Sex & Relationships

9 Reasons Sex Fantasies Are Good For You

Sex fantasies are a healthy -- and essential -- part of a satisfying sex life.

The following is an excerpt from Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women’s Sexual Fantasiesby Wendy Maltz and Suzie Boss, 2008. Copyright Wendy Maltz and Suzie Boss. 

The beauty of fantasy is that we can tap this wellspring of creativity at any time, in any place, with no one else privy to our thoughts. ‘‘A major advantage of fantasy as an aid to physical sexual stimulation,’’ wrote Lonnie Barbach, Ph.D., in For Yourself, her 1976 classic about female sexuality, ‘‘is that it requires no equipment and is always available.’’ Temporarily and vicariously, fantasy allows us to sample highly charged sexual scenarios that exist in a world beyond what real life allows. Not surprisingly, women use fantasy most often to increase sexual desire and to facilitate sexual functioning, especially orgasm.

Besides being effective in turning up sexual heat, fantasies also have an amazing ability to help us cope with the emotional stresses of sex. They offer a way to immediately reduce the biggest block to sexual pleasure: anxiety. Looking more closely at how certain fantasies work, we can discover how they soothe our worries or distract us from concerns that would otherwise get in the way of enjoying sex. By focusing on the steamy images and stories in our minds, we can feel less inhibited and more inspired to be sexually open and expressive. Thus, fantasies often work to increase sexual stimulation while simultaneously decreasing emotional anxiety. When women consider when and why they turn to fantasy, they often mention both sexual and emotional issues.

Usually, we can identify a very specific reason for the fantasies we are most likely to replay. These repetitive fantasies tend to be the ones that we hone, achieving a particular purpose with them. Women describe them as reliable, often adding a comment such as ‘‘It always works.’’
The most common functions of women’s sexual fantasies fall into nine categories:

FUNCTION #1: ENHANCING SELF-ESTEEM AND ATTRACTIVENESS

Although Margaret and her lover usually have sex in bed with the lights off, in her favorite fantasy she sees herself standing in front of a mirror under bright lights:

‘‘I imagine that I’m in a dressing room at a chic department store, trying on a low-cut silk dress that accents my breasts, hugs my torso, and flares out at my hips. In real life I’d never wear anything so revealing, but I look damn good in this sexy black dress. I spin around slowly, admiring myself from all angles. Then I poke my head out into the hallway and call to my lover. He’s been waiting for me patiently while I try on dresses, and I’ve decided to let him take a close look at this one. I wave him into the dressing room with me, holding a finger to my lips to signal him to keep quiet. Once he’s inside the booth, I bolt the door and turn to face him. I can tell he likes what he sees. He lifts me onto a stool facing the mirrors and begins running his hands all over the dress and my body. He reaches under the dress and pulls off my lace panties. Then he ducks his head under the flared skirt and begins to kiss and lick my crotch. My hips start to pump in a familiar rhythm that I know will lead to climax. I watch us in the mirror. Smiling boldly, I decide to buy this dress after all.’’

Just as a wave of her fairy godmother’s wand gave Cinderella a new look for the palace ball, women can use sexual fantasy to help them feel better about themselves and more attractive as a sexual partner. Fantasy enables us to focus on whatever qualities we define as being sexy. We can highlight or even improve on our real appearance in fantasy. Some women imagine looking more like the cultural stereotype of female beauty, perhaps making themselves younger, with fuller breasts or slimmer thighs, longer hair, smoother skin, or stronger muscles. Picturing themselves as more attractive can enhance women’s sexual energy or distract them from what they consider to be shortcomings. These imagined changes also help some women feel more deserving of a partner’s sexual attention.

As one woman who enjoys a Wild Woman fantasy explained, ‘‘In fantasy, I’m thirty with gorgeous, long hair. I’m very hot and sexy, and I love for men to look at me. In real life, I’m fifty and feeling rather repressed sexually. My hair is short, businesslike, and I’m not comfortable when men look my way.’’

Because our culture relentlessly bombards us with images of perfect female beauty, some women feel undeserving of sexual attention if their real bodies don’t measure up to these impossible standards. ‘‘In reality,’’ said one woman in her mid-forties, ‘‘my husband can’t keep his hands off me. But my body is a real blocker to me seeing myself as sexual. I cannot imagine that a man would ever respond sexually to this body, these thighs. During sex, I have to imagine myself as younger, more agile, and with a very different physique in order to become more aroused with my partner.’’

We can effortlessly do away with any perceived flaws in fantasy, thus reducing self-consciousness. Or, we can concentrate on enhancing a feature or quality we do like about ourselves in order to boost self-esteem. Fantasy offers an escape from being our own worst critic. As one woman joked, ‘‘In my sexual fantasies, I never have a bad hair day.’’

