Fantasy and action

Josh Wolf-Powers

I have worked with a wide range of adults with a wide range of sexual fantasies and behaviors. I have worked with neurotic or depressed or anxious people, people with tremendous shame about their desires, and with people whose sexual behavior has led to arrest (“sex offenders”).

Sexual fantasies and sexual behaviors are different. We know this, intuitively: monogamous married people may fantasize about sex with people other than their spouses, but most of us do not imagine such fantasies necessarily must lead to action. That doesn’t, however, stop many of us from feeling guilty for our fantasies – or from judging others, for theirs.

Many people fantasize about being raped, but almost no one wants to be raped.

Many straight-identified women enjoy pornography depicting lesbian – or gay male – sex, but do not even fantasize about having, let alone actually participate in, sex with other women or with gay men.

Many gay men enjoy pornography depicting straight sex, but have no interest in participating in it.

Many straight men enjoy viewing bisexual or gay porn, but have no interest in participating in sex with other men.

And many of us have been surprised by sexual situations in dreams in which we were aroused by situations we never would seek to replicate, or even would find repugnant, in waking life.

In short, what turns someone on, or the pornography they seek, is not necessarily the same as what they do, sexually.

Neither our fantasies nor our dreams necessarily reflect our actions or behaviors.

Among the people with whom I have worked, some have been habitual viewers of child pornography who never touched a child, and who never would. Others were attracted to minors but repulsed by child pornography. Some were aroused by graphic, violent depictions of rape, but never harmed a human, sexually or otherwise. And some were aroused simply by transgression – the “wrongness” of whatever they view, rather than the people and actions depicted – and were obsessively rule-following in their actual lives.

We often use our sexual fantasies to feel safe, and to heal childhood wounds (Stoller, 1975).

For people whose sexual behavior causes problems – relational, financial, criminal or otherwise – psychodynamic psychotherapy, when successful, leads to a substantial reduction or elimination of the problematic behavior. It enables patients to develop an interest in and understanding of the meaning of their  desires, and to develop less maladaptive, more healthy, strategies for addressing the underlying psychological wounds in response to which they have developed.

Particularly when it comes to stigmatized, or criminalized, desires – like pedophilia – it is an understandable but unfortunate error to conflate pornographic viewing habits with behavioral risks. Many of us intuitively understand that this is erroneous, but because of the fears, shame, and disgust attached to child sexual abuse, we do not permit ourselves to think logically in the face of it.

As a clinician, I understand sexual fantasy and sexual behaviors to be two entirely separate, and often unrelated, categories.

Stoller, R. J. (1975). Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. Karnac Books.