A sexual fantasy, also called an erotic fantasy, is a mental image or pattern of thought that stirs a person's sexuality and can create or enhance sexual arousal. A sexual fantasy resides entirely in a person's mind and can be created by the person's imagination, mental recollection or thought. A fantasy may be triggered autonomously or by any object or medium. For example, it can be created by a long, drawn-out story, such as in erotic literature or pornographic film; by a quick mental flash of sexual imagery, such as a photograph or physical object; or be due to a sexual attraction to another person or an aspect of that person. Anything that may give rise to a sexual arousal may also produce a sexual fantasy, and sexual arousal may in turn give rise to fantasies.
Sexual fantasies are a nearly universal phenomenon. However, because of the nature of some fantasies, the actual putting of such fantasies into action is far less common. In some cases, even a discussion by a person of sexual fantasies is subject to social taboos and inhibitions. Some people find it convenient to act out fantasies through sexual roleplay. A fantasy may be a positive or negative experience, or even both. It may be in response to a past experience and can influence future sexual behaviour. A person may not wish to enact a sexual fantasy in real life, and since the process is entirely imaginary, they are not limited to acceptable or practical fantasies, which can provide information on the psychological processes behind sexual behavior.
The term can also describe a genre of literature, film or work of art. Such works may be appreciated for their aesthetics, though many people may feel uncomfortable with such works. For example, women in prison films may be described as sexual fantasies, as are pornographic films. In the case of films, the term may describe a part of the film, such as a fantasy scene or sequence. Besides pornographic films, a number of mainstream films have included sexual fantasy scenes, such as Business Is Business (1971), Amarcord (1973), American Beauty (1999) and others. In many cases, the use of fantasy scenes enables the inclusion of material into a work indicating the sexualised mental state of a character.
Because of the difficulty of objectively identifying and measuring the nature of sexual fantasies, many studies deal with conscious fantasies when a person is awake. These fantasies are often measured using one of three techniques:
- Providing anonymous respondents with a checklist of fantasies and asking them to indicate which ones they have experienced, how often, and in what context. This method relies on retrospective recall, which may limit its accuracy. A checklist may not be comprehensive, and as a result may be biased towards some fantasies.
- Asking anonymous respondents to write, in narrative form, their sexual fantasies. This method also relies on retrospective recall. Some studies limit the number of fantasies entered (such as only the most frequent ones), and respondents may not write down all of their fantasies anyway-—they may forget infrequent fantasies, not want to write too many down, or be more subject to social desirability bias than with a checklist.
- Having respondents record the fantasies they experience over a given period of time via checklists or diaries. This method requires a long period of time to be representative, and may be impractical.
To measure the reliability of a person's reporting of their fantasies, researchers may compare a person's reported sexual arousal against actual measures of arousal, using techniques such as vaginal photoplethysmography, penile strain gauges, or other tools, such as genital pulse amplitude, genital blood volume, and heart rate. A 1977 study found that males judged arousal based on blood volume far better than females, and that males and females were equal when judging arousal based on pulse amplitude measures. Additionally, females were better at judging low arousal.
As with studies of sex in general, samples used in studies may be too small, not be fully random, or not fully representative of a population. This makes similarities between studies especially important. Women may be prone to underreporting the frequency of fantasy because they do not realize that they are becoming aroused, or they will not say that they are; one common problem is that they will imagine romantic imagery and become aroused, but not report the fantasy because it is not sexually explicit. Many studies are modern and are carried out in western society, which, through factors like gender roles and taboo, are not widely representative, raising the need for more studies in different societies and historical eras. With regards to age, there is very little knowledge of sexual fantasies in children aged 5 to 12, and there is a need for longitudinal studies across a life span. Sex is often a taboo topic, so conducting a truly honest and representative example can be difficult in some areas. For example, a 1997 study on South Asian gay men found that almost 75% were afraid of being "found out," which complicates studies.
