Sexual Fantasies

At the Convergence of the Cultural and the Individual

by Mariah Larsson (Volume editor) Sara Johnsdotter (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 222 Pages


This book expands the notion of sexual fantasies from the field of psychology into the realms of cultural studies, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology. So far, much research on sexual fantasies has dealt with issues of gender differences, the effect of sexual fantasies on people’s sex lives, or how problematic fantasies can be treated in therapy. In this volume contributors from different academic disciplines explore sexual fantasies at the convergence of the cultural and the individual, taking into account that fantasies are paradoxical: highly individualised and private, and at the same time dependent on a world that supplies structures, images, symbols, and narratives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: At the Convergence of the Cultural and the Individual
  • Secret gardens
  • Chapters and contributors
  • References
  • Feminism and Sexual Fantasy: Reading and Defending Fifty Shades of Grey as Pornography
  • History and context
  • But what is pornography, really?
  • Ana’s/reader agency
  • Depictions of abuse and BDSM
  • Pornographic tactics and pornotopia
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Written Fantasies: A Case of Language-Induced Sexual Excitement
  • Introduction
  • Sexual words
  • Female cum in my corpus of written amateur erotica
  • Maximum visibility in filmed pornography
  • ‘Real’ vs. faked female sexual pleasure and the effortless orgasm
  • Eroticisation of female bodily fluids – a feast of consumption
  • Written depictions of the female cum: authorship and readership
  • Female cum in sexual fantasy
  • References
  • Making the Fantasy: Consumption, Relationships, and the RealDoll
  • Normalisation of the doll in popular culture
  • The RealDoll: creating the ideal
  • Making the fantasy real: what is available
  • What purchasers see: making the fantasy come to life
  • Objectification and consumption of the human
  • Concluding thoughts
  • References
  • The Politics of Sexual Fantasies: The Inversion of Sexual Fantasies in Orientalism and Occidentalism
  • Sexual stereotypes of the Other
  • The veil and the colonial gaze
  • The harem: within the forbidden sexual space
  • Western erotica of the Orient
  • Oriental sexualities
  • Postcolonial deconstructions: the example of the veil
  • Islamism and the promiscuous Occident
  • Foucault reassessed and final reflections
  • References
  • Blocking out Sexual Fantasies for a Fantasy of Eternal Sex: Islamist Views
  • Islam as an institution for sexual discipline
  • Sexual fantasies from an activist perspective
  • Therapeutic solution
  • Paradise and sex
  • Summary
  • References
  • Fantasies Becoming Practice: BDSM as Ritual
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Gender and fantasy
  • BDSM – where your dreams come true?
  • Playing with taboos
  • Personal fantasies become collective rituals
  • BDSM – both fantasy and reality
  • References
  • Documenting Fantasy and Expanding Reality in Queer Pornography
  • Introduction to the films
  • Validating queer reality
  • BDSM as reparative criticism
  • A zone of experimentation
  • References
  • Fantasies Becoming Illegal: The Manga Case, Child Porn Law, and the Regulation of the Sexual Mind
  • Background
  • Theoretical framework
  • A criminalisation of the mind?
  • The Manga case
  • Concluding discussion
  • References
  • Johns’ Fantasies of ‘the Prostitute’
  • Forbidden fruit
  • Space and place
  • Curiosity and sexual variation
  • Another kind of sex
  • The girlfriend experience
  • The fantasy of the kind-hearted comforter
  • Fantasies of another kind of woman
  • Concluding comments
  • References
  • Just Faking It? Pretend Theory Meets Sexual Fantasising
  • The great pretenders
  • Why believe in Pretend Theory?
  • Real emotional responding to fictions
  • A radically enactive take on sexual fantasising with real emotions
  • Sexual arousal as a basic emotion
  • Full emotional spectrums and fantastical manners
  • The final analysis
  • References
  • Sexual Fantasies in Sexological Psychotherapeutic Settings
  • Theories for the practice
  • Recent research on sexual fantasies and psychodynamic therapy
  • Case vignettes
  • Case 1
  • Case 2
  • Case 3
  • Case 4
  • Why and how sexual fantasies matter in sexually oriented psychotherapy
  • References
  • Contributors