Fantasy can also offer an escape from the criticisms of others. In her favorite masturbatory fantasy, for example, a woman named Meg said she imagines herself as a successful, feisty Hollywood screenwriter who is being photographed for an upcoming Life magazine spread. The photographer, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Al Pacino, follows her around Los Angeles for weeks, keeping his distance while he snaps hundreds of photos. Each time he looks at her through the camera lens with his dark, bedroom eyes, Meg can feel his sexual longing for her and feels more confident about her own sex appeal.

As the fantasy continues, Meg finally makes the first overtly sexual move, inviting him to photograph her on the beach at sunset. As he’s studying her through the camera lens, she walks up to him slowly and slips the camera strap from around his neck. Then she takes off his shirt, peels down his pants, and strips off her own clothes while watching his body get increasingly excited by the sight of hers. When they have sex on a beach towel, Meg’s lusty fantasy culminates in a real-life orgasm. She knows this would probably shock her ex-husband. Throughout their unhappy, ten-year marriage, he told Meg she was frigid. Now fifty-two and long since divorced, Meg knows from her passionate fantasies that her body is perfectly capable of sexual response. Although she suffers from debilitating arthritis, ‘‘I seem to have an incredible amount of sexual energy and stamina in my fantasies,’’ she said.

Imagination can offer women a way to maintain and stay in touch with their inner beauty, strength, and sexiness, even if real life happens to be offering few opportunities for positive sexual expression at the moment. A twenty-eight-year-old woman said she is currently between relationships, ‘‘but fantasies offer me a holding place for my sexual interest while I’m technically celibate.’’

FUNCTION #2: INCREASING SEXUAL INTEREST AND DESIRE

Dorie often turns to fantasy at the end of the day to jump-start her sexual energy. In one of her favorite fantasies, she imagines that as she hugs her partner, a man watches them from a comfortable chair in the corner of their living room. When she unbuttons her lover’s shirt and starts to rub her back, Dorie pretends to make eye contact with her fantasy man.

‘‘In my fantasy, he’s a straight man getting more and more excited by watching us two lesbians. I imagine that we tease him, saying things like ‘Wow, look at that cock. You’re getting so hard. You really want to fuck us, don’t you? Have you ever had two girls at the same time?’ But we also control him. He can’t do a thing, he can’t even leave his chair, unless we give him permission. His desire gets more and more intense until he’s ready to explode.’’ At that point, Dorie usually forgets all about the fantasy man and concentrates instead on mutual stimulation in real life with her partner. Her fantasy has fulfilled its function: to awaken and enhance her interest in sex.

Like Dorie, many women use fantasy to help get them in the mood for sex. As another woman explained, ‘‘I turn to fantasy to psych up for sex when I’m feeling tired. My fantasy self empowers me. I can conjure up a fantasy and suddenly feel sexually renewed and hungry.’’

Some women use fantasy to help them even out a difference in desire within their relationship. When one partner wants to have sex more frequently than the other, fantasy can help boost the sexual appetite of the less interested partner. ‘‘I like sex just as much as my husband does,’’ one woman explained. ‘‘But it seems like he’s always in the mood, always ready. Unless I deliberately think about it, I lose track of how much I do enjoy sex. Fantasy helps me remember to think sexy thoughts.’’ Similarly, a lesbian who is in a long-term relationship said she uses fantasy to stir up her own sexual interest enough so that she’ll initiate sex with her partner. ‘‘We both like sex, but neither one of us is very good at getting things started. Fantasy adds that spark.’’

If real-life sex becomes fairly predictable, many women turn to fantasy to instantly introduce an element of novelty. They describe bringing fresh excitement to sexual situations by imagining they are having sex for the first time, or at a new location, or in a new way. Many women increase desire by imagining they are having sex in a more romantic place than where they usually make love. Women frequently describe secluded island beaches, remote cottages, or sumptuous hotel rooms where privacy is guaranteed and there are no everyday distractions to interfere with their desire. One woman likes to imagine that her small bedroom is a luxury suite on a train. ‘‘I’m turned on by the speed, the rocking motion, and the loud rumbling noises that I conjure up,’’ she said.

For women who might not be enjoying sex in real life because of fear, guilt, or inhibitions, fantasy can emphasize conditions that help them feel more at ease. If they are afraid, they can enhance the safety of an imagined encounter. One woman who feels anxious during sex comforts herself by imagining she’s in a stage set with two walls missing, so that she can always picture a way to escape. Another, who used to fear her husband’s penis, now thinks of it as her ‘‘pleasure toy.’’ If women feel sexually repressed, they can imagine a way for their passions to emerge. One woman said she feels more free to express herself sexually in fantasy than in real life. ‘‘My fantasy self is not concerned with social pressures or conventions. She doesn’t have to be a good girl.’’