The scenarios for sexual fantasies vary greatly between individuals and are influenced by personal desires and experiences, and range from the mundane to the bizarre. Fantasies are frequently used to escape real-life sexual restraints by imagining dangerous or illegal scenarios, such as rape, castration, or kidnapping. They allow people to imagine themselves in roles they do not normally have, such as power, innocence and guilt. Fantasies have enormous influence over sexual behaviour and can be the sole cause of an orgasm. While there are several common themes in fantasies, any object or act can be eroticized.
A person may have no desire to carry out a fantasy; people often use fantasies to help plan out future sexual encounters. Fantasies occur in all individuals and at any time of the day, although it has been suggested that they are more common among frequent daydreamers.
During sexual contact, some people can use their fantasies to "turn off" undesirable aspects of an act. Conversely, a person may use fantasy to focus and maintain arousal, such as a man receiving fellatio ignoring a distraction. Men tend to be aware of only parts of themselves during sex-—they are more likely to focus on the physical stimulation of one area, and as such, do not see themselves as a "whole."
Many couples share their fantasies to feel closer and gain more intimacy and trust, or simply to become more aroused or effect a more powerful physical response. Some couples share fantasies as a form of outercourse; this has been offered as an explanation for the rise of BDSM during the 1980s — in order to avoid contracting HIV, people turned to BDSM as a safe outlet for sexual fantasy. Couples may also act out their fantasies through sexual roleplay.
Fantasies may also be used as a part of sex therapy. They can enhance insufficiently exciting sexual acts to promote higher levels of sexual arousal and release. A 1986 study that looked at married women indicated that sexual fantasies helped them achieve arousal and orgasm. As a part of therapy, anorgasmic women are commonly encouraged to use fantasy and masturbation.
The incidence of sexual fantasies is nearly universal, but vary by gender, age, sexual orientation, and society. However, because of a reliance on retrospective recall, as well as response bias and taboo, there is an inherent difficulty in measuring the frequency of types of fantasies. In general, the most common fantasies for men and women are: reliving an exciting sexual experience, imagining sex with a current partner, and imagining sex with a different partner. There is no consistent difference in the popularity of these three categories of fantasies. The next most common fantasies involve oral sex, sex in a romantic location, sexual power or irresistibility, and forced sex.
|Fantasy||Carried it out (%)||Fantasized about it (%)|
|Sex at work||12||10|
According to a 2004 United States survey, the incidence of certain fantasies is higher than the actual performance.
Male fantasies tend to focus more on visual imagery and explicit anatomic detail, whereas women's fantasies tend to contain more emotion and connection. When compared to homosexual and heterosexual women, homosexual and heterosexual men are consistently found to be more interested in visual sexual stimulation and fantasies about casual sex encounters.
Another way the sexes differ is that men are much more likely to fantasize about having multiple sexual partners (i.e., having threesomes or orgies) compared to women. The sexes also differ in terms of how much they fantasize about dominance and submission. Men fantasize equally often about dominance and submission, whereas women fantasize about submission much more frequently than dominance. 
Since numerous variables influence sexual fantasy, the differences between gender can be examined through multiple theoretical frameworks. Social constructionism predicts that sexual socialization is a strong predictor of sexual fantasy and that gender differences are the result of social influences. In contrast, sociobiology (also called evolutionary psychology or evolutionary theory) predicts that sexual fantasy is predisposed to biological factors. For example, some studies have found that women prefer fantasizing about familiar lovers. A social constructionist explanation may say that this is because women are raised to be chaste and selective with men; a sociobiological theory may state that ancestral women preferred the reproductive security of having one partner, which is still ingrained in modern women.
In 1979, Masters and Johnson carried out one of the first studies on sexual fantasy in homosexual men and women, though their data-collection method is unclear. Their sample consisted of 30 gay men and lesbians, and they found that the five most common fantasies for homosexual men were images of sexual anatomy (primarily the penis and buttocks), forced sexual encounters, an idyllic setting for sex, group sex, and sex with women. A 1985 study found that homosexual men preferred unspecified sexual activity with other men, oral sex, and sex with another man not previously involved. In both studies, homosexual and heterosexual men shared similar fantasies, but with genders switched. A 2006 non-representative study looked at homosexual men in India. It found that when compared to heterosexual male fantasies, homosexual males were more focused on exploratory, intimate, and impersonal fantasies. There were no differences in sadomasochistic fantasies. In general, there was little difference in the top fantasies of homosexual versus heterosexual males. At the time of the study, homosexuality was illegal.