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There are a number of foundations, institutions, and individuals that have been helpful in the work with this volume. First of all, we would like to thank our contributors, who throughout the process have dedicated themselves not only to researching and writing their respective chapters to the volume, but also to offering insightful response to the other contributions and to the volume as a whole. Sven-Axel Månsson kindly read and commented on the introduction in its final stages. In addition, we would like to thank those contributors who travelled far to participate in the workshops that were arranged during the project, and Ylva Hernlund who worked efficiently with language revision of all our texts. Any remaining mistakes are not due to her reading. Our colleagues at our respective home departments at Malmö University and Stockholm University have provided stimulating scholarly environments.

This volume is produced in association with the newly started Center for Sexology and Sexuality Studies at Malmö University. The two workshops – one in Skanör, the other in Vitemölla – were generously supported by the Department of Social Work at Health and Society, Malmö University, and the Crafoord Foundation. We are deeply grateful for this support.

Finally, and as always, our warmest thanks go to our families.

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Mariah Larsson & Sara Johnsdotter

Introduction: At the Convergence of the Cultural and the Individual

Fantasy and imagination are vital parts of what makes us human beings. Our capacity to form mental images or concepts of things that are not actually present, together with our ability to let our minds and imaginations wander, aid us in our everyday lives. Although we can fantasise about many different things – from positive daydreaming about more or less attainable goals to nightmare visions about accidents or illnesses – one significant aspect of fantasy has to do with our sexual worlds. Sexual fantasies might be shameful or embarrassing, they might create awkwardness in real-life situations, or a questioning of one’s own sexual identity, but they might also be rich and rewarding, a path that leads to exploration, self-discovery, and pleasure. Moreover, they contain a weird paradox: on the one hand, they are the most private and secretive in people’s lives (some never admit their sexual fantasies even to a partner who is very close); on the other hand, they are both shared by many and, in some way, dependent on a world that supplies structures, images, symbols, narratives, and so on, that can be deployed in various ways within those fantasies. On the one hand, fantasies emanate from the individual; on the other, they are produced in interaction with the world around us.

Using the terminology from sexual script theory by Simon and Gagnon (e.g., 2005[1973]; 1986), one could say that sexual fantasies are the place where the cultural scenario and the intrapsychic script converge and/or conflict. Sociologists Simon and Gagnon presented the sexual script theory in the early 1970s, and developed it through the years to come. ‘Script’ is a metaphor for how sexuality is not biologically determined but shaped in and by a social context. From an early age, individuals form their perception of sexuality through various bits and pieces of information; through taboos and misapprehensions; through sex education and other informational materials; through glimpses snatched from films, literature, and real life; through experiences and feelings aroused by erotica or pornography. Simon and Gagnon describe scripting as occurring on three different levels. The first one is that of the intrapsychic, or individual, scripts. At first glance, this is where sexual fantasies are located – they are a ‘symbolic reorganization of reality in ways that make it complicit in realizing more fully the actor’s many-layered and sometimes multivoiced wishes’ (Simon & Gagnon 1986: 99). As personal, private, ← 9 | 10 → and (often) secret parts of the self, sexual fantasies quite definitely belong within the intrapsychic scripts. The second level is that of the interpersonal scripts – here, two or more people interact in accordance with both expected codes of conduct within sexual activity and with their own intrapsychic scripts. As Simon and Gagnon explain it, the scripts in this case are rather a kind of template or a set of instructions for improvisation. For instance, that sex is ‘supposed to’ begin with kissing and petting in order to continue on to penetration and intercourse, is such a template within which two or more people can improvise. Included in the interpersonal script is everything from flirting to post-coital behaviour.

The cultural scenario is the third level. This is at once quite abstract and quite concrete: the cultural scenario provides the information from which individuals piece together their knowledge about sex, the inspiration for the personal, intrapsychic scripts, as well as a backdrop – or even a stage – for our interpersonal scripts. It is both a contemporary social context and a historical legacy of cultural tradition.