Sometimes, women take themselves out of the picture altogether in their fantasies to boost their desire. They imagine that they are someone else, or that they are watching as a Voyeur from the sidelines. One woman, for instance, fantasizes about watching through a window while three men take turns having oral and anal sex with each other. ‘‘Thinking about these men’s bodies, especially their naked, muscular thighs and butts, keeps me from thinking that I’m ugly,’’ she said.

Some women increase desire by focusing their fantasies on their partners’ attributes, rather than their own. They might enhance a real partner’s appeal in fantasy, giving a man a more attractive penis or a woman fuller breasts. Some women endow their partners with more expressive eyes, a tighter butt, or leaner torso than they have in real life. Others focus more on the non-physical qualities that ignite their desire.

Some women turn to fantasy to increase their own interest in sex if their real relationship is sexually unsatisfying. One woman said that if she didn’t engage fantasies about other men to make sex more exciting, ‘‘I’d have to admit that my sex life with my husband is dismal and boring.’’ Another woman joked about the advantages of fantasy partners when she said in her Texas drawl, ‘‘Fantasies don’t fart, suffer exhaustion, or leave balled up socks on the floor.’’ To temporarily overcome the limits of a real-life relationship, some women imagine being in a love scene with a familiar celebrity or a total stranger.

Amy, for instance, enjoys a Pretty Maiden fantasy in which a handsome stranger takes her away for a sexual escapade. She imagines them spending days in bed, feeding one another exotic meals that turn into lovemaking orgies on silk sheets strewn with delicious crumbs. ‘‘In real life, my partners have been less wild and adventuresome. The fantasy shows me how a different kind of partner could bring out my hidden, sensuous desires.’’

A woman who has Beloved fantasies said she doesn’t feel as important to her real-life partner as she does to the man she invents. ‘‘My fantasy lover treats me special. He really listens to me. He makes me feel as if I’m the only thing that matters,’’ she said, adding with a sly grin, ‘‘He also happens to be in great shape and really takes care of his body.’’ In fantasy, unlike real life, women can fine-tune every tiny detail of a setting, activity, or partner to suit their personal pleasure.

If a woman needs a spark of romance, tension, or contrast to get more interested in sex, fantasies can supply the action plot that might be missing in real life. Some women describe their fantasies as sexual thrillers. They get aroused from plots that combine danger or intrigue with sex, turning up the adrenaline and heightening physical responses. Others create imaginary distance or make-believe barriers from their real lovers to make their hearts grow fonder in their fantasy reunions. And while some women get in the mood for sex by imagining more privacy, others deliberately invent fantasy settings where there is a chance they will be seen. They like the increased erotic tension that comes with this element of sexual danger or adventure.

FUNCTION #3: FACILITATING ORGASM

Roberta’s fantasy begins with a sweet attraction between soul mates but gets more sexually specific as she approaches climax:

‘‘As our kisses become more aggressive, his mouth leaves mine and trails down my neck to my breasts where his hands are already cupped, gently squeezing and lifting and molding me to his touch. His mouth takes over, sucking, his tongue lapping. Slowly, he makes his way to my clitoris, exploring with his tongue until he finds the place that makes me cry out with pleasure. I can feel his hot breath against my wet genitals. As he takes me to the edge, his hands reach underneath me. When I start to climax the first time, he keeps his face pressed to me and squeezes my ass with each contraction. Then he comes up for air and thrusts himself inside me. I’m ready for him, and we rock together until I climax again. This time he comes with me.’’

Many women improve sex with fantasies that add the specific kind of stimulation or enhanced sensation they need to reach orgasm. This is one of the most common uses of fantasy among women. As they describe fantasies that reliably take them all the way to climax, they often mention a certain kind of stimulation, explicit body parts, or different ways that fantasy helps them let go. These tend to be women’s most goal-oriented, hardcore fantasies, speeding up breathing and heartbeat and increasing vaginal lubrication and clitoral sensation.

In fact, fantasies often make the graphics of sex even more noticeable on a specific sensory level. Fantasy turns up the volume or intensity of the sexual sounds or images women enjoy in real life. A woman who describes her fantasies as ‘‘fairly and squarely about a man and woman fucking’’ said she focuses on high-energy, graphic images of pumping and thrusting to build the excitement she needs to reach orgasm. Women often say they fantasize about ‘‘whatever it takes’’ to get them to climax.

