This is Part Two of a two-part post. Reading Part One first might help it make more sense.
I’m going to say right now: I am not a psychologist, or a sexologist, or any kind of expert on this topic. I have not done controlled, double-blinded, peer-reviewed research on the connection between fantasy sexual activity and sexual activity as enjoyed in real life. (As far as I know, no research on this topic exists: if anyone knows of any, please let me know.) I’m just a smart, thoughtful person who thinks sex is important, and who’s thought a lot about this question, and who’s paid careful attention to how it’s played out in her own life. (And in the lives of the friends and lovers who have been kind enough to let her in on how it’s played out for them.)
So that being said: Here are a few guidelines that have worked for me, and that have helped me sort out my sexual fantasies from my real-world sexual desires. If you have ideas and insights on how this has played out for you, I’d love to know about them.
How often do you have these fantasies? When I was coming of sexual age, I was told — by Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, among other sources — that I didn’t have to worry about my lesbian fantasies. Lots of women had lesbian fantasies. They didn’t mean I was really a dyke.
But I had lesbian fantasies a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like, way more than I was having fantasies about men. Like, almost every time I was around other women. Which was to say, almost all the time.
That, to me, was a clue that these were more than just fantasies. That was a clue that this was something I really wanted to do. A central defining feature of my sexuality, even.
I didn’t know for sure until I tried it. Some very frequent fantasies don’t pan out in real life. I didn’t know for sure until I put my actual tongue on another woman’s actual clit, and realized that my entire body was waking up and saying, “Hello.” But the fact that I had lesbian fantasies all the freaking time was a big, big clue: This was not a fantasy. This was a desire.
(Ditto my kinky fantasies. Substitute “kinky” for “lesbian” above, with other substitutions as appropriate.)
Other fantasies aren’t nearly as frequent. They’re shaped by what I’m doing, who I’m hanging out with, what’s in my environment. Sex in a factory; sex with a pro dominant, sex on a big tarp greased with canola oil… these fantasies come and go. So these might just be fantasies. I might or might not enjoy them in real life. I have less of a clear sense about that.
How consistently do you have these fantasies? See above, re: lesbian fantasies. I didn’t just have them often. I had them often — for years. They did not go away with ignoring them; they did not go away with trying to hide from them; they did not go away with whacking off to them; they did not go away with reassuring myself that lots of women have lesbian fantasies and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re queer. And they sure as hell didn’t go away once I started having sex with other women. They stayed with me for years. They’re still with me.
That, to me, was a big-ass clue that this was not just a fantasy. This was a real desire.
(And again: Ditto with kinky fantasies. I’ve been thinking about kinky sex for as long as I’ve been thinking about sex.)
Other fantasies, however, have come and gone with the years. Public sex. Ritualized group sex. Assorted celebrity and fictional- character crushes. Assorted crushes on particular friends. And with those, I’m less clear about whether I might enjoy them in real life. Maybe; maybe not. Those roads don’t have big neon arrows blinking and pointing and saying “This Way.”
Again — this isn’t a hard and fast rule. (Heh, heh, Beavis. She said “hard and fast.”) Fantasies can stay with you for years and still just be fantasies. But for me, the fantasies that have stayed with me for years? They’ve tended to be the ones that worked out when I tried them in real life.
How do you feel after you’ve, shall we say, enjoyed these fantasies? If I whack off to a fantasy, and afterwards I feel happy and satisfied and ready to fall asleep/ get on with the rest of my day… that’s a sign that this is a fantasy I’m perfectly happy to enjoy as a fantasy, and don’t feel a compelling need to explore in real life. (Either that, or it’s a fantasy about something I’m already getting a fair amount of in real life, and am not feeling super-deprived of.)
But if I whack off to a fantasy, and afterwards I feel restless and deprived and dissatisfied… to me, that’s often a sign that the fantasy isn’t enough. To me, that’s a sign that this might be something I seriously want, and if I don’t find a way to get at least some form of it in real life, it’s likely to cause real dissatisfaction.
Is the grass always greener?
There’s an important caveat that I need to make here. I’ve been talking about how we can look at our fantasies and use them to tell us what’s missing. But I’ve known people who always feel like something is missing. I’ve known people who have spent their whole lives fixating on what they don’t have, mooning about how much greener the grass is everywhere but under their feet. When they’re single, they yearn for love; when they’re coupled, they yearn for freedom. When they have a stable job, they long for excitement and risk; when they’re freelancing, they long for security. Not just in an “enjoying the occasional fantasy or daydream” way… but in a restless, dissatisfied, “grass is always greener” way.
If that’s true for you… then I think this exercise may not work for you. Or at least, it’s going to work very differently for you. For you, the thing that you’re lacking might not be freedom or security, control or spontaneity, excitement or peace. For you, the thing that you’re lacking might be the ability to be satisfied: the willingness to accept the choices you’ve made, and enjoy whatever pleasures they have to offer, and accept the non-perfectibility of life with some degree of serenity. And that’s not something that’s going to be handled by tinkering with the details of your choices, changing jobs or changing lovers or moving across the country. That’s work you’re going to have to do on yourself.
What are you not fantasizing about?
Finally — well, not finally finally, I could gas on about this for hours, but finally for now — I think our fantasies can offer a clue to our desires in another way.
Namely this: What are we not fantasizing about?
Of course I can think of plenty of sexual examples. But the clearest example I can think of from my own life is actually non-sexual.
I have never, in my entire life, fantasized about having children.
I’ve daydreamed about having kids in my life in some way. I’ve daydreamed about being an aunt, a mentor, a teacher. But at no time in my life have I daydreamed about being a mother. Not even once. Not even when I was planning to be one someday.
That, to me, is a huge sign that I should never have kids. I apparently have no desire to have them. Not even an idealized, day-dreamy desire about an impossibly idyllic parenting life. And people who don’t want kids ought not to have them. Every child a wanted child, and all that.
And I think we can apply this principle to our sex lives as well. If you never have fantasies about the opposite sex, chances are excellent that you might be gay. If you never have fantasies about vanilla sex, chances are excellent that you might be kinky. If you never have fantasies about romance, chances are excellent that you might not be cut out for relationships. Etc.
If our fantasies can tell us what’s missing in our lives? The things we don’t fantasize about can tell us what isn’t missing. Even if everyone around us is saying that it’s missing. Even if we’re getting bombarded with social messages saying that it’s missing. Even if our families and friends and TV shows are all saying that we have a marriage-shaped hole in hearts… if we’re not fantasizing about romantic sex with a partner we’re intensely in love with, then maybe marriage isn’t missing for us.
Our fantasies are a map to the roads not taken.
And it’s worth paying attention to which roads aren’t on the map at all.