Sexual fantasy

One of the illustrations to De Figuris Veneris by Édouard-Henri Avril. It portrays a male masturbating while sexually fantasizing

A sexual fantasy or erotic fantasy is a mental image or pattern of thought that stirs a person's sexuality and can create or enhance sexual arousal.[1] A sexual fantasy can be created by the person's imagination or memory, and may be triggered autonomously or by external stimulation such as erotic literature or pornography, a physical object, or sexual attraction to another person. Anything that may give rise to a sexual arousal may also produce a sexual fantasy, and sexual arousal may in turn give rise to fantasies.

Sexual fantasies are nearly universal,[2] being reported in many societies across the globe. However, because of the nature of some fantasies, the actual putting of such fantasies into action is far less common, due to cultural, social, moral, and religious constraints.[3] In some cases, even a discussion by a person of sexual fantasies is subject to social taboos and inhibitions. Some people find it convenient to act out fantasies through sexual roleplay. A fantasy may be a positive or negative experience, or even both. It may be in response to a past experience and can influence future sexual behavior. A person may not wish to enact a sexual fantasy in real life, and since the process is entirely imaginary, they are not limited to acceptable or practical fantasies, which can provide information on the psychological processes behind sexual behavior.

Sexual fantasy can also pertain to a genre of literature, film or work of art. Such works may be appreciated for their aesthetics, though many people may feel uncomfortable with such works. For example, women in prison films may be described as sexual fantasies, as are pornographic films. In the case of films, the term may describe a part of the film, such as a fantasy scene or sequence. Besides pornographic films, a number of mainstream films have included sexual fantasy scenes, such as Business Is Business (1971), Amarcord (1973), American Beauty (1999) and others. In many cases, the use of fantasy scenes enables the inclusion of material into a work indicating the sexualised mental state of a character.

Methodology

Because of the difficulty of objectively identifying and measuring the nature of sexual fantasies, many studies deal with conscious fantasies when a person is awake. These fantasies are often measured using one of three techniques:[1]

  1. Providing anonymous respondents with a checklist of fantasies and asking them to indicate which ones they have experienced, how often, and in what context. This method relies on retrospective recall, which may limit its accuracy. A checklist may not be comprehensive, and as a result may be biased towards some fantasies.
  2. Asking anonymous respondents to write, in narrative form, their sexual fantasies. This method also relies on retrospective recall. Some studies limit the number of fantasies entered (such as only the most frequent ones), and respondents may not write down all of their fantasies anyway-—they may forget infrequent fantasies, not want to write too many down, or be more subject to social desirability bias than with a checklist.
  3. Having respondents record the fantasies they experience over a given period of time via checklists or diaries. This method requires a long period of time to be representative, and may be impractical.

To measure the reliability of a person's reporting of their fantasies, researchers may compare a person's reported sexual arousal against actual measures of arousal,[4] using techniques such as vaginal photoplethysmography, penile strain gauges, or other tools, such as genital pulse amplitude, genital blood volume, and heart rate.[5] A 1977 study found that males judged arousal based on blood volume far better than females, and that males and females were equal when judging arousal based on pulse amplitude measures.[6] Additionally, females were better at judging low arousal.[7]

As with studies of sex in general, samples used in studies may be too small, not be fully random, or not fully representative of a population. This makes similarities between studies especially important.[1] Women may be prone to underreporting the frequency of fantasy because they do not realize that they are becoming aroused, or they will not say that they are; one common problem is that they will imagine romantic imagery and become aroused, but not report the fantasy because it is not sexually explicit.[8] Many studies are modern and are carried out in western society, which, through factors like gender roles and taboo, are not widely representative, raising the need for more studies in different societies and historical eras.[9] With regards to age, there is very little knowledge of sexual fantasies in children aged 5 to 12, and there is a need for longitudinal studies across a life span.[9] Sex is often a taboo topic, so conducting a truly honest and representative example can be difficult in some areas. For example, a 1997 study on South Asian gay men found that almost 75% were afraid of being "found out", which complicates studies.[10]

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