Human Sexuality, Part 3
Copyright © Dorian Scott Cole, 2002
This article series explores:
Part 3 - Can we understand fantasy?
Part 3 - Can we understand fantasy?
What about fantasy?
What people find sexually stimulating varies as much as personal taste in food, the attributes one finds attractive about the opposite sex, and hobbies. What people find sexually stimulating seems to be something that is somehow part of people and generally not under conscious control. Maybe these things can be under conscious control. Fantasies are generally harmless, focusing on situations or physical attributes. But some of the sexual practices encouraged by fantasy - very kinky sex - can easily harm you. Part of the reason some practices may harm you is that sex is an analgesic - that is, sensitivity to pain is reduced, especially under intense arousal - so damage to the body may not be apparent until after the practice has been endured. The fact that people are curious about different sexual practices is seen in these practices being used as spectacles in movies, and cast in jokes that are circulated.
My approach to understanding fantasy is one way of accessing the experience - there may be better ways. Based on my study of the creation and use of experiential and other symbols, I believe that there can be greater conscious control of the things that people choose to fantasize about, giving them the ability to choose to follow one path or another, choosing less destructive ones, and more beneficial ones. I create fantasy in stories for people, and analyze the entire process, plus I have some experience with psychology and attitude change, and I explore the theory and use of symbols. Fantasy is a confusing arena, and I don't believe that fantasy and reality are a good reflection of each other. This really applies to most fiction, not just sex scenes.
The disconnect between fantasy and reality is obvious in movies and novels. People watch spies and action heroes get into dangerous situations and bravely escape, but few of us are risk takers who actually want to do that. We see cops and the military shoot the very deserving bad guys, but few of us really want to shoot anyone. We see criminals steal things and pull off daring escapes, but few of us would actually steal anything. We see people crawl into bed with anyone who is attractive in any way, but most of us would not do that. We see all kinds of things that engage us in a story, but we would never actually do them, and don't even want to do them.
Many people use erotic fantasy to increase sexual response. They either want or need that. Psychologists like to point out that fantasizing is not at all the same as doing, but fantasy can be almost as satisfying as doing. I can buy that, with conflicting reservations. On the one hand, I'm certain that in many sexual fantasies, the fantasy would be much more satisfying than actually doing. On the other hand, I have to point out that what you set your mind and heart on, especially what becomes emotionally part of you because of intense experience, can become your "sex object," as Freud put it. In this series, to avoid confusion, I am either avoiding the term "sex object" or calling it "sex desire token." Sex desire tokens are like most things in life, they can be used for both good and bad - they can be cause for concern.
Freud brought us the term, "sex object," meaning the person or object that excites the person, or to which sexual attention is naturally directed. Society has assimilated the term and given it a very different meaning. For society, the phrase "sex object" usually refers to any person that is regarded as only a sexual plaything, or given that image. So the term is tainted. However, the type of "sex object" that Freud referred to is normal and essential. If people didn't "objectify" their desires in external form, they might never bother to meet anyone of the opposite sex, and some might never marry, have sex, or have children. Sex is one of the things that brings people together.
There is great concern by some that using sexy people in commercials, or dressing in commonly accepted ways that are attractive, makes them "sex objects," which might encourage violence and abuse, or at least continue sexual stereotyping. This concern is the misunderstanding of sex and fantasy run amuck. Consider that the presence of the opposite sex in any venue or environment never implies a promise of a physical sexual act. Most people understand this. Most people know the difference between fantasy and reality - the difference is a relatively standard reflection of psychological well-being that virtually everyone, except those severely mentally impaired or disturbed, understands. The problem of violence and abuse results when people are taught by others to have erroneous expectations (by parental example or by peers), or who are sociopathic, having no regard for the rights or well-being of others. Predators are predators - they are the problem, not the people in their environment. Of course, you shouldn't tease a predator anymore than you should tease an attack dog.