In this volume, we mainly approach sexual fantasies as they are expressed, conveyed, and disseminated on a cultural level, for instance through various media. This is not because we find that the research done on individuals’ sexual fantasies is faulty, or even looking in the wrong places, but rather because we want to expand the notion of sexual fantasies from the field of psychology and into the realm of cultural studies, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and analyses of cultural phenomena. Our conviction is that individuals’ sexual fantasies cannot be understood without the backdrop of social culture, or, in Simon and Gagnon’s terminology, the cultural scenario. Accordingly, the contributors ask questions about how such fantasies may be navigated in the convergence with the personal on an individual level but also how such fantasies are understood or interpreted in society, what they might mean in a given social culture, and what effects they may have. In a review of research on sexual fantasies, Leitenberg and Henning observe: ‘Certainly it is by now a truism that one’s brain is at least as important a sexual organ as one’s genitals. […] Understanding sexual fantasies therefore seems central to an understanding of an important aspect of human sexuality’ (1995: 469). We might, however, add that understanding sexual fantasies is an important aspect of understanding our culture, and that our culture is one way to understand sexual fantasies. Fantasy, as Cultural Studies scholar Martin Barker observes, belongs ‘in the zone of the relations between bodies, selfhood, and social and cultural permissions and forbiddings’ (Barker 2014: 157).

Thus, the emphasis in this volume is not on mapping the prevalence of particular fantasies in certain people, but on how sexual fantasies can be multifaceted and ubiquitous; how they may be individualised but seldom unique; and how they ← 10 | 11 → interconnect with a multitude of other psychological, social, and cultural phenomena. This volume also examines how sexual fantasies and their various expressions may be used for liberating ends, such as exploring one’s sexuality in therapy, and for finding alternatives to stereotypical depictions of sexuality.

Secret gardens

Since people are secretive about them, sexual fantasies are hard to research. Previous studies have attempted to investigate people’s sexual fantasies by surveys, open-ended questionnaires, or by asking subjects to record their fantasies in journals over an extended period of time (Leitenberg & Henning 1995). These methods are problematic, since they – like much sexological research – rely on honesty in a subject that is fraught with taboos, social norms, conventions, expectations, and even legal regulations. Nonetheless, researchers have reached some tentative results regarding sexual fantasies in individuals as relates to gender, age, and correlation to for instance sex crimes (Leitenberg & Henning 1995).

There are collections of sexual fantasies, where people have submitted their fantasies in writing or in taped interviews. Nancy Friday’s classic, bestselling My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies (1973) is one such collection. Born out of the sexual revolution, second wave feminism, and the curiosity about sexuality which permeated much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, My Secret Garden is not a scholarly book – Friday made requests for sexual fantasies through ads and articles, thus creating a selection of fantasies which came from those who would offer them – but it does not really make that claim, either. Instead, it is written as a call for liberation (from shame, guilt, and oppression by the ideal of the ‘good girl’) and openness. Friday would go on to write about (among other things) men’s sexual fantasies (1980) and returned to women’s sexual fantasies in later publications (1991; 2009).

Another form of sexual fantasy research is the psychologist or therapist who relates a number of cases and discusses what the fantasies might mean to the individual who has them and how he or she can be able to negotiate, for instance, a tension between everyday sexual life and fantasy (see e.g., Bader 2002; Kahr 2009). Here, the sexual fantasy might cause problems that need to be resolved in order to establish a functioning intimate relation. One such example, where the fantasy fetish had led to a cessation of sexual activity between husband and wife, is, together with the therapy treatment, described in McCarthy and Breetz ‘Confronting Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder: Secrets, Variant Arousal, and Good-Enough Sex’ (2010). ← 11 | 12 →

Through its on the one hand graphic explicitness and its on the other hand role as fantasy, pornography holds a paradoxical position in relation to fantasy and reality (Barker 2014). The legalisation of pornography in the Western world during the 1970s, as well as the severe debates around pornography, gender, and sexuality from the late 1970s and into the 1990s, brought a new kind of discussion about what sexual representations are and how they relate to actual sexual practices, as well as to dominant ideology and hegemonic conceptions.

