Why You Have Sexual Fantasies and What They Mean

Common sexual fantasies

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

A sexual fantasy is a mental image that promotes one's desire for sex and can help enhance the sexual experience. While the people, themes, and frequency may change, sexual fantasies are completely normal and "common to everyone," according to research.

Here we will share some of the most common sexual fantasies, including the changes that people often make to their bodies and personalities when having these images. We'll also explore what fantasies mean, and when it may be appropriate to act on them.

Common Sexual Fantasies

Sexual fantasies can be separated into two categories: typical or atypical.

Typical Sexual Fantasies

Typical sexual fantasies are generally considered "normal" or healthy. A 2021 review of research indicates that the most common typical sexual fantasies include those related to:

  • Anal or oral sex
  • BDSM (includes consensual bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism)
  • Watching pornography

In a 2020 study, nearly a third of adults reported that being in an open relationship was their favorite sexual fantasy. The study also found that most participants reported fantasizing about being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

Atypical Sexual Fantasies

Atypical sexual fantasies are often referred to as being "deviant" or even contributing to criminal behaviors. Some of the most common atypical sexual fantasies involve obtaining sexual pleasure or gratification in the form of:

  • Exhibitionism: Displaying one's genitals to the opposite sex
  • Fetishism: Being "turned on" by a specific body part, object, or activity
  • Frotteurism: Rubbing parts of one's self (usually the genitals) on another person without their consent, oftentimes in a crowded place
  • Masochism: Sexual pleasure derived from your own physical pain or humiliation
  • Paraphilia: Abnormal sexual desires, many times involving extreme and sometimes dangerous activities
  • Pedophilia: A sexual orientation toward children
  • Sadism: Sexual pleasure derived from inflicting physical pain on someone else
  • Voyeurism: Watching others in sexual situations without their knowledge or consent

What People Change About Themselves in Sexual Fantasies

In a study of 4,175 Americans, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller found that nearly everyone (97.1%) is in their own sexual fantasies at least part of the time. Yet, people often change major factors about themselves when participating in these fantasies.

According to this study, the changes that people tend to make are different based on gender and sexual orientation. Here's what it found:

  • Women, followed by gay and bisexual men, are most likely to change their bodies in their sexual fantasies. Men are most likely to fantasize about changing the appearance of their genitals.
  • Men tend to fantasize about themselves at a younger age, while women fantasize about a future version of themselves. Lehmiller also found that men are more likely to have sexual regret, so their fantasies of returning to a younger age could correlate with them going back to missed opportunities or "the one that got away."
  • Gay and bisexual men are most likely to report personality changes in their sexual fantasies. Personality changes are also more common in people who are introverted or neurotic, while people who are conscientious are least likely to change anything about themselves.
  • Men often fantasize about being more submissive than they typically are and women often fantasize about being more dominant.
  • Overall, nonbinary people tend to change themselves the most in their sexual fantasies, except for changing their age.

What Do Sexual Fantasies Mean?

So, what do your specific sexual fantasies say about you? The images that you find arousing can provide insight about your personality, attachment style, and cultural identity.

Personality

The changes a person makes in their sexual fantasies may tell us more about their personality. For example, if you fantasize about being more dominant, you may be introverted. If you fantasize about changing your body and personality, you may be more neurotic.

A 2020 study found a connection between people with personality traits that are considered maladaptive—which includes being antagonistic or disinhibited—and sexual fantasies involving domination and humiliation.

Attachment Style

Lehmiller's survey found that people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles were more likely to change themselves in every way. He speculates that people with an anxious attachment style use their fantasies to avoid worrying about rejection. Conversely, those with an avoidant attachment style use their fantasies to create more emotional distance.

Another study backed these findings, adding that people with avoidant attachment styles typically don't have sexual fantasies involving romance.

Culture

Finally, fantasies clearly say something about culture. For example, women, gay men, and bisexual men were the most likely to focus on changing their physical qualities. Men were more likely to enhance their genitals in their fantasies. All of these are clear reactions to cultural body ideals.

One study also found that sexual fantasies often reflect how men and women are depicted in romantic movies and novels, or even in sexual videos.

Lehmiller notes that not all of the changes that we make to ourselves in sexual fantasies have deeper meanings.

Sexual fantasies can play a positive role in people's lives. For example, evidence indicates that sexual fantasies help women get aroused and even help them achieve orgasm during sex with a partner.

When to Act on Sexual Fantasies

Oftentimes, the changes that occur in our sexual fantasies are just a product of an active imagination. Such fantasies don't mean anything of deeper significance.

Since they're fantasies, we often create idealized versions of ourselves. Just because you imagine yourself or your partner differently in your fantasies, it does not necessarily mean that you are dissatisfied in real life.

Sexual fantasies serve a variety of purposes. They can help people become aroused or more sexually confident. They can also be a way to explore sex that they might not actually want to pursue in real life. 

In some instances, unmet needs may contribute to sexual fantasies. As long as your fantasies are safe, legal, and consensual, you may want to discuss them with your partner.

Communication is critical, and that includes before, during, and after. Do some research, set some ground rules, and go slow.

Remember that just because you have a fantasy about something doesn't mean you should act on it. If you're in a happy relationship and you have a fantasy about cheating on your partner, that doesn't necessarily mean that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you'd be happier with someone else.

Recap

Some fantasies should probably stay fantasies, but there may be others you want to explore with someone. The key is to talk about these fantasies with your partner and determine which ones you might both agree that you would be interested in exploring together.

A Word From Verywell

Sexual fantasies are both normal and common. Some of these might be fun only as fantasies, but there might be others that you should consider exploring in real life.

However, if your sexual fantasies are creating distress or contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction, it may be time to work with a therapist. They can help you figure out how you can address these negative patterns of thinking.

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8 Sources
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