Understanding fantasy. Erotic fantasy is one of the common recommendations prescribed by sex therapists to help people get sexually stimulated if they don't find it easy to get aroused. Fantasy can be a mental picture, or a mental story, and even include acting out a situation. Feel free to disagree with my construct of fantasy - provoking interest, constructive thought, and deeper research is why this information is here.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of fantasy, or even needs it. Fantasy can be frightening to some who believe that their mate is somehow cheating on them through the use of fantasy. Somehow this makes them feel less than sexually adequate for their partner. This generally isn't regarded as true. Some also believe that a particular fetish, or fixation, is a sickness.
In this article I will avoid the terms fetish and fixation because the line of demarcation is an arbitrary and consistently changing one, and these terms confuse and distort the issues. The real line of demarcation probably is one of perspective.
Seen through the lens of fantasy, such terms as "fetish" gain a new perspective. Finding some part of the human body, or even a situation, erotically stimulating is a natural projection of desire. Projecting allows an image, representing needs that are not recognized, to be expressed by projecting them onto some symbol (a sex desire token). Some people like feet, legs, calves, breasts, abdomens, biceps, abs, shoes, ankles, panties, armpits, rump, or various fantasy situations or practices. Exactly "Why," is anyone's guess, and these can change. These are some of the symbols of fantasies. These are not problems unless they become disruptive to living and relationships.
The first thing to understand about all fantasy is that visual images are one way to evoke responses. How is that? I used to pass a water tank every morning that was under construction, on the way to classes on campus. The workers left an access hole in the side of the tank. One day a college student (I assume) drew an arrow on the side, pointing to the hole, and wrote the caption, "This is gonna' leak." That stupid bit of understated humor kept me going for days, and I have often remembered it through the years (simple minds, simple amusements). Every day when I passed it, I laughed, and I felt better all day. Often just thinking about that visual image made me feel good. (Thank-you to whoever wrote the caption.) My response, feeling better all day, is physiological. The image affects the mind, which in turn affects the body.
Like humorous images, people also make us feel good. I can watch young babies and children, and just enjoy watching them, and I feel good. Feeling good is a physiological response - it affects the mind, which in turn affects the body. My response to children may be partially acquired (we raised three children), but it seems to be a natural reaction in all of us.
Similarly, how much more so do images of the opposite sex make people feel good, causing a physiological reaction to release hormones to stimulate the nervous system. It is one of those facts of life that can't be repressed, and probably not even hiding the human form behind clothes and a veil, or sweats, can prevent it. (Some even report that the use of veils makes women more sexy in their eyes.) Men enjoy women. Women enjoy men.
I have seen some Christian fundamentalists in the US require males to turn their eyes from females in everyday situations, although the practice is not widespread. This can't possibly work. What is connected with femininity is feminine to the mind, and it simply won't be repressed. What is connected with masculinity, whether a body, a pair of boots, or a male sex organ, is masculine to the mind, and seeing it commonly causes a sexually related reaction. Biology keeps the sexual urge ever-present. So sexual attraction is there to deal with, and while turning away may help some not dwell on everyone of the opposite sex in the environment, the interest and attraction won't be swept under the carpet and may arise in veiled ways. Repression distorts reality rather than helping people learn how to deal effectively with reality. As the Victorian era (emphasizing purity and virtue) and Freud demonstrated, the end result of repression, is simply more complicated problems. Avoiding half of the population isn't a healthy answer.
The world is full of people of the opposite sex, and at some level, we enjoy seeing them. The response could be as simple as conditioning. We typically don't want to have sex with them (although some do), or even treat them any differently (although some do). As noted, there are exceptions: physical appearance does influence behavior in some men, as seen in studies involving men stopping to help women with flat tires, favoring women who have higher degrees of attractiveness. Seeing the opposite sex just makes us feel good. It brightens our day. It is a consequence of being human and sexual creatures. And of course it isn't just the sexual feeling that goes with it, it is all things that the opposite sex means to us. It may often not even have a sexual component at all.
