It’s commonly believed that our sex fantasies tell us what we “really” want in bed. If we fantasize about gay sex, it means we’re really gay. If we fantasize about kinky sex, it means we’re really kinky. If we fantasize about wearing a hockey mask and getting fucked in the ass in the middle of the Roman Coliseum with a crowd of thousands cheering us on, then that must be our deepest desire, and our sex life will never be fully satisfying if we don’t somehow make it happen.
And I think this idea is a huge mistake. It makes no sense to think that what we fantasize about is what we “really” want. We fantasize all the time about things we don’t really want to do. Sexually and otherwise. We fantasize about things that in reality would be immoral, and things that would be unpleasant, and things that might be marginally fun but would be waaaaay more trouble than they’re worth. (More on all that in a tic.)
But while I think it’s a huge mistake to think that our sex fantasies accurately reflect our “real” desires, I do think they can offer us a clue about them.
I think fantasies can be a clue to what’s missing in our lives. A portrait drawn in negative space. A signpost to the road not taken.
Examples. At times in my life when I’m feeling overwhelmed and out of control, I tend to have more kinky fantasies about being dominant, a demanding control- bitch who gets off on wielding power and expects instant fulfillment of my slightest whims. At times when my life is intensely over-scheduled and I’m micromanaging it in fifteen minute increments, I tend to have more kinky fantasies about being submissive, putting myself entirely into somebody else’s hands and riding an emotional and sensory rollercoaster of their creation. At times when my life is stressful and full of conflict, I tend to have non-kinky fantasies about gentle, sensual, non- goal- oriented, “play with my earlobe for fifteen minutes” sex. At times when my life has been predictable and stable and much the same from week to week (I haven’t had any times like that lately, but I dimly remember them in the distant past), I’ve tended to have wildly perverse fantasies loaded with intensity and high drama. At times in my life when I’ve mostly been having sex with women, I’ve tended to have more fantasies about men. And vice versa.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
And, of course, this is true for non-sexual fantasies as well. When my work has been tedious, I’ve had fantasies of ambition; when my work has been demanding, I’ve had fantasies of retreat. When I’ve enjoyed my work and felt good about my employers, I’ve fantasized about advancement; when I’ve worked for abusive nutjobs, I’ve fantasized about my boss’s house falling off a cliff. When I hadn’t left the Bay Area for months and indeed years, my vacation fantasies were about adventure and travel. These days, they tend to be about holing up for a week in a secluded Bay Area beach house with Ingrid and a giant stack of books.
I think you get the picture.
In my experience, we rarely fantasize about the things we already have. We fantasize about the things we don’t have. Our fantasies can certainly contain elements of what we already have — I’ve definitely fantasized about being in imaginary happy relationships at times when I’ve been in a real one — but there’s almost always some element to the fantasy that isn’t happening in real life. We fantasize about what we don’t have. (Even if it’s just what we don’t have at that particular moment.) Our fantasies are a signpost to the road not taken.
But here’s the important thing:
The road not taken isn’t necessarily the road that ought to be taken. Or even the road that we “really” want to take.
We can’t take all the roads that open up to us. Every choice we make means letting go of a hundred other choices: sometimes temporarily, sometimes for the rest of our lives. We choose college and grad school and a life of scholarship… and we’ve chosen not to be an itinerant folk artist. We choose to be an itinerant folk artist… and we’ve chosen not to be an ad agent. We choose to be an ad agent… and we’ve chosen not to be a full-time spouse and parent. We choose to be a full-time spouse and parent… and we’ve chosen not to be a professional atheist activist. We choose professional atheist activism.. and we’ve chosen not to be a professional opera singer. Some of these choices can be re-visited and re-made at a later point in our life — and some of them really can’t.
We can’t take every road. Every choice we make means letting go of a hundred other choices. And we can feel thoroughly good and happy with the choices we’ve made… and still feel that those hundred other choices could have valuable things to offer, things that might satisfy a deep part of our selves.
So we fantasize about them.
And I think it’s worth paying attention to those fantasies. Those other choices, the roads we didn’t take, are worth taking notice of.
For those of us who are philosophical and introspective, this is valuable just in and of itself. Noticing the choices we haven’t made can give us insight into the choices we have made. If I’m having a lot of sex fantasies about submission and helplessness, that can help me see that my life is going through a stretch of being intensely micro-managed. And knowing that can help me decide whether I need to do something about that… or whether I’m okay with it, and can embrace the benefits, and accept the costs as reasonable and fair. Often, the mere fact of seeing my choices as choices makes me feel better about them.
But there are hard practical reasons for paying attention to the road not traveled. For one thing, there might be a way to incorporate bits of those roads into our lives. Take little day hikes on them, if you will. If we’re missing sexual adventure and unpredictability… we might not hit the bars and pick up total strangers, but we might ask our partner to blindfold us and surprise us. If we’re missing sanctuary and sensual retreat… we might not quit our jobs and spend the rest of our lives fucking in a secluded cabin until we drop, but we might turn the phone off and shut the bedroom door and spend a few hours with our partner paying attention to nobody but each other. Looking at what we’re missing can give us ideas about creative ways to bring a little taste of it into our lives.
Even our most wildly implausible fantasies can give us a clue about what might be missing in our lives. Take my fantasies about Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for instance. Fantasies that I had for years, with an embarrassing degree of fixation that bordered on the obsessive. Did I “really” want to have kinky, borderline- violent sex with an incurably romantic bleach-blond vampire? Not so much. What I “really” wanted was risk. Spontaneity. Being carried away with passion. Not knowing what was coming around the corner. And realizing that helped me incorporate some of those missing elements into my sex life. (Not to mention the rest of my life.)
And, of course, if a fantasy is extremely compelling, and it’s stayed compelling for a very long time, then that’s a clue that this might be more than just a fantasy. That’s a clue that this might be a real desire… and an important one.
So how do you tell?
How do you know which fantasies are telling you, “Sure, that’s a fun thing to think about, but I wouldn’t really want to do it in real life”… and which ones are telling you, “No, I don’t want to do that particular thing, but it’s interesting that I keep whacking off to that, I should think about what that might mean”… and which ones are telling you, “Yeah, that does seem hot, at some point I probably want to give it a shot, or at least something like it”… and which ones are telling you, “I am never going to be completely happy or fulfilled unless I make this a part of my life”?
When do you decide to simply enjoy your pleasant fantasies about the road not traveled… and when do you decide that the fantasy isn’t enough, and you bloody well want to travel that road already?
I’ll get to that tomorrow, in Part Two.
(I’m on Twitter! Follow me at @GretaChristina .)