The key to rude health? A dirty mind

What do your sexual fantasies mean? Let Elizabeth Heathcote in to your dreams
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The Independent Online

Sexual fantasies: we all have them (yes you do, don't pretend), and ever since Nancy Friday published her famous collection of confessions in My Secret Garden back in 1973, we've found accepting the fact easier. We know that fantasy works on a different level to reality: that dreaming of being forced to have sex doesn't mean that you want that to happen; that finding a woman more desirable in stockings and stilettos than Birkenstocks doesn't make you a misogynist. But what does it make you, exactly?

Freud said that dreams are the road to the unconscious. Michael Bader, a psychotherapist and former dean of the psychology department at New College, San Francisco, believes this belongs to sexual fantasies. "By understanding the logic and purpose of our fantasies, we may also understand our personalities," he says.

Bader has, over 20 years, used his clients' sexual fantasies as a therapy tool. In the process he has developed a theory of why we have fantasies and what they mean, which he sets out in a new book, Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies(Thomas Dunne; available on, £15). The starting point, he says, is that sex happens in our heads. Its mysteries – why we are attracted to certain people, why certain images or ideas are sexy to us – are subtle responses to psychological programming, largely laid down in childhood. Specifically, fantasy is our way of overcoming deeply ingrained "pathogenic beliefs", such as guilt, shame and rejection, so that we can let go and experience sheer pleasure: orgasm.

The case studies in Bader's book are complex, each as unique as the life of the client who owns it, but for those who can't make it to his consulting rooms, here are some of his broad conclusions. We also asked him to analyse the sexual fantasies of two LifeEtc readers (right).


These very common fantasies mainly deal with guilt. By empowering someone else to hurt and degrade us, we reassure ourselves that we are not the ones doing the hurting or degrading. The unconscious logic is a perversion of the golden rule: have others do unto you what you feel guilty about doing unto others.

If the fantasy is about being humiliated, it may be that the guilt is about feeling proud or superior. If the fantasy is about being rendered helpless, then the guilt might be about being too powerful. This guilt may be rooted in our relationship with our parents. A child may, for example, feel irrationally responsible for a parent's unhappiness – that their needs are overwhelming – and this feeling may be internalised.


Fantasising about raping a partner, who at first resists but begins to like it, is common among men. This is, again, a way of mastering feelings of guilt that the man is hurting women with his sexual desires. Why men are more likely to deal with this sort of guilt with a rape-type fantasy and women with a masochistic fantasy may be to do with different experiences of parenting. Those who have aggressive fantasies often had aggressive parents, and boys may be more exposed to this sort of behaviour.

Multiple partners

This person is getting at least double the attention, undermining the belief that he or she doesn't deserve to be admired or loved. Second, again it can mitigate guilt about burdening a partner with the whole sexual appetite. Third, if a heterosexual man imagines being with or watching another man and a woman in bed, he may be relieving feelings of responsibility for pleasing the women – now he can share the burden. Fourth, the danger of rejection is lessened.


Some analysts argue that this scenario invites and evokes feminine or homosexual longings in heterosexual men – the male voyeur is identifying with one of the women in the scenario. Bader believes that guilt and worry may be more important. The voyeur can identify with each of the parties but without the guilt and obligation of pleasing anyone. He's not directly involved and so can't fail.

Further, the fact that there is no man in the scene makes it safer for the male voyeur to identify with the women because many men unconsciously believe that women feel ambivalent about men. He can enjoy the fantasy of having sex without having to worry about any untoward effects to his own masculinity.


This may be an attempt to master feelings of rejection. If we did not feel we were on our parents' emotional radar, then being watched by a camera, for example, is a powerful antidote to the feeling that we aren't worthy of attention.

Joe's romantic fantasy

Joe stumbles across an Arab Bedouin princess bathing alone in an oasis spring. All the men are at prayer in the mosque. She isn't supposed to be seen by any man, let alone naked. But there is something earthy and animal about her. She knows he can see her and deliberately delays dressing. They watch each other until prayer-time is at an end. She seems to be longing for him, as though he represents another, better world.

Michael Bader's analysis:

"This sounds like a woman's fantasy. It has a narrative and doesn't involve much objectification. The first thing about it is that she's foreign – unfamiliar, different. This suggests a psychological separation. The man doesn' t have to be aware of the woman's inner states.

"The woman is more like a sensual 'animal' than a complicated person. This is all a turn-on for a man who tends to worry about women, about satisfying or making them happy.

"Her sexuality is so powerful that she risks death in expressing it, but she can't help herself. So, the second key detail of the fantasy is that she is filled with an irrepressible desire. Sexuality of this sort is for the man. She's the opposite of whatever pre-existing default beliefs that this man has about women – that they're complicated, unhappy and timid – and therefore he is freed up to get excited.

"The fact that his presence is what is specifically stimulating her is arousing to this man because it counteracts whatever insecurities he has about himself. In this way, it's similar to whenever someone – male or female – imagines getting someone to take a risk or cross a boundary or violate a taboo in order to sexually connect. The high stakes makes the ultimate payoff that much greater."

Joe's verdict:

"This analysis looks pretty smart to me. The stuff about foreignness and animalness meaning that I needn't be responsible for her inner states rang particularly true."

Eleanor's boss fantasy

Eleanor's fantasy involves a woman who is conventionally attractive – blonde and voluptuous – and different in appearance to Eleanor. Her boss is a powerful man who has sex with the woman with no thought for her pleasure. She consents, but only just, and he takes his pleasure selfishly, with no regard for her. Eleanor is not the woman; she is watching.

Michael Bader's analysis:

"Eleanor is excited by the thought of a woman being forced to sexually submit to a man in authority. Her fantasy is not a rare one. The fact that the man is a 'boss' and acts in an entirely selfish way reassures the woman that she can't hurt him, that she needn't feel responsible for him. Thus reassured, she can get turned on. By identifying with the woman, Eleanor suggests that she tends to feel responsible for others and guilty about being selfish.

"Two other details make Eleanor's fantasy even more interesting. First, she imagines a woman who is blonde and voluptuous – the classic object of male desire – unlike herself. This suggests that Eleanor feels insecure about her desirability and in the fantasy is able to negate these feelings.

"Finally, it's possible that Eleanor is also identifying with the man in this scenario. This confirms our hypothesis that Eleanor is guilty about being too strong. She momentarily and unconsciously is a ruthless man, thus vicariously overcoming her inhibitions about being directly ruthless herself."

Eleanor's verdict:

"I'm impressed. I thought the stuff about having to make myself powerless in order not to hurt was particularly convincing."