You'd be forgiven for thinking that the key role – the only role – of our sexual fantasies was to turn us on.
Whether it’s day-dreaming about Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page going down on you in his britches, group sex outdoors, or anything else that floats your boat, there’s no denying our erotic reveries provide a healthy outlet for stress.
Did you know though that, according to sex and relationship psychologists, our sexual fantasies can tell us a lot about ourselves too? They act like a portal into not just our innermost desires, but our personalities, emotional needs and the way we view ourselves and the world.
Read more: Why I'm proud to be sex-positive
Threesomes, bondage and other secret fantasies
By their very nature, sexual fantasies are difficult to scientifically study – after all, they’re so subjective. One person’s hot hot hot! can be another’s absolutely not, after all...
In 2018, however, Justin Lehmiler, social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, tried. He conducted the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind on the topic, asking more than 4,000 people, ranging from 18-87, about their sexual thoughts.
The result was his book: Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life (£9.99, Little Brown).
Among his findings was the fact that our erotic fantasies tend to fall into three main categories: group sex, BDSM (including dominance, submission and sadomasochism); novelty and adventure.
Within these classifications, the most popular scenarios were about threesomes, bondage, trying new positions or having sex in new locations.
How your personality affects your fantasy
Most interestingly, what Lehmiller also found was that our personalities often dictated our fantasies.
Many of these were logical: For example, extroverts were more likely to have fantasies about group sex and non-monogamy.
Empaths – not wanting to hurt anyone – tended to fantasise less about BDSM, infidelity and emotionless sex and were more likely to have their partner in their erotic imaginings.
For the sensitive and detail-driven among us, things like location were more important. In fact, women were more likely to focus on the where and the how, whereas men were all about the ‘who with’.
In her work as a sex coach and therapist, Stella Sonnenbaum has found that people’s sexual fantasises often provide an opportunity to live out alternative roles and relationship dynamics that they don’t get to experience in real life.
“Strong and powerful women and men high up on the career ladder, for example, often have masochistic fantasies,” she reveals.
“It seems that sexually they desire the opposite of what they live in their day: being responsible, managing teams and making decisions. Sexually they may desire to be completely dominated by others, where they are forced to let go of control."
Wanting your partner's attention
In this way, our sexual fantasies, says Sonnenbaum, can sometimes show us the opposite of how we view ourselves, therefore having what she calls a “healing or compensating element.”
For example, fantasising about doctors and nurses or being rescued by a hunky fireman are ways people might try to process trauma. “They re-enact a bad experience in a positive, pleasure-giving way in their heads to change the narrative,” explains Sonnenbaum.
Whilst your ‘core erotic themes’ don’t always have a connection with actual life events, relationship psychologist and therapist Barbara Santini believes they often portray your emotional – often unmet –needs. For example, someone who dreams about a threesome, may be craving attention from their partner, or even generally in their life.
“The most common needs,” says Santini, “include wanting to be loved and desired by your romantic partner, which is why most sexual fantasies involve your current romantic partner in a main role as they are the only ones in a position to satisfy your emotional needs in real life.”
In fact, in his research, Lehmiller found that rather than any celebrity, or the hot guy from Costa, “you might be surprised to learn that the person most likely to turn up in our fantasies, is our current romantic partner.”
Should we share our sexual desires?
Talking of which, now we know a little about what our fantasies say about us and where they might be coming from, how do we communicate them to our partners? Should we even tell our partners or should our sexual fantasies remain just that?
“Not all fantasies need to be acted out,” says Sonnenbaum. “Some just need to remain fantasies. In fact, sometimes there’s no desire to act them out or tell anyone about them.”
It’s also worth considering that “some can be unrealistic,” adds Santini. “Which means you might not experience the excitement in your head, when you play the fantasy out…”
But as we all know, there are some sexual fantasies – some mental images – that as Sonnenbaum puts it, “have a very different charge” and there is a strong urge to carry them out.
In this case, what should we consider before we share them with our partners?
Sonnenbaum warns it’s important to be cautious. “When revealing our fantasies, we show something very personal and vulnerable, maybe something that’s been with us from a very young age,” she says.
“We could be judged, mocked or rejected. We could encounter the sad fact that our partner is not willing to engage with our turn-on in the way we desire.”
Take it slowly
This is why she suggests laying some groundwork by researching and sharing erotic material with your partner that is similar to what you desire to ‘test the water’. For example, erotic fiction, movies or online pornography.
After all, “we can gauge from how they respond to that, how they might respond to our fantasy,” says Sonnenbaum. And it prepares them too so that they’re not taken off guard!
When it comes to our sexual fantasies, how we share them and if we should, also depends on how long we’ve been with our partner. For example, Sonnenbaum points out that BDSM or bondage is probably best tried with a partner you know well “as people can show different aspects of themselves when aroused,” she says, and react in unexpected ways.
If we do decide to share, Santini advises, “being honest and giving as much detail as possible when it comes to describing our fantasy, so as not to be judged.”
Above all, remember that sexual fantasies are healthy and totally normal. Sometimes they say nothing deeper than what turns us on, but equally sometimes they indicate unmet needs in our relationships, or desires to experience different roles than we get to play in real life.
The best thing about our sexual fantasies, is we get to control them and adapt them to suit our arousal levels or aims – from achieving a big O to having a pleasant day-dream!
“It’s very important not to suppress our fantasies, but to explore them patiently for what they are,” says Sonnenbaum. “And to find out about our very own core erotic theme, the plots and power dynamics that result in arousal for us.”
Or put simply, what turns us on.