A 2005 study compared heterosexual and homosexual women in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and found some differences in the content of their fantasies. In gender-specific findings, homosexual women had more fantasies about specific parts of a woman (face, breasts, clitoris, vagina, buttocks, arms or hair), while heterosexual women had more fantasies about specific parts of a man's body (face, penis, buttocks, arms or hair). Homosexual women also had more fantasies of "delighting many women"; there was no significant difference when subjects were asked if they fantasized about delighting many men. There was no significant difference in responses to questions that were not gender-specific.
Rape or ravishment is a common sexual fantasy among both men and women, either generically or as an ingredient in a particular sexual scenario. The fantasy may involve the fantasist as either the one being forced or coerced into sexual activity or as the perpetrator. Some studies have found that women tend to fantasize about being forced into sex more commonly than men. A 1974 study by Hariton and Singer found that being "overpowered or forced to surrender" was the second most frequent fantasy in their survey; a 1984 study by Knafo and Jaffe ranked being overpowered as their study's most common fantasy during intercourse; and a 1988 study by Pelletier and Herold found that over half of their female respondents had fantasies of forced sex. Other studies have found the theme, but with lower frequency and popularity. However, these female fantasies in no way imply that the subject desires to be forced into non-consensual sex in reality—the fantasies often contain romantic images where the woman imagines herself being seduced, and the male that she imagines is desirable. Most importantly, the woman remains in full control of her fantasy. The fantasies do not usually involve the woman getting hurt. Conversely, some women who have been sexually victimized in the past report unwanted sexual fantasies, similar to flashbacks of their victimization. They are realistic, and the woman may recall the physical and psychological pain involved.
The most frequently cited hypothesis for why women fantasize of being forced into some sexual activity is that the fantasy avoids societally induced guilt—the woman does not have to admit responsibility for her sexual desires and behavior. A 1978 study by Moreault and Follingstad was consistent with this hypothesis, and found that women with high levels of sex guilt were more likely to report fantasy themed around being overpowered, dominated, and helpless. In contrast, Pelletier and Herold used a different measure of guilt and found no correlation. Other research suggests that women who report forced sex fantasies have a more positive attitude towards sexuality, contradicting the guilt hypothesis. A 1998 study by Strassberg and Lockerd found that women who fantasized about force were generally less guilty and more erotophilic, and as a result had more frequent and more varied fantasies. Additionally, it said that force fantasies are clearly not the most common or the most frequent.
Social views on sexual fantasy (and sex in general) differ throughout the world. The privacy of a person's fantasy is influenced greatly by social conditions. Because of the taboo status of sexual fantasies in many places around the world, open discussion—or even acknowledgment—is forbidden, forcing fantasies to stay private. In more lax conditions, a person may share their fantasies with close friends, significant others, or a group of people with whom the person is comfortable.
The moral acceptance and formal study of sexual fantasy in Western culture is relatively new. Prior to their acceptance, sexual fantasies were seen as evil or sinful, and they were commonly seen as horrid thoughts planted into the minds of people by "agents of the devil." Even when psychologists were willing to accept and study fantasies, they showed little understanding and went so far as to diagnose sexual fantasies in females as a sign of hysteria. Prior to the early twentieth century, many experts viewed sexual fantasy (particularly in females) as abnormal. Sigmund Freud suggested that those who experienced sexual fantasies were sexually deprived or frustrated or that they lacked adequate sexual stimulation and satisfaction. Over several decades, sexual fantasies became more acceptable as notable works and compilations, such as "Morality, Sexual Facts and Fantasies", by Dr Patricia Petersen, Alfred Kinsey's Kinsey Reports, Erotic Fantasies: A Study of the Sexual Imagination by Drs. Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, and Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, were published. Today, they are regarded as natural and positive elements of one's sexuality, and are often used to enhance sexual practices, both in normal settings and in therapy. Many Christians believe that the Bible prohibits sexual fantasies about people other than one's spouse in Matthew 5:28. Others believe that St Paul includes fantasy when he condemns works of the flesh such as "immorality" or "uncleanness." Despite the Western World's relatively lax attitudes towards sexual fantasy, many people still feel shame and guilt about their fantasies. This may contribute to personal sexual dysfunction, and regularly leads to a decline in the quality of a couple's sex life.