For instance, are women’s rape fantasies an expression of an inherent wish in women to be dominated by men – is femininity masochist by nature? Or are they a way for women to allow themselves to enjoy sex, to not have to bear the responsibility of sexual activity because someone else made them do it, the so-called blame avoidance theory? Or is it just an example of how women have internalised patriarchal oppression and come to embrace sexuality as male domination and, even, violence? Might it be that women dream of being so desirable that men cannot resist them? All of these – and other – explanations have been proposed through the years and none is really sufficient (Bivona, Critelli & Clark 2012). When men fantasise about being dominated, is it because they need relief from the role of always being powerful, in control, active, and aggressive?

Although more women than men seem to fantasise about being dominated in one way or the other (being tied up, raped, beaten/whipped etc.), studies show very varied results on how many women actually have such fantasies. Between 31% and 57% of women have had fantasies of being forced into sex, but for only between 9% and 17% such fantasies are frequent or favored (Critelli & Bivona 2008). Thus, to say that it is a common female fantasy is actually very likely something of an exaggeration. It can be said that it is not uncommon for women to have such fantasies, but the only way it could be described as common is by ascribing fantasies of submission a negative character (like colds or Chlamydia are common). Nonetheless, since these fantasies are highly controversial, they become highlighted in reports of research. Explanations become politicised, because such fantasies could seem to endorse rape myths, such as the idea that women want to be overpowered, or they could cement gender roles such as that women are passive and men active.

Nonetheless, in research, it seems that sexual fantasies have little bearing on life outside the bedroom – sometimes even outside the mind and body of the fantasiser (Leitenberg & Henning 1995). Only a very small number of individuals act out fantasies that could be harmful to others or to themselves (about rape, sex with minors, asphyxiation, violence). Although some fantasies may have a correlation to attitudes, this applies to men who fantasise about dominating a woman and who have stronger rape myth acceptance, and not to women who ← 12 | 13 → have rape fantasies (Zurbriggen & Yost 2004). Some people have fantasies that do not have an equivalent in their sex lives – for instance heterosexuals who fantasise about sex with someone of the same sex.

Thus, from a socio-political perspective it might seem that it is of little importance what people fantasise about. However, Michael Kimmel and Rebecca F Plante argue that sexual fantasies reflect the social construction of gender in society in general (Kimmel & Plante 2005). In sharp contrast with biologically oriented explanatory models, Kimmel and Plante claim that gender differences in sexual fantasising come out of ‘deep social structures. Differential sexual scripting, with the goal of reinforcing socially constructed gender role identities, is the primary axis of disparity. With socialization into a binary gender system that also assumes heterosexuality, gender is enormously powerful in the construction of the sexual self’ (Kimmel & Plante 2005: 62). For Kimmel and Plante, the ‘grey areas between fantasies and realities’ are rather the result of reality’s (in the form of social structures) influence on fantasy, and a palpable gender disparity in sexual fantasies is likely to cause problems in intimate, heterosexual relations (2005: 63). With script theory terminology, gender differences in the cultural scenario influence the intrapsychic scripts, which in their turn translate into a possibly problematic (heterosexual) interpersonal interaction.

This might be a more convincing explanation for gender differences in sexual fantasies than, for instance, claiming that fantasies involving multiple partners are typically male fantasies because of a biologically male imperative to reproduce with many women whereas women more often fantasise about famous men because they need a strong provider (Wilson 1997). One reason is that the pervasiveness of such fantasies is not significant enough to substantiate such claims. Although the group sex fantasy seems quite common among men (42%), the famous person fantasy for women was only slightly more frequent than for men (17% versus 16%) (Wilson 1997). In the study by Kimmel and Plante (2005), the famous person fantasy was actually more common among men (6.59% as compared to 1.61%).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
sexuality fantasy culture erotica
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 222 pp., 6 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Mariah Larsson (Volume editor) Sara Johnsdotter (Volume editor)

Mariah Larsson specialises in sexuality and film. She is currently on leave from her position as Associate Professor in Sexology, Health and Society at Malmö University (Sweden) to work as a researcher at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University. Sara Johnsdotter is Professor in Medical Anthropology at Malmö University. Her research projects have included genital modifications and sexuality, as well as the interface between sexuality and language.


Title: Sexual Fantasies
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