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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010

No Shame, No Blame: Embrace Your Sexual Fantasies

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Last weekend, I attended a sex toy trade show in Miami (yes, I know—my life is really hard). The best part of the show was getting to connect with other sex-positive store owners, managers, buyers and educators. Over piña coladas and in the pool, we shared our philosophies, struggles, unanswered questions, and ideas for educational programs. Because of a new project that one of us was working on, much of our conversation turned to the politics of sexual fantasy. Most of us would agree that our mission is to support sexual empowerment and authenticity, especially among women. We want women to be able to express and enjoy their sexual fantasies without shame or censorship. But what happens when those fantasies involve things that don’t appear to be very empowering, such as violence, humiliation or coercion?

Sexual fantasies can cause a lot of anxiety for some people. For many, fantasies are a key part of being able to achieve orgasm, whether alone or with a partner. This can cause guilt, especially when with a partner—shouldn’t that person be “enough” of a turn-on by themselves? Is it bad to think of Edward Cullen, Jenna Jameson, that hot barista, or your ex during sex? The writer of Glamour magazine’s “Jake: A Man’s Opinion” column caught flak a few months ago when he penned an article stating that most men had a “highlight reel” of previous sexual encounters running through their heads every time they got it on with their current girlfriends. Many women readers wrote in to express their anger about this, which I found interesting, as this type of fantasy is common among women as well as men.

Much of the anger and confusion about sexual fantasies comes from the fact that we don’t distinguish things we fantasize about from things that we actually want to do. We assume that if our current partner is fantasizing about sex with an ex, that he or she really wants to hook up with that person. In reality, they may never want to see that person again, but the image of a past sexual encounter gets them off for some reason. (Glamour’s Jake clarified that when fantasizing about sex with an ex, he was mostly turned on by memories of times when he thought he performed particularly well, and not on the individual woman in those memories.) Some people do have sexual fantasies that they’d love to bring to life, but the majority of fantasies are strictly mental. If we can understand and accept the difference between fantasy and reality, there’s no reason for us to feel jealous or guilty.

This distinction also applies to the content of our fantasies. People of all genders may have fantasies that are both arousing and disturbing at the same time. Fantasies often center around activities that are considered taboo in our society or that might get you arrested if you ever acted them out. Power and control, domination and submission, violence and humiliation are not unusual in sexual fantasies. The content of fantasies can sometimes seem to be involuntary, not things that you would think about during the typical course of a day, but which appear unbidden during moments of arousal. This, too, can cause guilt and shame. I state again: Just because you fantasize about something doesn’t mean you actually want to participate in that activity in real life. Fantasizing about something that is taboo or disturbing does not mean you’re a bad or “sick” person. Unless your fantasies are negatively affecting your relationships with others, it’s best to accept that fantasies are a normal part of human sexuality and that sexuality is something that we don’t fully control.

So what of my conversation with other sex-positive folks about women’s violent, degrading or coercive fantasies? Some of us felt strongly that we had a responsibility to avoid images of violence against women in the books, DVDs and other materials that we carry, regardless of whether these images represented women’s authentic fantasies. Others felt that censorship of such images caused shame, since other women who might share these fantasies would find no affirmation that their fantasies were normal. There is no easy answer to the question of whether there can be sex-positive, feminist representations of violent fantasies, other than to say that a continuing dialogue is key.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

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