When women use fantasy to increase sensation, they naturally enhance the elements that happen to resonate with their individual erotic preferences. A woman who finds her sense of smell to be especially arousing, for instance, thinks of her vagina as having a ‘‘fresh, floral scent’’ in her olfactory fantasies. Another woman creates very visual fantasies, but only while masturbating. ‘‘When I’m with a partner, I have him right there to look at. But when I’m alone, I invent the images I need to see in order to climax,’’ she explained. Some women with visual fantasies imagine exaggerated phallic objects as a way to turn the sexual intensity high enough to peak and release.

A French-speaking Canadian woman who finds sexy sounds arousing fantasizes that she’s in a confessional, describing her sexual sins out loud to a priest while she climaxes. To make the fantasy more stimulating, she mentally replays a favorite song by the popular rock group Enigma, complete with ecclesiastical chanting, orgasmic moans, and a woman whispering in French.

Many women fantasize about multiple partners as a way to multiply the sources of sexual stimulation they receive. ‘‘How else are you ever going to experience oral sex and vaginal penetration at the same time?’’ asked a woman who loves her threesome fantasies. Similarly, another woman images herself ‘‘in the middle of a sandwich,’’ with male lovers simultaneously entering her from above and below. One woman’s favorite fantasy increases stimulation with a scene in which she imagines performing fellatio on a male lover while a woman licks her to climax.

Often, women use fantasy to create the sexual variety that they find missing or in short supply in their real-life sexual experiences. One woman, for example, is married to a man she describes as ‘‘loving but sexually repressed.’’ To create the stimulation she wants but doesn’t get during real sex, she images being with a series of men of all races, ages, and body types. Each one makes love to her however she chooses and for as long as she likes. She tells them exactly how and where she wants to be licked, sucked, rubbed, and penetrated, and they are happy to oblige. Fantasy gives her all the time and varied stimulation she needs to be sexually satisfied.

Amanda said she creates fantasies that work not only to enhance physical stimulation, but also to help her feel more comfortable about enjoying such abundant pleasure. In one favorite fantasy, she imagines being on her king-size bed with her hands tied to the headboard. Because of the bondage, she has no control over her husband and the two small, beautiful women who massage her with oil and stimulate her with a dildo. She lies back and enjoys while they take turns sucking on her breasts, massaging her clitoris, penetrating her vagina, exciting her G spot. She said, ‘‘I start imagining all the possible combinations of people and parts—mouths, fingers, breasts, penis, vaginas, dildo.’’ In every combination, her own body is the focus of attention. The extravagant stimulation helps her sexual excitement build to climax.

Women sometimes employ disguises in their fantasies as a way of overcoming inhibition so they can enjoy increased stimulation. One woman imagines that she is a sales clerk, minding the cash register, while a man she can’t see hides underneath the counter and rubs her genitals. She said, ‘‘It’s a hands-off thing where I’m not in control of the sex. I just allow my body to be available and enjoy the sensations that result.’’

Similarly, other women imagine screens, masks, or costumes that keep the overt sexual activity in their fantasies out of their view. Iris, for instance, pictures herself in a restaurant ‘‘formally dressed except for one small detail: no underwear. While I’m carrying on a dinner conversation, I feel my legs being pressed apart. I know it’s my lover underneath the table. He’s free-spirited and playful, but he’s only concerned with my sexual pleasure, not his. There’s a tablecloth so no one else knows what he’s doing. When he eats me, I abandon my self-control and climax over dessert at the Ritz.’’

While Iris and others enjoy having no control in fantasy, other women reach climax by enhancing their sexual power over others. One woman enjoys a fantasy of being a Dominatrix who orchestrates a group sex scene in which timing is of the utmost importance. She said, ‘‘As the one in charge, I can draw out the sexual satisfaction until the very last moment when I give the okay for everyone to experience intense, multiple orgasms at exactly the same time I reach my own thrilling climax.’’

FUNCTION #4: CELEBRATING THE PRESENT

After a family trip to Disneyland, Emma surprised herself by creating a new sexual fantasy that has brought a heart-pounding thrill into her real sex life:

‘‘When my husband and I are making love, I like to weave in and out of imagining that I am on the Splash Mountain rollercoaster ride at Disneyland. It’s a fun way to bring an adrenaline rush into sex. First, there’s a slow, steady, winding-around buildup of tension (as we stimulate each other and begin intercourse). Then, a quick and sudden free fall over the top with a wet, exciting climax of physical sensations that make my heart race and take my breath away (as we thrust more rapidly together toward orgasm). Then, a rapid descent and gradual, safe rocking to a resolution (as our genital muscles pulsate and all tension is released). Although I can picture the details of being inside the wooden log, moving along the water canal, up and over the mountain, my focus is not on getting back to the theme park. Instead, I use the fantasy to add a new, exhilarating dimension to the sex that’s happening right here and now with my husband.’’