Guilt and jealousy
While most people do not feel guilt or disgust about their sexual thoughts or fantasies, a substantial number do. In general, men and women are equally represented in samples of those who felt guilt about their fantasies. The most notable exception was found in a 1991 study that showed that women felt more guilt and disgust about their first sexual fantasies. In women, greater guilt about sex was associated with less frequent and less varied sexual fantasies, and in men, it was associated with less sexual arousal during fantasies. Women also reported more intense guilt than men; both sexes reported greater guilt if their arousal and orgasm depended on a fantasy.
Studies have also been carried out to examine the direct connection between guilt and sexual fantasy, as opposed to sex and guilt. One study found that in a sample of 160 conservative Christians, 16% of men and women reported guilt after sexual fantasies, 5% were unhappy with themselves, and 45% felt that their fantasies were "morally flawed or unacceptable." Studies that examined guilt about sexual fantasy by age have unclear results—Knoth et al. (1998) and Ellis and Symons (1990) found that younger people tended to feel less guilt about their fantasies, whereas Mosher and White (1980) found the opposite.
A 2006 study examined guilt and jealousy in American heterosexual married couples. It associated guilt with an individual's fantasy ("How guilty do you feel when you fantasize about...") and jealousy with the partner's fantasy ("How jealous do you feel when your partner fantasizes about..."). Higher levels of guilt were found among women, couples in the 21–29 age range, shorter relationships and marriages, Republicans, and Roman Catholics; lower levels in men, couples in the 41–76 range, longer relationships, Democrats, and Jews. Higher levels of jealousy were found in women, couples in the 21–29 range, Roman Catholics and non-Jewish religious affiliations; lower levels were found in men, couples in the 41–76 range, and Jews and the non-religious.
- Leitenberg and Henning charted multiple studies of men and women who fantasized during masturbation. More than half found that at least 80% of men claimed to have had fantasies during masturbation, and at least 67% of women reported the same.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 470.
- Heiman 1977, p. 271.
- Heiman 1977, p. 266.
- Heiman 1977, pp. 271–272.
- Heiman 1977, p. 272.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 475.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 491.
- Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 206.
- Scott 1994, p. 153.
- Scott 1994, p. 163.
- Rathus et al. 2005, p. 106.
- Scott 1994, p. 155.
- Wilson 1978, p. 9.
- Wilson 1978, p. 29.
- Rathus et al. 2005, p. 206.
- Fisher 1989, p. 275.
- Fisher 1989, p. 274.
- Fisher 1989, p. 151.
- Rathus et al. 2005, p. 463.
- Scott 1994, p. 157.
- Nicholas 2004, p. 38.
- Rathus et al. 2005, p. 398.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 469.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, p. 481.
- ABC News 2004, p. 27.
- Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 198.
- Lehmiller, J. J. (2012). How Do Men’s and Women’s Sexual Fantasies Differ? The Psychology of Human Sexuality.
- Davidoff 2005.
- Bhugra, Rahman & Bhintade 2006, p. 199.
- Girolami 2005, pp. 35–36.
- Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, pp. 404–405.
- Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, p. 405.
- Strassberg & Lockerd 1998, p. 416.
- Rathus et al. 2005, p. 225.
- Frostino 2006, p. 9.
- Wilson 1978, p. 10.
- Scott 1994, p. 82.
- Leitenberg & Henning 1995, pp. 478–479.
- Frostino 2006, pp. 9–10.
- Frostino 2006, pp. 152–178.
