What Do Your Sexual Fantasies Say About You? More Than You Think

By Rebecca Barry Hill
Photo / Mara Sommer

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There’s something familiar about the person reading a book at the bar. You start talking, and their accent triggers exciting memories of your last encounter. Instead of driving you home, they park their truck somewhere private and you make up for lost time ...

It might sound like a soft porn intro but this X-rated audio story on US platform Dipsea has no nudity, hysterical panting or bad fake nails. The action (mostly) takes place between your ears. You could listen to it discreetly on the bus, although you might find yourself a little distracted in your morning meeting.

Dipsea co-founder Gina Gutierrez is almost evangelical about the importance of cultivating a healthy sexual imagination and, as such, has created an app of erotic material to help listeners explore their desires and fantasies.

“Intuitively, we understand that our minds matter when it comes to sex,” she told her Ted Talk audience in a recording filmed last year, “but we’re quick to focus on bodies, touch and sensation as the most crucial elements.”

Whether steamy tales of cruise ship threesomes or private yoga sessions by the fire gets you in the mood — or feeling a prude — a sexual revolution is quietly taking place, as women seek out alternatives to the otherwise soulless and seedy offerings of mainstream porn. Dipsea launched in 2018, and boasts 5.4 million track plays.

They’re not the only ones answering the call for more female-focused, inclusive, sex-positive material. Where once we might have relied on Cosmopolitan to provide bedroom tips (many aimed at inducing “sex-goddess” status and pleasing your man), now there’s the popular OMGYes, an online bank of pleasure ‘how-tos’ with a homepage that looks more like a financial wellbeing site. Goop continues to flog vibrators as casually as it does designer espadrilles. And in New Zealand, sexual wellness blog Nak-Ed.co.nz aims to bridge the gap between sexuality, diversity and mental health by normalising the sexual experience.

Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop specialises in eco-conscious luxury products, flogging vibrators as casually as it does designer espadrilles. Photo / Goop
Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop specialises in eco-conscious luxury products, flogging vibrators as casually as it does designer espadrilles. Photo / Goop

The site has grown exponentially in recent years and has readers in Australia, the UK and US. Plans are now underway to launch what founding editor Courtney Devereux calls Nak-Ed 2.0, featuring podcasts, video content and EDMs.

She says we’ve reached a turning point, whereby sexuality in mainstream media is becoming more common, conversations with marginalised groups are happening more, and sex education is being put under the microscope.

“Kiwis have a funny relationship with pleasure,” she says. “We have what has been historically a very conservative nation start to be taken over by a new progressive generation. With growing access to the internet and connection being available like never before, pleasure has become increasingly easier to find. Even the data around sex toy sales in New Zealand [which boomed during lockdowns] shows we are a freaky little nation.”

Dr Rita Csako agrees. The senior lecturer in AUT’s psychology and neuroscience department, and a practising clinical psychologist specialising in sexual psychology, says we’re a conservative nation when it comes to things like going topless on the beach, yet we have one of the biggest swinging communities per capita in the world. (The website Kiwi Swingers, one of several, has 175,430 members.)

Last year 698 New Zealand women participated in an anonymous online survey collecting information about their masturbation habits, part of a ground-breaking study intended to fill in the data gaps around Kiwi women’s sexuality.

“Sex is part of life, whether we like it or not,” says Rita, who was part of the research team. “The more aware we are of what’s going on and what’s normal and what’s not, the more anxiety we can reduce.”

The research confirmed that cognitive factors, such as sexual fantasy, play an important role when it comes to solo sex, with 43.4 per cent reporting they engaged in sexual fantasies, and 24.4 per cent reporting fantasies not including their partner.

Pathological reveries aside, sexual fantasies can be problematic for women whose cultures or religions suggest that having such thoughts or masturbating are sinful.

“Imagine if you’ve grown up in a very strictly religious environment, and you start having fantasies about men other than your husband,” says Rita. “That doesn’t fit because you’ve been taught you should be focusing on your husband, your lifetime partner. So it can create chaos and some fantasies can create shame. That’s very common.”

Another common fantasy for women that can create feelings of alarm, particularly among conservative communities, is that of being kidnapped or restrained.

“For some people clearly these are fantasies and this is creating excitement, but for someone who has conservative belief systems, it can be very disturbing,” says Rita. “Why am I getting aroused by the thought of being restrained? These fantasies can create anxiety in those who have a very strong opinion against it.”

Practising clinicians tend to take sexual fantasies seriously, as they impact sexual health for both females and males, she adds. While everyone is different, men are typically more focused on the act itself, whereas women tend to have romantic fantasies, creating narratives around exciting or adventurous scenarios.