Although we most often think of fantasy as a temporary escape from reality, fantasy can also enhance our enjoyment of being in the moment during sex. Women sometimes describe fleeting, unscripted fantasy images that help them hold on to the sensory enjoyment and depth of emotion they share during sex with their actual partners. In this kind of fantasy experience, a woman might imagine that she and her lover are breathing as one during sex or that their heartbeats are keeping the same rhythm. One woman said that when she wraps her arms around her husband during lovemaking, she imagines the two of them traveling through space and time together like a rocket ship. She imagines their backs protecting them from the outside universe while their beating hearts create the engine that keeps them going and warms them deep inside.

To enhance the present during sex, one middle-aged woman imagines that she and her partner both have the sexual stamina they felt when they were younger, more energetic, and their love was brand new. A fantasy like this can give present passion a more youthful vigor and urgency. Similarly, women sometimes use fantasy to take what’s working in the present into a more spiritual dimension. They might describe a cosmic feeling of merging with their lovers during peak sexual experiences, as if two bodies become one and melt into the pulsing rhythm of all living things.

Because sex is a natural activity, it makes sense that many women turn to images from nature to embellish and highlight sexual activities. Some women use fantasy as a spotlight to make them more keenly aware of all the rich details, textures, smells, and sounds of a sexual scene. In their thoughts, they mentally layer their sense of what’s happening in the present moment with images from the physical world. Poet Rochelle Lynn Holt, for example, describes the ecstasy of merging with her lover in sex: ‘‘as though you were waves rising and falling / the motion of the sea / as though you were a bird / flying swiftly over the ocean / the moon in the background / a symbol of peace and serenity.’’ Another woman said she fantasized that she and her husband were conceiving a child during lovemaking. At orgasm, she enjoyed an image of the sperm and egg joining together in an ecstatic dance. Similarly, a different woman imagined that her lover’s penis was like a flower bulb she planted in her womb.

FUNCTION #5: SATISFYING CURIOSITY

Denise, a twenty-eight-year-old, stay-at-home mother of five children, likes to fantasize that she is a high-class call girl who travels on jet planes with a wealthy businessman:

‘‘The plane is lavishly decorated with a king-size bed. Trays of my favorite foods are always at the bedside. My fantasy partner expects a lot of sex, but I know that he adores me. In fact, I’m his favorite traveling companion.’’ In fantasy, Denise imagines herself as an expert at giving oral sex even though in real life that’s something she knows her husband doesn’t enjoy.

While some women use fantasy to rehearse for real-life encounters, other women indulge their curiosity about sexual activities they have no desire or opportunity to try in real life. Denise, for instance, said, ‘‘I have no desire to leave my family and become a prostitute. I just like imagining the excitement, adventure, and travel.’’

In fantasy, women can satisfy their desires to know more about activities such as bondage, anal sex, or sex with a friend, neighbor, or animal, even though they may consider those activities taboo or unappealing in real life. Heterosexual women can imagine what it would be like to make love to another woman while lesbians can imagine having sex with a man. Women can imagine sex in public places with no fear of being seen. Fantasy offers a risk-free arena to explore all sexual interests without moral, legal, or physical consequences.

Some women indulge their sexual curiosity as a way to add interest and keep sex from feeling boring. They might imagine changing partners even though they are committed to one partner in real life. In fantasy, they can have the thrill of an imaginary fling with no risk to their real relationship. A woman who works in a television station said, ‘‘My new assistant is a really cute young guy who looks just like the boyish actor Michael J. Fox. I’d never want to jeopardize my position or our working relationship by approaching him sexually, but, oh, how I’ve been enjoying some wild fantasies of him bringing me morning coffee—and more—in bed.’’

Similarly, another woman in a committed, monogamous relationship said she fantasizes about other partners to add sexual variety and indulge her curiosity. She is certain, however, that she would never want to actually have sex with anyone but her husband. She explained, ‘‘In a way, it’s like he’s the channel through which I get to experience all different kinds of sex. Through him, I’m embracing what I love about all men. And through me, he can connect with womankind.’’

Women also emphasize that the specific sexual details that pop up in their fantasies as curiosities—such as the gigantic penises that one woman imagined or the double dildos that another woman mentioned—are often things they enjoy in fantasy, but would never want to encounter in real life.

Because they control all the details of their fantasies, women can imagine even potentially dangerous sexual scenarios without any physical risks. Fantasies that involve bondage or S/M, for instance, leave no bruises or rope burns. Similarly, women can fantasize about an orgy or having unprotected sex without risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. Although women have to walk a careful line to avoid danger in their real sex lives, they can temporarily throw caution to the wind in their fantasies.