Usually our image of the opposite sex contains a wide array of positive things, however some people have things in their mental image that causes them to reject the opposite sex (but not to digress further into this discussion - see the note on mental models *2). Our conduct is a different matter. Elizabeth Taylor was recently asked by Barbara Walters on the program 20.20, how she got men to buy her all of her expensive jewelry. In reply, she fluttered her eyes in a flirtatious manner. Women have many gentle persuasions. But how men respond, is always a choice. The visual image of women, and men, is very pleasing to the opposite sex on a number of levels.
The second thing to understand about fantasy is that everyone's fantasy is not the same, fantasies change from time to time, and the elements of fantasy are somewhat culturally based.
Like other communication, the symbols of sexuality, have a cultural component that points to a cultural meaning structure, and an internal component that is unique to the individual. In other words, the culture provides symbols of what is sexy. And then the mind adapts these symbols with its own information about what can be identified with sex. What emerges in a fantasy is a blend of culturally provided images, plus images that are unique to the individual and his needs of the moment.
Culture is very influential in what we view as sexy and attractive. Women have always tried to adorn their bodies in ways to make themselves more appealing. Ancient Turkey, 4000 years ago, exported eye shadow to other regions, such as the Sumerian culture, and eye shadow was also popular in Ancient Egypt. People respond to whatever the popular image within their culture dictates (as in beards and mustaches, hairstyles, foot and ankle decorations, jewelry, and ways of dress).
What culture says is sexy changes over time. The image of women's bodies through the centuries, and into the not too distant past (until the 1960s), has been of the more rounded variety. "Fleshy" (even plump) was sexy. Very thin women were generally considered "skinny," and less desirable. Of course, youth have always tended to be lean and angular in appearance, as seen in images of "nymphs" on Ancient Greek pottery and Egyptian paintings, and what youth see around them in their peers every day is more appealing to them. As people age, their preferences in the appearance of the opposite sex may change with them - the angular appearance becomes displaced by the more common appearance of their peers. (Note: "nymph" is the Ancient Greek word for a young woman, not a nymphomaniac.)
In the 1960s, in the Western world (especially the US), the female image began a slow change that I think was related to two things in our culture. First, in our quest to stay forever young, or whatever, we became a more youth oriented (obsessed?) culture, and of course the image of youth is one of lean and angular appearance. Second, advertisers began featuring much more slender models, beginning with the British "Twiggy," who had the "skinny" image that people typically liked less at that time.
Advertisers agonized at the time over how the Twiggy look would be received, and I think to many young adults at that time, Twiggy was simply way too skinny. But advertisers shoved heaping helpings of that image in people's faces, and the look caught on. Changing the image that people want was nothing new for advertisers, and they continued to tweak the body form that they wanted us to believe is sexy.
More recently models have looked more like people rescued from a concentration camp where they were being starved to death. Reportedly, Twiggy feels overweight in comparison to today's models. I am turned off and repulsed by today's emaciated looking models who tromp and flounce down the runway, in what appears to be a useless attempt to make their withered breasts bounce, a hostile look on their faces which I suppose is intended to look stoic, but fails, instead looking miserably starved and decidedly unfriendly and unfeminine. I immediately want to rescue them from their tortures and starvation. I avoid fashion shows. However, my reaction is irrelevant - I'm convinced that women select their appearance to be in competition with each other, and only indirectly for men. Women over the years have gone through untold agony being exploited by manufacturers to conform to ridiculous and unhealthy images that are promoted to sell product - selling product in ways that harm women is sociopathic.
Other image changes are also apparent, such as the bronze tanning color, and the more buff appearance from exercise (both of which are askew from my set point preference of fair skin and smooth bodies with minimal muscle definition - but that is just me [I also happen to think all women have attractive qualities]). The transformation through advertising, and people's preferences, has changed the "set point" that most people hold in their minds as sexy. The image used to be "fleshy" (I'm not advocating plump either - we have enough problems with overweight), and it swung to the deathly emaciated and radiation damaging look partly by the influence of advertising, partly because people enjoy fashion change, and partly through people's preferences.
