Earlier this week I was asked by a journalist at New York Magazine’s The Cut to provide comments on some questions about masturbation, fantasies we have during masturbation, and shame. As my clients know, this is a topic I have a LOT to say about! The article itself is a wonderful (and brief) sex-positive and pro-masturbation piece, and you can read it here, but I decided I wanted to share my full answers in case it could help anyone who finds themselves on the internet questioning if what they think about when they masturbate is normal, ok, or healthy.
-Why do we fantasize about what we fantasize about? How and when do we develop these fantasies?
Because it’s how we are wired! Humans are at once physical, emotional, and cognitive creatures. Something we have understood through observation of ourselves and others, and more recently had validated with the dawn of human behavioral sciences—is that human beings are pleasure seeking animals.
Thanks to 3D ultrasound video technology, we can confidently assert that humans enjoy and seek out pleasurable experiences in its myriad forms from the womb to the grave. Our earliest experiences are predominantly sensory and emotionally oriented, and as we mature and become more able bodied, more cognizant, more imaginative, what that looks like for humans becomes more complex and varied. Whether that is through consumption and excretion, snuggles, thumb sucking, or intentional explorations of the many highly sensitive parts of our bodies; whether it’s sexually or erotically driven or not, the simple truth is is that we all like and seek out things that feel good, engaging, and (comfortably) exciting/stimulating.
As such complex creatures it makes sense that we would use our brains and imaginations to recall or create physically and emotionally arousing fantasies to conjure and heighten our physical and emotional responses during a sexual experience. We grow and shift in our fantasies organically as we mature towards sexually explicit gratification seeking behaviors, but it’s an easy thing to do because we’ve literally been doing it our whole lives. We’re hard wired from the start to seek out pleasurable, arousing, and gratifying experiences in all the ways we can possibly enjoy. What a wonderful gift we can give to ourselves with our fantasy lives! And we can do it for free!!!
-How do they change over the course of our lives?
They change as we gain experience points in life and grow our own personal library of exciting and arousing ideas, experiences and feelings. Some of them may seem relatively unchanged over the course of our lives. Some of them may become noticeably more graphic, more “intense”, more elaborate (or more confusing) in their evolution. Both are normal and healthy experiences, and neither is inherently better than the other. Having a good ol’ go-to fantasy when we’re not feeling particularly creative or we’re crunched for time is fantastic! Having an opportunity to let our imaginations run wild is also fantastic! It’s just plain old fantastic that we have the capacity to help ourselves achieve physical bliss for a moment in this life—regardless of whether or not it’s possible to enact these things safely, pleasurably, or ethically with others.
-If people don’t like what they fantasize about (it’s illegal/not aligned with their values/something they wish they didn’t think about) is it possible to change their fantasies, or somehow train ourselves out of them?
Often that discomfort and desire to distance ourselves from arousing fantasies is informed by internalized sex/body-negative stories we’ve been told or had modeled to us by others throughout our lives. If the stories we tell ourselves about desire/arousal/gratification/experiences we’ve had are inherently bad or harmful to ourselves or others, we’re going to have a hard time embodying our sexual selves, achieving our sexual potential for our own let alone our partners sakes, to say nothing of the generally socially acceptable self-actualization (which I would argue cannot be accomplished if we are sexually repressing ourselves).
It’s very common for anybody and everybody, at some point, to walk away from a sexual experience—alone or with others—feeling confused or upset with where their mind and fantasies went. Brains are curious! They think curious things. They make curious associations. They have curious responses. And that is NOT limited to the sexual realm! Not by a long shot. It’s normal—and healthy—even when it is curious/strange/surprising/upsetting.
If you’re not familiar with the psychological phenomenon of “The Call of The Void” it’s basically the same thing in a different situation. Many non-depressed/non-suicidal people have experienced an alarmingly powerful impulsive desire to fall/leap/veer into a situation that would likely be catastrophic if not fatal for ourselves or others. As we pull ourselves away from that edge and try to process and understand why we felt that and what it means about us, we often forget—in that alarmed state— that brains are curious and noisy things that sometimes just think of something or desire something or find something arousing that “normally” we would not willingly engage with (at that time, if ever). Did you really want to find yourself singing the Empire Carpet jingle all week? I didn’t think so.