FUNCTION #6: REHEARSING FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

Caitlin is a twenty-one-year-old virgin whose real sexual encounters have stopped just short of intercourse. Her masturbatory fantasies, however, go all the way, including a hot mixture of images from her own near-sex experiences and scenes from explicit films she has found arousing. She imagines various positions and locations she might like to try someday, such as having sex in the shower or while swaying in the branches of a big oak tree. Her fantasy life is a rehearsal for safe sex; wherever the location, she always imagines slipping a condom onto her partner as part of foreplay. Fantasy also serves as a reminder of the qualities she wants to find in a real partner. Although several men have tried to pressure her into having sex, she’s been waiting for the right partner who will let her approach intimacy at a more comfortable pace.

‘‘I hope the next guy I get serious with will treat me the way my fantasy man does,’’ she said. ‘‘Then, I’d feel ready and eager to have sex.’’ In the meantime, in fantasy, ‘‘I’m maturing as I learn about my own body’s responses and invent more ways to please myself and my make-believe partner.’’

Many women use fantasy to rehearse for a sexual activity they desire, but do not yet feel ready, willing, or able to experience in real life. They may have rehearsed what it would be like to start a relationship with a new partner, or to engage comfortably in a sexual behavior they have never tried before. They may imagine being sexual in a new place they plan to visit, with a new person they’ve just met (but with whom they hope to become intimate). By rehearsing in fantasy, they can imagine how this experience could be positive and desirable, and thus reduce their anxiety and remain more relaxed, if and when the hoped-for sex takes place.

For Linda, who remembers herself as a late bloomer growing up in a small, rural, conservative community, early fantasy was a place for her to size up potential partners. She crossed off her wish list a man who smoked, for instance, because in her fantasy she imagined how stale his breath would smell. Over time her masturbatory fantasies became more explicit, even though she was quite inexperienced sexually. When she left home in her twenties and rebelled against her strict upbringing, Linda abandoned her fantasies—and lost the benefits they had offered her. ‘‘I stopped fantasizing then because I was acting it all out. I’d meet someone at a party and go home to bed with him. I wouldn’t rehearse anything anymore in my fantasies. I’d just do it. I took a lot more risks. I wish now I had rehearsed a little more and acted out a little less. I wound up getting pregnant by a guy I met in a bar.’’

Fantasy can also provide an important rehearsal stage to help women adjust to the challenges that come with age and illness. Evelyn, for example, was afraid her sex life was over at forty when she lost both breasts to cancer. In her fantasies, she rehearsed telling different partners about her mastectomy, ‘‘and at first I always imagined they would respond by throwing up.’’ Finally, she risked telling a real-life male friend about her surgery, and he responded with caring and compassion. ‘‘After that, I was able to fantasize about giving my little speech and having different men accept me. Only then was I able to fantasize about proceeding with more explicit bedroom activity and regain my interest in sex.’’ For her, fantasy was an important outlet to overcome her fear of rejection and rehearse how she could remain sexual after losing her breasts.

Like athletes who visualize to enhance their performance, women also use fantasy to overcome anxiety and picture a positive sexual experience. Fantasy can be an important way for women to remind themselves, ‘‘I can handle this,’’ or to offer an affirmation such as ‘‘I’m worthy of sexual pleasure.’’

FUNCTION #7: RELIEVING STRESS AND TENSION

After an especially demanding workday, Barb reaches for fantasy instead of a glass of wine or the television remote control:

‘‘I often come home with a lot on my mind. If I want to relax, I have to quit mentally reviewing whatever it is I’ve been working on all day. By fantasizing, I’m suddenly preoccupied instead with sex. Then there’s no room to entertain any thoughts about work. I often sit in my favorite sunroom chair and decide which of my old lovers I want to invite into my thoughts. It’s like picking a name from a Rolodex. Once I decide on a certain one, I imagine him massaging my lower back and caressing my buttocks until they tingle. Sometimes I stroke my own body in a very soothing way. I’m not really masturbating to reach orgasm, just caressing myself tenderly. I guess I use fantasy the way I often use lavender bath salts: a little something special I do just for myself to help me unwind.’’

Sexual fantasy offers an easily available tool that women can use to help them relax, escape momentarily from the stresses of the day, or even fall asleep. Fantasies can have a soothing effect, similar to meditation, and may not involve any physical stimulation or the intense excitement of orgasm. Some women use such fantasies to relax or combat anxiety while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or sitting through a long plane flight. When used in these nonsexual settings, fantasies can leave a woman feeling calm, centered, and nurtured. Other times, women use fantasy along with masturbation to generate sexual excitement and climax, which then leaves them feeling more relaxed physically.