Another change took place, in film, regarding the image of women. Prior to the 1990s, the female film image that men and women were more likely to think was sexy, was the alluringly sweet, giving, dependent, easily dominated woman who could be swept off her feet with a single kiss, and who was in need of rescuing so she could serve her man. She stroked a male fantasy. As a male, yech! Believing that audiences wanted women with much stronger character, I began writing a much stronger type of female character, creating Kenza, in The Angry Doves, in the early 1980s, and then Gina, in Priest of Sales in the early 1990s.
I think that others caught the trend even earlier. In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore, just off the Dick Van Dyke show, began starring in her own show The Mary Tyler Moore Show, portraying a woman with "spunk." Her character also seemed to pick up the hesitance of women to confront men directly. She portrayed someone a little feistier, independent, and less willing to bow to male prowess. In 1975, Lynda Carter starred in the television series, Wonder Woman, the first female action heroin of whom I am aware. (I have seen another analyses of why this series started, but I prefer my version.) This image of women in leading roles has continued to evolve, and people in the last few years have connected with females in leading roles in several action stories. The powerful, challenging, and even conquering, woman is appreciated by both men and women, and reportedly has always been desired in some Spanish influenced cultures.
I think many people don't want domination by either sex, but want to view or engage others that they can view as equals who are able to make their own way in the world, and not be overly dependent or independent.
The image we think is sexy, whether seen through the filter of weight, character, tan, or some other quality, is influenced by what our culture or trend of the moment says is sexy, or what we fantasize as sexy.
People are no strangers to fantasies that involve desires. See a commercial, see an automobile, see an object cast as sexy, either with or without sexy people included in the shot. We're used to it. Men are depicted in commercials as recording over their wedding videos with pictures of "sexy" cars. Sex and objects? Love affairs with cars? Is this sick? We don't really think so. It's fantasy, and most of us don't really act that way, or even want to... although... maybe some get infatuated with their cars, and my wife often accuses me of spending too much time with my "mistress," the computer. Advertisers try to connect an image with any fantasy trait that they think people might want. It may be sex, it may be power, it may be prestige. As usual, the fantasy is usually better than the reality.
Movies and books provide sexual fantasy. See a movie, see sexy stars in various fictions, some of which are simply impossible situations, and in various stages of undress (or nude), acting out a sexually influenced drama that many find either titillating or at least find appealing enough to enhance the drama. There is a physiological response to what is on the screen. Read a book, you may find an erotic scene, and may enjoy a sexually titillating experience - a physiological response. It is easy to find a movie or book that creates a sexually charged atmosphere, and an erotic scene or two. In books, it is strictly a self-created image (a projection of desires onto a vaguely imagined physical form), since books contain no images.
The point is, what anyone finds to be sexy is something that can sometimes be changed. Advertisers and writers manipulate our fantasies and physiological responses. Knowing this puts sexuality and fantasy more under our control. We are not victims, we can decide what we want, whether we want to be dragged into starvation or bulimia to fit some insane image, or we want to identify with a certain car for power or prestige, or anything else that we want to fantasize about, if anything.
Individual influence is very creative in the endless variety of personal fantasy. The content of fantasy varies considerably, and it is difficult to understand why people would select some of these things to fantasize about. Consider vampire fantasy. People dig this stuff. Many women get turned on by the fantasy of a vampire biting them on their neck (an erogenous spot), draining their blood from them, and subjugating their souls for eternity. Groups of men and women have been formed around this bizarre motif, who dress like vampires and act out the drama (role play, sometimes BDSM), sometimes including sex. (Role play groups are not the same as those groups who believe that they actually have vampire characteristics.)