Thought policing ourselves just doesn’t work. We’re not wired that way. When we try not to think about things we usually cannot help ourselves but to think about them! It’s why meditation and mindfulness is so inherently challenging without regular practice. What we can do is give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that we are not secretly wicked sex fiends or sexual predators, or that we really wish to be the victims of such persons in real life. Hold onto the undeniable fact that things that are most certainly not sexy in life can be and are very sexy in role play and fantasy. The fervently ethical and consensual BDSM communities around the world have taught us this very explicitly.
-How can people work to broaden their sexual fantasies?
By letting ourselves! Let yourself explore sensuality, identity, behaviors and expressions with curiosity in place of judgement. Let yourself find things interesting or engaging without judgement of good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Let go of any shame you have about being a complex and unique sexual being.
Is something we’re observing or experiencing interesting or arousing? Be curious and let yourself enjoy exploring what or how it is that is appealing to you about it. You don’t have to take it at face value. Everything enjoyed in sex can be done and experienced innumerable ways.
Remember that none of us are under any obligation to act out our fantasies in whole or in part. Accept that some are best kept entirely as fantasy and keep them in your mind-palace/spank-bank for when you want them. Know and accept that some can be enacted in satisfying and consensual ways—if you want them to be.
I feel that one of the best ways to broaden our sexual fantasies is to explore and seek to understand what other people find arousing and satisfying. You can take it, leave it, or adapt it as you see fit. They’re all just suggestions and you get to build your own sexual menu of starters, dishes for one, and dishes to share. And you can update that menu whenever you want. Put on your sensual lens and take a long look at the world and people around you. I promise you you’ll broaden your horizons real fast if you let yourself engage with a curious, non-judge mental mindset.
-How do we reconcile our personal fantasies during masturbation with our partnered sex lives? In other words, what if our personal fantasies are not something we necessarily want to share with a partner?
By giving ourselves permission and opportunity to keep to ourselves, share, or seek to enact at our pleasure (pun intended!). Secret implies shame; private implies “yeah and it’s none of your business. Just because we don’t want to do something now (or ever) doesn’t mean that we cannot share it with our partners or besties. That’s potential fuel for the sexy-time fire! However you (both) choose to burn that fire.
I think most people instinctually feel and morally know that pressuring or being pressured to do something they/we don’t find arousing doesn’t feel good or satisfying—for anyone involved. And nobody likes to be rejected because they have a normal, healthy, and curious brain— aka “kink shaming” or “thought policing”.
We all deserve to have our non-harmful sexual fantasies and behaviors respected and accepted with the same deference people give each other for our preferences in food, entertainment, hobbies, careers, recreation, social habits, etc. What works for me doesn’t have to work for you and that’s ok!
Fantasies don’t harm to anyone. They’re not some secret insight into your true wicked nature. Sharing and engaging with our fantasies can be negotiated at any and all levels with our partners in mutually arousing fashions. Pillow talk, harmless flirtations/sexy “threats” to do “it”, or finding the risk aware, safe, and consensual way to enact it are all perfectly healthy, normal, desirable sexual behaviors.
We are pleasure seeking animals, after all, and thankfully there’s no one way to find that—even if we’re typically (not exclusively) inclined towards a particular…vibe (thrills and chills vs swooning and snuggles). We’re all entitled to want what we want how we want it, whether or not it’s possible to gratify in a way that aligns with our core values and beliefs.
If, after reading all of this, you still find that you’re deeply concerned, or having trouble letting go of the (unsexy) shame or recrimination of your sexual fantasy life; or you are struggling to share the fantasies with your partner that you do want to, there are many wonderful providers and communities who would absolutely love, LOVE! to support you. It is possible for you to have a better relationship with your fantasy life and successful sexy experiences of your fantasy role plays with your enthusiastically consenting partners. Seek, and you shall find.
Take gentle care,