- Journal articles
- Aylwin, A. Scott; Reddon, John R.; Burke, Andrew R. (2005), "Sexual Fantasies of Adolescent Male Sex Offenders in Residential Treatment: A Descriptive Study", Archives of Sexual Behavior 34 (2): 231–239, doi:10.1007/s10508-005-1800-3, PMID 15803256
- Birnbaum, Gurit E. (2007), "Beyond the borders of reality: Attachment orientations and sexual fantasies", Personal Relationships 14 (2): 321–342, doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00157.x
- Bhugra, Dinesh; Rahman, Qazi; Bhintade, Rahul (2006), "Sexual fantasy in gay men in India: a comparison with heterosexual mean", Sexual and Relationship Therapy 21 (2): 197–207, doi:10.1080/14681990600554207
- Carlson, Earl R.; Coleman, Catherine Elaine Havelock (1977), "Experiential and motivational determinants of the richness of an induced sexual fantasy", Journal of Personality 45 (4): 528–542, doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1977.tb00169.x, PMID 592084
- Ellis, Bruce J.; Symons, Donald (1990), "Sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy: an Evolutionary Psychological Approach", The Journal of Sex Research 27 (4): 527–555, doi:10.1080/00224499009551579, JSTOR 3812772
- Heiman, Julia R. (1977), "A Psychophysiological Exploration of Sexual Arousal Patterns in Females and Males", Psychophysiology 14 (3): 266–274, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1977.tb01173.x, PMID 854556
- Knox, Jean (2005), "Sex, shame and the transcendent function: the function of fantasy in self development", Journal of Analytical Psychology 50 (5): 617–639, doi:10.1111/j.0021-8774.2005.00561.x, PMID 16255728
- Leitenberg, Harold; Henning, Kris (1995), "Sexual Fantasy", Psychological Bulletin 117 (3): 469–496, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.469, PMID 7777650
- Mednick, Robert A. (1977), "Gender-Specific Variances in Sexual Fantasy", Journal of Personality Assessment 41 (3): 248–254, doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa4103_4, PMID 886421
- Nicholas, L.J. (2004), "The Association Between Religiosity, Sexual Fantasy, Participation in Sexual Acts, Sexual Enjoyment, Exposure, and Reaction to Sexual Materials Among Black South Africans", Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 30 (1): 37–42, doi:10.1080/00926230490247264
- Smith, David; Over, Ray (1987), "Male Sexual Arousal as a Function of the Content and the Vividness of Erotic Fantasy", Psychophysiology 24 (3): 334–339, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1987.tb00304.x, PMID 3602290
- Strassberg, Donald S.; Lockerd, Lisa K. (August 1998), "Force in Women's Sexual Fantasies", Archives of Sexual Behavior 27 (4): 403–415, doi:10.1023/A:1018740210472, ISSN 1573-2800, PMID 9681121
- Fisher, Seymour (1989), Sexual Images of the Self: The Psychology of Erotic Sensations and Illusions (First ed.), Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., ISBN 978-0-8058-0439-3
- Friday, Nancy (1998). Men In Love. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 0-385-33342-0.
- Rathus, Spencer A.; Nevid, Jeffrey S.; Fichner-Rathus, Lois; Herold, Edward S.; McKenzie, Sue Wicks (2005), Human sexuality in a world of diversity (Second ed.), New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, ISBN 978-0-205-40615-9
- Scott, Gini Graham (1994), The Power of Fantasy: Illusion and Eroticism in Everyday Life (First ed.), New York, New York: Carol Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-55972-239-1
- Wilson, Glenn Daniel (1978), The secrets of sexual fantasy (First ed.), London, England: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., ISBN 978-0-460-04309-0
- Theses and dissertations
- Davidoff, Orion (2005), Social Influences As A Mediator Of Gender Differences In Sexual Fantasy, Sexual Desire, and Sexual Behavior, presented to the Department of Psychology of the University of South Carolina.
- Frostino, Andrea Taylor (August 2006), Guilt And Jealousy Associated With Sexual Fantasies Among Heterosexual Married Individuals, presented to the Faculty of the School of Human Service Professions, Widener University.
- Girolami, Lisa (August 2005), A Comparison Of The Content Of Sexual Fantasies Of Lesbian And Heterosexual Women, presented to the Department of Educational Psychology, Administration, and Counseling, California State University.
- The American Sex Survey: A Peek Beneath the Sheets (PDF), ABC News, 2004-10-21, retrieved 2010-04-13