The vampire motif has been popular in film from the earliest days, and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel (still two of my favorites) often depict love affairs with vampires. Sometimes they add sexually compelling unrequited love. Do women (or men) really want to have their blood drained from them, sleep in a casket all day, and go around biting people on the neck and drinking blood at night? No. But there is something erotic about the motif, probably because physically the neck is a vulnerable area that is protected by a natural response, the motif flirts with the idea of death (a strong stimulus), and images within the vampire motif suggest surrendering to someone (another sexual motif), and these things are brought together in a single package in the vampire motif. (This is not the reason that I personally watch these - in general I don't like the vampire motif and I avoid most vampire movies, but the Buffy and Angel plots were as unique as science fiction and often had interesting symbols and motifs, and raised interesting questions. Currently my favorite shows are far from the vampire motif: Stargate SG-1 (fascinating, unique), Farscape (cool, unique), The Agency (engaging), and Alias (bold, engaging, unique) and I wish Sci-fi would make Riverworld into a series.)
While women typically fantasize about something romantic, like a romantic situation or sex with a superstar, some women have fantasies of sex with strangers, being captured by pirates, bondage, and even rape. But no woman really wants raped, or any of these things. In fact, few people even enjoy seeing rape scenes in movies. The reality is horrible, and even the images of rape cause very negative responses. Rape scenes are typically there to make the blood boil in anger to demand revenge or justice.
People use many erotic fantasies that others may find bizarre, such as bondage and subjugation. For example, these are seen in vampire eroticism, and also in the long running Amazon woman (male captivity, subjugation, emasculation, etc.) stories, fantasies of pain (as in spanking, genital torturing during enemy captivity (as in the "true story" magazines after WWII, and in BDSM)), sex with more than one partner, sex with a superstar, having objects inserted into them, and even rape, castration or other mutilation. But these fantasies generally aren't a reality that they actually want, any more than any of us actually want to shoot someone, do a jewel heist, or be captured and escape from killers. These fantasies are probably more a way of creating mental focus on an area of the body, or expressing some other need that finds sexual expression in a fantasy.
To understand this better, what comes to mind are some amusing scenes in the movie Tootsie. Dorothy (Dustin Hoffman), who is a man disguised as a woman, hears a secret from Julie (Jessica Lange), something to the effect that she just wished some men would just tell you straight out that they wanted to have sex with you. Later Michael (Hoffman's undisguised character) meets Julie and tells her he would like to have sex with her. She slaps him and walks away, completely rejecting him. The writers had a very intuitive grasp of the subject.
Fantasy can't literally be reality, and doesn't express a real desire, but reflects an inner response to life that says, "I need something," even though the thing fantasized (the projection) isn't really it. The fantasy may represent some other desire that can't be acted on, or may actually be far from a real desire. Something is chosen to represent the desire. The thought, "I'm horny and want to have sex with a romantic man," is expressed candidly as, "I wish men would just tell you that they want to have sex with you," but in a real situation comes out as a slap in the face.
Part of erotic fantasy, I think, collects anything that stimulates the nervous system, and redirects it to heighten sexual response. It's similar to the reaction of something on your neck (vampire), or of being at a great height and fearing falling (death). To height, you react physiologically, all over your body, with sweaty palms, vertigo, fear, your sphincter muscle may tighten, and some people get a thrill, a rush. Sometimes men take women to heights just to stimulate this response. It's similar to the response of imagining being bitten by an imaginary vampire and getting turned on a little. Amusement parks thrive on patrons' response to heights and scary things. The Tunnel of Love doesn't have scary things by accident.
Part of the fantasy touches on the many erogenous zones that people have. People have many erogenous zones all over their bodies, but for everyone from the thighs to the abdomen, including the entire pelvic area, inside the body and out, the area is full of nerves that can feed the sexual response. The mind is capable of channeling touch from any area, and even pain, into a sexual response. I remember reading about (don't have the reference) one sex researcher who had learned to have an orgasm by stimulating any part of her body.
