the meanings of fantasies

I read a lot of blogs about porn, sex, sex work and such and I’m often struck by how many people make statements about the motivations of everyone who watches porn, or is a sex work client, engages in BDSM, or simply enjoys a specific sexual desire, fantasy or practice. I think it’s amazing how often people think they know what motivates someone to do anything. In my experience, motivation is often subtle, complex, and multi-dimensional. It’s rare that we can identify all of the reasons that we do anything, much less why someone else is doing something.

It’s even more complex when we’re talking about sex. There can be any number of reasons for any of our actions and fantasies, and different people can have wildly different reasons for doing the same thing. If you don’t believe me, check out Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies by Michael Bader. He’s a therapist who has learned to ask his clients what it is about their fantasies that they find so compelling. Rather than assuming that everyone who shares a fantasy of being tied up, or being watched during sex, or having sex with multiple partners has the same reasons for it, Bader shows that we will get better information if we ask why someone finds something arousing.

Here’s an example. It’s fairly well-known that being “taken” by an anonymous stranger is a fantasy that many women have. I’ve read all sorts of explanations for it, from psychoanalytic clinicians who think that it has something to do with unresolved Oedipal conflicts to radical feminists who say that it’s because women are trained to be sexually available to men. But what these folks often have in common is that they rarely or never actually ask women who have these fantasies what they mean to them.

Bader writes about two women with this fantasy. One of them finds it powerful because she’s a very sexual person and has taken a lot of hassle for it from men who felt threatened. In her fantasy, when she’s “taken” by a man, it allows her to let go and not try to protect her fantasy partner from her sexuality. Her fantasy makes it safe for her to be sexually powerful with a partner who is equally powerful, despite the superficial impression that it’s about being powerless. On the other hand, another woman with a similar fantasy was told all her life that “good girls” don’t ask for sex. So for her, being taken means that she can be sexual without having to ask for it. In her fantasy, she’s having sex with someone who does exactly what she wants without having to ask for it.

In both cases, the fantasy helps create a sense of safety for these women and there are some clear similarities in terms of what’s going on for them. But there are also huge differences and most people who talk about sex seem to forget that. I think that the same thing applies in pretty much every aspect of sex. When I read or hear someone saying that “people who do X” are doing it for one reason or another, it’s rare that they’ve ever asked the people who they’re talking about to tell them what motivates them. And it’s even more rare that they ask with compassion and without judgment.

So now, when I read or hear someone talking about why people engage in whatever sexual behaviors in one-dimensional and overly simplistic ways, I know that either they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re projecting their own internal landscape onto someone else, and it’s often both.  While that doesn’t always make it easier to stomach, it reminds me that they don’t know as much as they seem to want me to think.

Bader makes some really fascinating observations about sexuality and if you want to get a peek at what makes people tick, it’s a good read.

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