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Relationships • Sex

The Logic of Our Fantasies

Our minds seldom feel stranger than when it comes to our sexual fantasies. Otherwise sober people will find they derive erotic excitement – for reasons they probably in no way understand – from very specific items of clothing, or from words and scenarios that entirely contravene their normal orientations and commitments. 

It can be tempting to dismiss these fantasies as fundamentally meaningless – refusing to endow them with anything as respectable as a logic. But if we are prepared to ask the right questions of them, they may shed considerable light on themes in our lives; they may hold the clue to central, challenging aspects of our biographies.

Painting by Felicien Rops of a nude woman wearing tights, black gloves and suspenders walking a pig on a leash, surrounded by flying cherubs.
Félicien Rops, Pornocrates, 1878

The clue to unlocking their meaning is to consider sexual fantasies as attempts to master, and gain some form of victory over, difficult incidents or dynamics; to see them, in essence, as eroticizations of pain. The sexual act, standing outside the demands and strictures of ordinary existence, emerges as a minor and redemptive utopian moment in which we strive – either in our imaginations or in the presence of companions – to put right some of what went wrong in the world beyond.

Let’s imagine a person who, in their daily routines, carries a huge degree of responsibility: perhaps they stand at the head of a busy family, team or corporation. Maybe they have, since their earliest days and not necessarily as the result of any free choice, fallen into the role of the sensible one to whom people will look for direction (they may have been the eldest sibling or a parent might have been ill or have absconded). Then imagine that this person, in their sexual imagination, experiences a longing to submit entirely to the will of someone else. In bed, they strictly don’t want to be in charge. Here they want another person to tell them sternly what to do; here the authority that they normally possess is willingly thrown aside in the name of trusting passivity and meek compliance. Rather than giving orders, they thrill to receive them; rather than the burden of being important, they revel in a sense of their insignificance. 

It can all sound hugely peculiar – but interpreted as an attempt to rectify the excessive or painful circumstances of non-erotic life, it starts to make sense. The sexually submissive person is – for a privileged period of time – seeking a way out of an arduous degree of power and responsibility.

Or, to look at an opposed but related pattern, imagine someone who – in daily life – always displays a heightened timidity. Maybe, as a child, there was a threatening parent who could not countenance signs of assertion or aggression. Now they show only reticence, extreme politeness and modesty, a degree of self-abnegation that may be exhausting to their spirit, which is why there may be such intense pleasure, in sex, in becoming someone else: a person who can, at last, in a safe way, with the full consent of an experienced adult, give vent to an untrammelled power and raw belligerence. Here – like nowhere else – they can boss someone around, tell them what to do, brook no excuses, explore their ruthless, cruel sides – and recover contact with aspects of their personality that have been unfairly denied to them in their development.

We can, as we survey our own fantasies, ask ourselves always one central question: in what way might this desire constitute an eroticization of pain? What might the pain have been? And how does the fantasy signify an attempt to overcome a source of prior discomfort or suffering? 

All scenarios, even the less well known ones, are likely to reveal a logic through this lens. Imagine for example someone who likes to watch their partner being seduced by a third person. One might hazard that behind this fetish, there lies the experience of having been painfully excluded by someone one depended on. Inviting in a third person constitutes an attempt to gain a victory over marginalisation. 

Or imagine someone extremely drawn to the idea of a busy and rather stern professional person in uniform – a pilot, a firefighter, a doctor – who promptly throws aside their diligence in the name of liberated sex. The pain here might be related to a feeling of not mattering enough to an impressive but aloof caregiver. 

Or imagine someone drawn to the scenario of a very reserved, prudish person – they might be employed in a library, or a monastery or a nunnery – discarding their reticence in the name of sexual abandon. Here, similarly, there might have been a figure in the past who seemed painfully frightened of sex and cut off from its liberating power. Enacting a scenario of pleasure in the book stacks constitutes a victory over a sexual dysfunction which one unconsciously observed with regret.

It’s easy to feel perturbed and even scared by some of the oddities of our desires. By viewing them as nothing more or less than attempts to eroticise difficulties in the past, we emerge as more interesting and sensible to ourselves and better able to explain who we are to those we care about.

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