In fantasy, the tactile stimulus feeds the fantasy, and feeds the sexual response. Part of the tactile experience is causing focus on some area of the body. Remember the joke about curing a headache by stomping on your toe? The mind selectively focuses on a part of the body, and ignores others. Focus enhances any mental activity. Focus during sex makes any part of the body become sensitized, just as the genitals respond by engorging (testicles increase in size by 50%), becoming more sensitized to tactile or other erotic stimulation.
Combine the fantasy with real sexual responses, and with the real person with whom you have an emotional connection and are having sex, and you have a very potent erotic pill that creates a very erotically stimulating experience. While many people don't need fantasy at all, for some, it makes a sexual response actually possible.
To summarize, the objects or situations within erotic fantasy are not real desires for most people, and don't represent the reality that people actually want. The objective representation (symbol, projection of desire), whether an object, a person, a situation, or scene, points to the often unrecognized and inexpressible desires within the person. They permit these to be focused mentally in the form of an objective representation (that is, projected onto a symbol), and can bring that focus to a specific part of the body, increasing arousal and sensitivity to stimulation. Fantasy is an erotic pill that can enhance sex.
Some people see their erotic fantasies in the movies. Some people act out their erotic fantasies in the bedroom or elsewhere, sometimes taking the parts of imaginary characters, or acting out situations. But actually having the fantasy really happen, would ruin it. They may fantasize about the attributes of a character depicted by a superstar in film scenes, but the reality with that real actor might be very disappointing. Unfortunately people often confuse the object with the fantasy. Confusing fantasy with actually acting out the fantasy brings these articles to the topic of very kinky sex, in Part 4.
Questions worth thinking and writing about:
Are images, such as emaciated models, that are promoted by advertisers, an acceptable thing? Should we be exerting more control over these images through public action and boycotting products? Who should be in control over the form that we consider sexy, us or advertisers? What do we know about the real consequences of these choices?
Is fantasy an aphrodisiac? Are stories with erotic scenes an aphrodisiac? Can fantasy be a "gateway drug" that can become habit forming and lead people into more and more "deviant" and injurious behavior that interfere in their lives? If so, what would the warning signs be?
1. The facts about the benefits of sex in the three paragraphs were based on the magazine article Sexual Healing, by Kristin Von Kreisler, Redbook, April 1993.
2. Mental models.
Our brain (which is a different concept than a "mind"), has various ways of representing things. Objects and mapping are two of them. I commonly write about "objects," which to me are structures in the mind that reflect what we know about some outside reality. A chair is both an object and a category. We have some notion of what chairs are all about, and include everything that looks like a chair in that category. A specific chair, an object, has attributes that we use to flesh out our picture of a chair. An object might be a mystery, or question, represented by an empty space that we fill in. An object might be a word, and the word's experiential attributes, such as experiences and emotions, and definition by other words, flesh out the mental picture that we have of the word.
Mapping is another thing that I often write about. Our minds map things to create mental models of our world (See: http://www.ted.ie/psychology/neuro_cog/index.html. We map spaces, we might map the interface elements of software, a group of words, a picture, a narrative... I think that a mental map shows the relationships between things, allowing us to project thoughts, feelings, and meaning into it. I think of maps as coming from basic patterns, a locus of connectivity and continuity. When we map objects in a space, our brain automatically defines the relationship as position and distance. When we map other things, we determine what the relationship is.
We purposefully manipulate mental models of things in the theoritician's laboratory, in scientific and creative thinking. (See: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/aimosaic/faculty/neressian/papers/in-the-theoreticians-laboratory.pdf We take what is known, and ask, "What if?" How would changing this or that change our model?
I think that sexual desire is a mental model, and fantasy is the creative "what if?" that modifies the map of our sexual experience.
Notice and disclaimer:
I'm not a sexologist or other qualified professional; I don't represent the medical community; and no advice is intended in this article. While references are given for some things, and some things are very accurately reported, some (such as fantasy) is my opinion based on the study that I do, and should be taken with skepticism. This is a platform to encourage further research and discovery.
Other distribution restrictions:
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