind sexual fantasy and what your sexual thoughts reveal about you.

Eroticism and Sexual Imagination

Sexual fantasies are imaginings that create desire and excitement. Historically, Christianity viewed sexual fantasy as a sin, and psychology viewed it as a perversion. Today, though, psychologists consider sexual imagination a natural, healthy part of adult sexuality. Eroticism thrives on imagination and creative freedom. Fantasy fits naturally into eroticism, whether the fantasy is unique to the individual or shared by the couple.

When most people think of fantasies, they tend to think of cowboys, kilts, or threesomes. However, fantasies aren’t always scripted, articulate, or wildly different from real life—they’re simply fictions that create desire. Women tend to have more trouble owning their sexual thoughts, so they may think they don’t fantasize even if they do.

Example #1: Lucas spent his adolescence pretending to be straight, going so far as to sleep with a cheerleader because he thought it would be suspicious if he turned her down. Once he grew up, he moved away and came out. He knows that many gay guys fantasize about turning straight men, so he does still pretend to be straight sometimes, so other gay men will desire him. 

Example #2: Claudia imagines how her husband Jim might approach her in a way that’s totally different from how he comes onto her normally. Instead of going straight for her breast, he touches her arm first, and then asks if he can touch her breast. Even though it’s perfectly possible that Jim could approach Claudia this way in real life, it’s still a fantasy, because he doesn’t.

Should You Share?

People often keep quiet about their fantasies. Reluctance to share fantasies can be because of embarrassment, shame, or fear of judgement. Because so few people talk about their fantasies, there’s no benchmark for what’s normal. People don’t know if everyone else is thinking the same things they are.

Sharing fantasies can be a turn on, but it can also make them less powerful as aphrodisiacs, or at worst result in devastating judgement. Perel doesn’t think it’s necessary to share our fantasies if we don’t want to.

If you do want to share, you need to be sensitive and tactful. Certain fantasies, especially those that involve violence or power imbalances, might frighten or offend your partner. Even if the fantasy isn’t that intimate, sharing it can be an intimate experience. 

You also need a healthy sense of separateness to enter someone else’s fantasy. You might not find their fantasy sexy or you might not like it, but however you feel about it, your reaction will have an impact on your partner. Eroticism doesn’t thrive in a critical and judgmental environment.

Common Fantasies

There are many common fantasies and we’ll talk about two below: unemotional sex and aggressive sex.

Unemotional Sex

Fantasies sometimes involve stock characters with no emotional complexity. Consider heterosexual pornography, which is mostly created by and for men. Pornographic fantasies are usually about unemotional sex. This can be a way of separating real relationships from aggressive urges that might be a detriment to them. Fantasy unemotional sex can also be a barrier against male insecurity. Female characters are invulnerable and always responsive and wanting sex. Men in porn are never inadequate, because they always fully satisfy the woman.

Aggressive Sex

It’s not uncommon for women to fantasize about sexual aggression. Sexually aggressive women don’t fit into cultural norms, so much so that sometimes women can only express their aggression in their imaginations⁠—and even then, sometimes only vicariously. An invented man in a fantasy can be a woman’s stand-in for her own aggression if she’s not comfortable imagining herself being aggressive. There’s obviously some tension here⁠—real sexual abuse happens, and it’s horrible. But in fantasies including sexual aggression, the assault isn’t real, and it’s usually nonviolent. 

Extended Example: Joni’s Cowboy Fantasy

In real life, Joni’s with Ray. She knows she’s not getting what she wants from Ray, but she doesn’t know exactly what she does want. In her latest fantasy, her husband (who isn’t Ray) dresses her for dinner with a group of cowboys. After eating, her husband asks her to undress, and she does, and then he challenges the cowboys to bring her to sexual ecstasy. Joni worries this means that she’s a masochist because she follows her husband’s orders and lets the cowboys do whatever they want. That’s a literal interpretation though, and sexual fantasies are more symbolic. In Joni’s fantasy, she’s actually the one who has control, as she’s the one scripting the scene. The fantasy is more about attention and vulnerability than pain. 

Joni is a recovering alcoholic and has trouble with dependency. In real life, she denies a need for support and doesn’t ask for help, even though privately, she’d really like both. Her cowboy fantasy gives her both—she’s at the mercy of others but she’s not actually powerless. Importantly, the qualities she doesn’t like about herself are why she’s liked in her fantasy. In her fantasy, she’s passive. The cowboys’ “power” over her is in fact caring about her. The cowboys don’t need any care themselves, so Joni doesn’t have to worry about the social pressure to be a caretaker herself.
Once Joni realized what her fantasies were actually about, her relationship with Ray changed. Ray had always thought all women wanted a gentle approach and was confused whenever he asked what Joni wanted and she was annoyed by the question. Joni started asking for things and invited him to be more assertive. Joni found that owning her desire to be ~passive was a form of agency. This worked for Ray too—he didn’t have to guess anymore or stress about whether he was doing things right. Joni didn’t ever tell Ray the details of her fantasies, but figuring out what they meant allowed her to talk to Ray about what she wanted.

The Psychology Behind Your Sexual Imagination

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Esther Perel's "Mating in Captivity" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Mating in Captivity summary:

  • Why it's difficult to have a good, erotic life within a long-term relationship
  • What makes up our individual sense of desire and our desire for our partners
  • Tips on how to retain desire in a committed relationship

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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