On Fantasy, its Bounds, and Moral Implications Thereof

by Jason Stotts

Note: This essay is adapted from the lecture I gave at ATLOSCon 2012 on “Sexual Attraction and Fantasy.”

What is fantasy?  I’m sure you know what fantasy is, but can you clearly articulate it?  Fantasy is one of those things that we all know, but whose exact nature it can be hard to pick out.

Fantasy is more than just that thing you do when you’re masturbating, although it definitely is that. Fantasy, at its root, is creating mental pictures or ideas.  Fantasy and imagination are one in the same thing. Etymologically they both mean having to do with images in one’s mind.  Today, we draw some distinction between the two and reserve the term “fantasy” primarily for the sexual realm.

Sexual fantasy involves: taking a situation, person, object, etc., and making it sexier; or imagining different ways to enjoy it; or creative and new things to try; or imagining your first time with a new person; or a new sexual position or activity, etc.  Fantasy is fundamentally sexual exploration in your head.  This is important not only for masturbation, but also for trying to understand your own sexuality and your sexual compatibility with another person

So, what things count as fantasy?  What does fantasy subsume in a more concrete form?  I think there are four distinct functions of fantasy:

1. Testing whether you want to do something new sexually:

– Whether you want to have sex with a new person

– Whether some particular activity would be exciting

2. Imagining new possibilities:

– Sexual positions

– Pervertables (things that aren’t sex toys that can be used that way)

– Unique scenarios

3. Reliving a sexy past experience:

– remembering and re-experiencing the past.

4. Creating Erotic Excitement or Augmenting a situation:

– For masturbation

– To make what you’re doing more exciting.

There are also two different kinds of fantasy: internal fantasy and external fantasy.  Internal fantasy originates in our own mind and we are the source of it.  External fantasy we get from a source outside ourselves, like an erotic story, book, or movie.  As an aside, this is how pornography functions, as a form of external fantasy.  It’s like we can imagine ourselves in the role of the actors in the porn and use it as we would an internal fantasy.  The great advantage of internal fantasy is that we can control it and make it exactly what we want. The downside is that our imaginations are limited to our experience and what we can create from it, if we have no knowledge of a thing, then it won’t be part of our fantasy life.  The great advantage of external fantasy is that we can be exposed to lots of things we might not have tried, may never have the opportunity to try, or may not even want to do in real life, but still find arousing. The downside is that we can’t control this in any way and often the situations we find aren’t exactly what we want.

Fantasy is more necessary for our sexual lives than you might at first expect.  In some ways fantasy is necessary for our everyday sexual experience as well as it provides some of “the spark” that makes our sex lives so much fun.  Fantasy is one of the things that takes us out of our regular lives and into “sexy time” as we begin to fantasize about what we might do, or will do, and get our bodies worked up for it.  Fantasy plays a large role in sexual arousal and without it we would not get as aroused or become as aroused as quickly.  Fantasy is often layered over our experience as it’s happening: we’re thinking about the things we might do or will do before we do them and getting excited about the potential of what is about to happen.  Fantasy is also that thing that makes our masturbation so much fun and makes self-stimulation the enjoyable past-time it is. Few people enjoy, or would enjoy, masturbation without fantasy.

When is it okay to fantasize?  Most people think that fantasy is a necessarily solo activity, but you can fantasize with your partner and this can make your sex life even more exciting.  For example, a couple can fantasize about non-monogamy together while only having sex with each other.  You can also act out a fantasy through role-playing:  Many couples use role-playing to augment their sexual lives, by acting out fantasies such as “the naughty schoolgirl,” “sex with a stranger,” or “sex with a celebrity.”  Many couples also experiment with kink by role-playing BDSM to see if they like aspects of it, like the dominance and submission.  On the other hand, there are times when it’s not okay to fantasize.  For example, when you’re having sex with your partner, it is wrong to fantasize about them being a different person, unless that’s explicitly part of what you’re doing, as otherwise its deceptive as your partner will think that they are the object of your arousal, when in fact, it will be the object of your fantasy.

One question that I get a lot is: “what is within the appropriate bounds of fantasy?”  Many people are worried that they might be fantasizing in an immoral way or about an inappropriate object.  They worry that they are somehow being unethical with their fantasy and this stifles their fantasies.  I personally don’t think there’s anything that you can fantasize about that’s immoral, with one caveat: If one constantly fantasizes about something that would actually be immoral to do in real life, one has to be careful to not cultivate a disposition to action for that thing in real life.  With fantasy, nothing is out of bounds from a moral perspective, since you’re not actually doing anything.  You do want to be careful though not to cultivate a strong fantasy that you wouldn’t want in real life lest you start to think you should actually do it.  As long as you maintain a separation between fantasy and reality, nothing is out of bounds

Indeed, fantasy can properly include things that you might never want to do in real life for practical reasons.  In real life we have to worry about practical considerations like disease, immorality, organization, time, consent, etc. In fantasy, however, we’re free of these considerations and there are no limits to what we can do:

– Do you want a harem of busty young woman who are all virgins and also, inexplicably, sexually skilled?

– Do you want to have sex with that handsome firefighter you met that one time?

– Do you wish your partner would be more aggressive?

– Do you wish you could have sex for hours on end with a string of orgasms?

– Do you wish you could be more adventurous? Have sex underwater or in space?

Fantasy opens your sexual options to the limits of your imagination.

In conclusion, fantasy is an important part of our sexual experience and without it our sex lives would be much impoverished.

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