Along with fantasies that they use to relax when alone, women also employ fantasies during lovemaking to calm down and avoid the stresses that can interfere with sexual functioning. ‘‘Instead of thinking about what we need at the grocery store or how I’m going to juggle tomorrow’s day care and carpool arrangements, I switch on a fantasy where it’s just my husband and me in a hotel room, with no children in sight,’’ explained one young mother. When present circumstances don’t feel very sexy, fantasy can create a more soothing ambience to enhance relaxed lovemaking. As another woman said, ‘‘I remember the crackling fire and warm comforter from a cabin where we went once on a ski trip, back before we had kids. Then I can relax and concentrate on all the loving touch my husband wants to give me, right here in our messy bedroom with the overflowing laundry hamper.’’

Many women describe this function of fantasy as a way to take up ‘‘air time’’ in their minds, so that distracting thoughts are preempted by more pleasing and satisfying fantasies. Such fantasies don’t really solve any problems, but they can provide a valuable, temporary mental release from daily concerns and cares.

FUNCTION #8: PRESERVING A PLEASANT MEMORY

Gladys is a single, forty-four-year-old woman with a responsible managerial job. She lives quietly at home with her daughter, who’s still in college. Until recently, there hasn’t been a man in her life. But since she met the free-spirited Monte a year ago, she’s become sexually active in ways she couldn’t have imagined. ‘‘He’s a man who loves sex and loves to experiment with me,’’ she said. One of their sexual escapades was so exciting to her that it’s become a favorite fantasy she replays when she’s home alone:

‘‘In this fantasy, I remember every little detail about the first car trip we ever took together. It was a long drive. When Monte was behind the wheel, I started feeding him a juicy hamburger and fries. He would lick and suck on my fingers as he took the food into his mouth. He kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, but pretty soon my hands were roaming all over his body. It got pretty hot in that car, and I don’t mean the weather. Just after dusk, we pulled over at a rest stop somewhere in Alabama and wound up making love butt naked in a grassy field. Now, if anybody from work ever found out about that wild night, they’d say, ‘Dang, girl! Who would have thought it?’ That’s part of the fun— knowing how out of character this was for me and just how much I enjoyed it.’’

Fantasy sometimes functions as a repository of women’s most important or exciting sexual memories. These mental keepsakes might include a memory of a first love, a wedding night, or a particularly exciting or novel sexual experience. Women often replay these moments in fantasy to enjoy that pleasure again and remind themselves of the positive sexual experiences life affords. Recalling past sexual experiences in fantasy can reignite the sexual passion a woman once felt and remind her of her capacity for love and intense sexual pleasure.

When women use fantasy to celebrate pleasant memories and treasured moments from their past, they often feel sentimental or proud. For Joni, a widow in her sixties, fantasy has offered a way to hold on to the bittersweet memories of a lost love. It’s been more than forty years since she met Lamar in a nightclub where she was a jazz singer and he played the piano. Yet, she vividly remembers their powerful, mutual attraction and how they kept their banter light, superficial, and nonsexual. After all, she was already married to someone else. In the 1950s, society would have frowned on a young, blond newlywed running off with a black man. When Joni’s husband was drafted and sent overseas, she put her singing career on hold. ‘‘I figured that if my husband was gone, and I was staying out until four in the morning, there wasn’t going to be a marriage for him to come home to. And I did love my husband. He meant the world to me. It’s just that I loved Lamar, too.’’

In fantasy, Joni figured out a way to continue her love for Lamar without jeopardizing her marriage. While making love with her husband, she sometimes imagined that she was in bed with Lamar. This fantasy never made her feel as if she was cheating on her real husband. Instead, she noticed that the fantasy sparked some of their most enjoyable lovemaking experiences during their long, faithful, and passionate marriage.

Fond sexual memories we want to cherish are like pictures in an album. But fantasies can also work in another way, preserving sexual memories we’d rather forget.

FUNCTION #9: COPING WITH PAST HURTS

Brett, a thirty-five-year-old seamstress, uses fantasy to keep her thoughts focused during sex so she won’t be reminded of the unpleasant sexual touching she experienced as a child. ‘‘Although I’d like to be thinking more about my husband and what we’re doing,’’ she said, ‘‘for now, fantasy is the closest to the present I can be. Otherwise, I’d feel out of my body and numb.’’ In her favorite fantasy, she imagines herself dancing with the actor Patrick Swayze in the movie Dirty Dancing:

‘‘When I first saw the movie I cried, thinking I’d never be able to enjoy sex. Gradually, though, I convinced myself that I’m worthy of this kind of pleasure. I’ve been able to imagine myself as the one in his arms. In this fantasy, it’s my eyes he looks into. It’s my hips moving against his hips.’’

