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Should we censor our sexual fantasies?

If sex begins in the brain, it should not be surprising that the unconscious mind also projects politically incorrect images. Some attempt to suppress them, but thinking is not the same as doing

Dirk Bogarde y Charlotte Rampling, en 'El portero de noche'
Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in ‘The Night Porter’ (1974), directed by Liliana Cavani.Sunset Boulevard (Corbis via Getty Images)

In theory, the image of a concentration camp prisoner performing sexual acts on a Nazi should be repulsive. But The Night Porter (1974), which includes that scene, has earned a seat of honor among erotic films. Should you feel guilty if you find the film arousing? I wonder if horror movie lovers ever question whether watching Hostel 2 (2007) is a symptom of suffering from psychopathy. But I don’t think so: they aren’t concerned with such subtleties. After all, films are about fiction, not reality. They allow us to connect with the unruly part of the mind that decides what excites us and what doesn’t, which can be as dark and surreal as a Lars Von Trier film.

But not everyone has a good relationship with their sexual fantasies. Some are afraid of them and suppress them, thinking that they are expressions of their little Mr. Hyde, that depraved being who mocks all principles, morals and tastes, or at least the conscious ones. Ask anyone about their sexual fantasies, and most will give predictable answers: having a threesome, having sex in a public place with the risk of being seen, doing it on a plane. But these people tell us about their desires, not their fantasies. They stay on the surface and avoid going deeper, because of what they might encounter.

Recently, a friend confessed to me that she felt bad when she discovered that she was aroused by rape scenes in movies. That brought up problems of conscience, which she tried to silence, arguing that some directors were increasingly explicit in these sequences and that perhaps they should be prohibited. Being forced or having violent sex with someone is one of the most common erotic fantasies in most women, as is practicing prostitution or having relations with several men at the same time. Curiously, such images do not appear in the list of men’s erotic daydreams, probably because society never taught men that they should not be promiscuous, that they had to remain decent or that paid sex would throw them directly into hell. Generations of women grew up with that sword of Damocles. Any slip could take them straight into the gutter, from which it was difficult to get out. John Waters already said it: “I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.”

To alleviate a little the consciences of those who are excited by films that would not even remotely pass the filter of the Motion Picture Association Film Rating System (MPA), or those who would go straight to jail if they made their fantasies come true, we can take advantage of what Valérie Tasso says in her book Antimanual de sexo (Sex Antimanual). “When we ask ourselves: ‘What do I want to do?’, our desire answers. When we ask ourselves: ‘What am I capable of imagining?’, our fantasy answers. Fantasy is to desire what clothes are to getting dressed. Let’s take an example: it’s two in the morning and I have to get up early to go to work. I try to fall asleep, but the music my neighbor is playing prevents me. My desire is for my neighbor to stop the music. My fantasy is me throwing the neighbor off the balcony, although, most likely, what I will do is knock on his door and ask him to turn down the music that prevents me from sleeping,” she writes.

beautiful young woman wearing gloves
Erotic preferences shouldn't keep us up at night no matter how strange they may seem, experts say.Andriy Onufriyenko (Getty Images)

Fortunately, only in Christianity can you sin in thought. “I think we confuse terms like preference, desire and fantasy,” says Raúl González Castellanos, sexologist and couples therapist at the therapeutic support office A la Par in Madrid. “The difference is that a fantasy does not have to be carried out. It is satisfying in itself, while if we want something and we don’t get it, it causes us frustration. Generally, fantasies put into practice are not only not pleasant, but they usually disappoint us.”

Fantasies feed desire. They are rehearsals of experiences that allow the freedom of not having to put them into practice, partly because one does not want to. Therefore, they should not have censorship or regulations,” says Francisca Molero, sexologist, gynecologist, director of the Ibero-American Institute of Sexology and president of the Spanish Federation of Sexology Societies. “Sexual fantasies are very good for learning, since the brain is a plastic organ, and, sometimes, it is difficult for it to distinguish between reality and fiction. Therefore, there is no need to give them labels. The thought is not the same as the action. Furthermore, generally, they are closely related to transgression, to what is forbidden, which is what we have been told gives the most pleasure. In a way, they are a form of liberation, a form of analysis and therapy, but there are many people who feel guilty if they do not pass through the filter of reason or are socially acceptable. These people associate the act of imagining with wanting to do something and, sometimes, they block their desire or their sexual response by trying to censor their fantasies,” says the sexologist.

If I get excited by unacceptable stimuli, I eventually stop getting excited and the matter is over. “In reality, that fantasy has been conditioned with excitement, which happens often,” says Molero. “I remember a patient who fantasized about having relationships with men much older than her, but since it didn’t seem appropriate, she put aside its erotic dimension. In these cases, what we do is open the range of possibilities and experiment with other stimuli, both at the level of fantasies and the body.” Among the erotic ghosts that are scariest, Molero lists “getting aroused by much older or younger people, necrophilia, paraphilias or fantasies in which family members are involved.” But, as with dreams, not everything we dream is what we would like to do, and sexual arousal is far from being logical, clean or politically correct.

portrait of a seductive woman
"Fantasy is to desire what clothes are to getting dressed," writes Valérie Tasso.recep-bg (Getty Images)

As psychotherapist Stanley Siegel says in his book Your Brain on Sex: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life, “what many of us don’t recognize (or if we do, it scares us a bit) is that physical arousal with a partner may be less decisive than what happens in our heads. In fact, for many of us, the images, thoughts and fantasies that are projected in our minds, at the moment of sexual intercourse, are the ones that bring us closest to orgasm.”

According to Raúl González, erotic preferences should not keep us up at night. “A man may like to masturbate with a female bra and a rubber tarantula on his chest. But that is an erotic peculiarity that belongs to his inner core and, furthermore, he does not harm anyone with this practice. It’s very different for a fantasy to make us lose sleep or cause us anxiety. That could be something to deal with.”

Although fantasies tend to prefer the road less traveled, it will not necessarily always be a depraved road. “Confusing desire with fantasy is not an innocent entanglement,” says Valérie Tasso. She continues: “If we are not able to clearly make the difference between what we are capable of imagining and what we want to do, it is because someone is very interested in us confusing one with the other. […] If our social control mechanisms blame us for what we fantasize and make us believe that it is what we want, and we are going to execute it as soon as we can, we will become subjects afraid of ourselves who can be managed and controlled much more easily. We will be elements in need of large doses of morality in our veins so that the ‘monster’ of our fantasies does not take over us. Morality, like fear, has never been a great lover of knowledge.”

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