Why Do Sexual Taboos Make Up Our Sexual Fantasies?

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

People love to tell you about their dreams. Ask someone if they had any dreams last night and they’ll tell you how they were chased, that they flew through the air, that they saw an old friend who gave them a message. They will tell you how it made them feel and what they think it all means. They’ll recall memories that perhaps hold the key to decoding every symbol. They’ll tell you: it all felt so real. 

Ask someone how they slept last night and they’ll tell you: good or not well or not at all. Maybe they’ll tell you their back hurts. You’ll suggest nighttime tea, a better pillow, maybe a new position. 

The difference between dreaming and sleeping is also the difference between sexual fantasies and sex lives. Sexual fantasies are the varied scenarios we imagine that make life more pleasurable and intense. It can be as simple as the time of day, the temperature, the quality of the breeze or as complex as the power dynamics or transgressions that turn us on. Our sex lives, on the other hand, are more of a ledger: good or not well or not at all. And yet we’re more likely to talk about our sex lives than our sexual fantasies. Why? 

Layer upon layer of social and sexual taboo, combined with a lack of education and communication has created stigma around discussing that which gets us off and understanding why—not only with our friends, but with our partners. Therapy is often the only place where we feel permission to discuss the erotic recesses of our imaginations, and probe the role sex plays in our lives: a longing for communion, a spiritual union, an expression of love, the feeling of being wanted, taken, ravished, the exuberance of release as well as a safe place to experience aggression, play with power dynamics, surrender. Sex is never just sex. But outside of the therapist’s office that freedom collapses. Not only because talking intimately about our sexual fantasies is a social taboo, but because those fantasies often consist of sexual taboos themselves—that which is considered forbidden, immoral, perverse, a line not to cross, something not to do.. It’s those long standing boundaries created by our cultures, religions, and media that we’re taught from a very young age not to break. 

Plus, just like dreams, our fantasies can be irrational and weird. They can be contradictory to how we see ourselves and how others see us. If sex carries some embarrassment and shame, then our fantasies push us over that edge. What if what turns us on turns our partner off? Or worse, what if they're disgusted by it? Our erotic mind is very sensitive to censorship and when it smells judgement, it knows to hide underground. Many of us wonder if it’s even worth it to go down the rabbit hole of our desire. Doing so is to accept that we are multifaceted, filled with contradictions, and that we want to play with otherness. Just because we put on a costume doesn’t necessarily mean we want to be a witch or a sea captain. When we play in the sexual theater, we want to know what it’s like to not be ourselves. Our fantasies, and the taboos they contain, are symbolic maps of our deepest needs and wishes. Accessing that vulnerability can turn our sex lives from a ledger into something so much greater, but getting there is a taboo in and of itself. It means talking about it.

The Formation of a Fantasy

Chapter six of “Mating in Captivity” details the origins of our erotic dissonance, from the days of the Puritans to now. Though we’re living in a time of unprecedented sexual freedom, in the U.S. a deep ambivalence around sexuality persists, leaving us seasawing between extremes of excessive license and repressive tactics The majority of sex education that litters our teenage years can be summed up as a big DON’T. “The Talk'' is about the dangers and the diseases, rarely the intimate and never the imaginative. But our sexuality is rooted in the psychological details of our lives and our emotional history shapes our erotic blueprint. 

Tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you make love. But tell me about your sexual fantasies and it will tell me about the needs and expectations that are bundled in your erotic encounters—the longings, hopes, fears, pains and struggles. We invest our sexual experiences with a complex set of needs and expectations. We seek love, pleasure, escape, validation, ecstasy, visibility, unity, and transcendence. Our sexual fantasies are a fount of information about our internal lives and the relational dynamics of our partnerships. They comprise a code language. 

The repertoire of sexual positions is limited, but our imagination is as vast as the ocean and as varied as any forest. It is the central agent of our sexuality and keeps things interesting over time. It’s the place our fantasies come from. It reminds us that sex isn’t something we do, but a place we go—inside ourselves and with each other.
But inevitably, there is the moment of hesitation—what if my fantasy isn’t normal? 

These 5 Sexual Taboos are More Normal Than You Think 

This month on Sessions, my online training program for therapists, coaches, and educators, I spoke with Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and an internationally-recognized sex educator, about the most common sexual taboos. The author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, Justin explained his research about why certain taboos are more normal than we think. The following is adapted from his survey of 4,175 Americans that formed the basis for his book as well as our recent conversation. 

1. Multipartner sex, like threesomes, orgies, and gangbangs. 89% of those surveyed said they fantasize about multipartner sex. Why? It could be that when we have multiple partners, we don’t worry about rejection as much. We also are less likely to feel that we are “too much.” We are affirmed that we are sexually powerful because we can take on more than one person. Multipartner sex can be a collective release. A group mentality can make sex feel more legitimitzed, accepted, and normalized and intense.

2. Power, control, rough sex. 65% of those surveyed said they fantasize about BDSM. Keep in mind that BDSM is so much more than just whips and chains. As Dr. Margaret Nichols explains: “BDSM sexual activities seem unusual to those who do not share BDSM proclivities.” However, “these sexual activities share much in common with activities like Iron Man competitions, a penchant for sky-diving, and a love of horror movies. The combination of pleasure with negative sensations is the hallmark of BDSM. It is the source of what is often called a ‘peak experience,’ which many believe are an essential quest of humans once basic needs have been met. Peak experiences can be experienced as spiritual, revelatory and healing.”

3. Novelty, adventure, and variety, such as having sex in a new position or setting. According to Lehmiller’s research, public sex was one of the biggest fantasies for surveyed women. Why? Because novel experiences connect with our imagination, curiosity, and creativity. Sex is an art. But the very thing we might find new and exciting, might point at our own inner contradictions, which is why it can feel taboo. Why would someone who deeply values their privacy want to have sex in public? Why would a CEO want to experience being spanked and dominated? It’s the adventure outside of our normal lives that we find so exciting. 

4. Being in a non-monogamous relationship, such as swinging, polyamory, cuckolding, or having an open relationship. 79 percent of men and 62 percent of women Lehmiller surveyed fantasize about being in an open relationship, while 58 percent admit they think about watching their partner have sex with other people. Consensual non-monogamy offers the union between stable commitment and freedom, belonging, and independence. 

5. Gender-bending and homoeroticism. According to Lehmiller, this is “all about pushing the boundaries of your gender identity/role/expression (such as cross-dressing) and/or your sexual orientation (such as being heterosexual but having a same-sex fantasy).” 59 percent of straight women said they fantasize about sex with other women, while 26 percent of straight men said they fantasize about sex with other men.

Working With Our Fantasies 

For some of us, the transgressive and forbidden invite us to experience a sense of bravery, defiance, and freedom. We’re so often told we can’t do things or that our curiosity is inappropriate. We like to defy the odds and the norms. We like to break out of boxes. As we continue to explore sexual taboos on Sessions, we speak with Angelika Eck about how working with fantasy enables us deeper access to ourselves, our shadow parts, and the emotional maps of our needs. We highlight the interplay between the physiological, the body, and the biological when exploring the challenge of sustaining desire. Remember: fantasies are so much more than the sexual taboos we may associate with them and those taboos are not nearly as strange as we may think. As Angelika says, “they are the imaginative thoughts that take us out of the restraints of our realities.”

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