When women have been hurt in the past, sexual fantasy can work to transform pain, anger, or other negative emotions into something more positive. Fantasy can vent powerful emotions that women may not feel able to express otherwise, or it can block strong feelings that would prevent them from being able to respond sexually. Some women create fantasy scenarios in which they turn pain into pleasure as a way to feel more powerful and more in control during sex, while others put a happier ending on a relationship or sexual encounter that ended badly in real life.

For women who have been betrayed by a lover in the past, fantasy can be a way to block their resulting fear of intimacy. ‘‘In fantasy,’’ one woman explained, ‘‘my old lover regrets that he dumped me and always insists that he still loves me.’’ Another woman imagines turning a past perpetrator into a kind, gentle protector. The sexual pleasure she experiences as a result of the fantasy also gives her a feeling that she has mastered what has hurt her in the past.

One woman creatively used fantasy to help her avoid the fear triggered by an unpleasant memory. She said, ‘‘I was wrestling playfully with my boyfriend one day when he grabbed me by the wrist and held my arm down. He didn’t know it, but that gesture reminded me of how an assailant once grabbed me before assaulting me.’’ As a quick solution to feeling fearful, she imagined that she was a champion wrestler. The power of that fantasy role helped her avoid feeling weak or vulnerable as she and her boyfriend shifted from wrestling to lovemaking.

In a different way, a woman named Vicki uses fantasy to cope with past experiences. She channels her anger about a past sexual assault into a fantasy where she is a controlling Dominatrix. Although her current partner played no role in her past abuse, her pent-up feelings of rage automatically boil to the surface when she becomes aroused. She imagines biting and pulling the hair of a ‘‘faceless’’ stranger. Though it doesn’t resolve her anger, Vicki’s fantasy functions to direct her rage away from her real partner during sex. It also channels her psychological tension into the physiological release and temporary resolution of climax.

When women use fantasy to preserve or contain an unpleasant memory, this process is often unconscious. As a result, they may feel confused or upset by these kinds of fantasies. Sometimes, due to the effects of betrayal, grief, or childhood trauma, a memory can be so disguised that a woman might not readily make the connection between the contents of her fantasy and what really happened to her in the past. A woman named Beth, for instance, was troubled by a sexual fantasy of a woman making children lick her genitals. She had a strong suspicion this was something she had experienced as a child. When Beth confided to her sister how upset she was by this fantasy, her sister told her she remembered their mother forcing Beth and other children to do the same thing. Beth had literally pushed that traumatic memory to the far corners of her mind, disguising it in fantasy until she felt safe and supported enough to let it emerge.

Fantasies can even create the support and comfort that were lacking in the past. Melanie, for instance, created what she calls a ‘‘two-part’’ sexual fantasy. It begins with a graphic Victim scenario that leads to climax, then transforms into a different scene in which she’s being taken care of by kind, loving, comforting men. Often, she imagines men she knows and admires in real life in these caretaker roles. In the fantasy plot, she imagines them playing the role of ambulance drivers, hospital orderlies, policemen, or others who rescue or care for her. ‘‘The primary caretaker is a man who loves me, nurtures me, but doesn’t need anything from me sexually. He’s there to hold me, comfort me, understand me, be there for me. He thinks I’m sensational.’’ The caretakers give her the unconditional love, protection, and comfort she yearned for but never experienced as a child.

Fantasies that cope with past hurts are often important reminders of unfinished business. As we’ll see in more detail in later chapters, such fantasies may be sounding an alarm, drawing a woman’s attention to an issue she needs to address or understand on a more conscious level. Even if she dislikes the thoughts, her fantasy may be serving a positive function for her by containing and preserving the memory of a significant life experience.

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When women describe fantasies that work well, they often relate them with an unbridled pleasure. They can see their fantasies as positive outlets for their sexuality and their creativity. They appreciate their fantasies as their own, ingenious inventions.

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Wendy Maltz LCSW, DST, (www.healthysex.com) is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and expert on sexuality. A frequent lecturer and media presenter, she is the author of The Porn TrapPrivate ThoughtsThe Sexual Healing Journey, and two award-winning poetry anthologies (Passionate Hearts and Intimate Kisses).  Wendy is co-director of Maltz Counseling Associates in Eugene, Oregon. 

Suzie Boss, co-author of Private Thoughts, is a journalist from Portland, Oregon, who writes about social change and education. She contributes regularly to Edutopia (www.edutopia.org),Stanford Social Innovation Review (www.ssireview.org), and many other publications.