“The importance [for sexual fantasy] is quite high, because for humans, we are quite special in the animal kingdom. What’s happening in your brain will have a very significant impact on how you are experiencing sex. So whether it’s pleasurable, whether it’s comfortable. A lot of the arousal is actually happening in the brain.”

People tend to fantasise about sexuality, particularly if they’re not getting something they’re craving, she adds, such as those in heterosexual relationships who fantasise about same-gendered sex. “Interestingly, women tend to have fantasies during sex. Even during masturbation, women tend to use a lot of sexual fantasies to create arousal and make it more pleasurable.”

For those in relationships, sexual fantasies can be a gentle way of communicating, she says. “Talking about it can be very intimate and it can help with developing the relationship itself. If you can share your fantasies, it’s very private, it’s very intimate. So if you share your fantasies with someone, you’re getting a small step closer to them.

“I work with couples where it’s not okay to have sex with someone else but it’s okay to do it in your fantasy. There’s no problem with imagining getting hot and sexy with George Clooney. Also, couples can develop their own shared fantasies. That can be a nice way of connecting and making sexual connection even more exciting.”

Gillian Anderson in season two of 'Sex Education'. Photo / Supplied
Gillian Anderson in season two of 'Sex Education'. Photo / Supplied

The latest public figure to delve into women’s desires is Sex Education star Gillian Anderson, who is now in the process of collating material for a book on women’s sexual fantasies. It’s due to be published by Bloomsbury in 2024, but earlier this year she asked women from around the world (New Zealand included) to send in personal reports of their most titillating thoughts.

“As women, we know that sex is about more than just sex…” Gillian writes in her missive. “Because when we talk about sex, we talk about womanhood and motherhood, infidelity and exploitation, consent and respect, fairness and egalitarianism, love and hate, pleasure and pain.”

The idea for the book was inspired by the 1973 bestseller My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday. The author collected fantasies through letters, tapes and personal interviews, chronicling the sex lives of women around the world. Shocking, sexy and wildly popular, it challenged preconceptions of women’s sexuality, the main takeaway being that women had vivid sexual desires just as men did. Sexpert and author Susie Bright called it “a big wake-up for America’s puritanical, sheltered girls and young women”.

“I just thought it was fabulous,” says New Zealand intimacy coach and relationship therapist Belinda Wiley, who read the book when she was in her early 20s. “It blew my mind. The stories were very diverse, very edgy. It just felt real, it was very permission-giving.”

Today, she’s reminded of that unsettling sense of freedom when I bring up the topic of sexual fantasy. Belinda often works with couples who feel disconnected sexually, and though she’s noticed a subtle shift, a growing curiosity about the part pleasure plays in our romantic lives, when it comes to discussing it, most people are still very reluctant to open up, she says. She suspects that’s partly due to a culture that has traditionally prioritised men’s pleasure.

“A lot of women for many years thought sex was about men. Women are open to it now more and more because it’s the world we’re in right now. It’s about getting women to understand their bodies. Because a lot of women have never even looked at their genitals. They’ve never even touched them.”

A lot of her work is teaching women to find out how to turn themselves on, she says, to become better acquainted with themselves. Fantasy plays into that to an extent, but when it comes to the context of relationships, it’s about seeing how healthy fantasising can benefit both parties.

“We’re allowed to have our fantasies,” she says. “We don’t have to share everything with our partner. The important thing is: is it making you feel really good? Are you feeling really connected with your partner or is it more that you need these fantasies in order to have sex with them? Then when you’re in the moment — let’s say you’re not really feeling it — if you think of something and go somewhere else that really turns you on and you can have amazing sex, then there are some questions to be asked.”

While reading My Secret Garden might have been a guilty pleasure for women in the 70s, in modern-day New Zealand, the closest we’ve come to a hardback with a sex-positive focus is Aotearotica, a literary journal that published eight issues over the course of about five years.

Though Aotearotica has since slipped quietly on to bookshelves and bedside tables around the country, for a time it represented the rebellious idea that sexuality could be expressed in literary or intellectual terms. Like the attractive former flame reading a book at the bar in the Dipsea audio fantasy, came the idea that arousing content didn’t have to be low-rent and smutty with seizure-inducing flashing ads of animated phalluses — instead it could play out through provocative words or thoughtful illustrations in the form of a treasured book.

Laura Borrowdale, founder of Aotearotica journal, in her kitchen. Photo / Simon Baker
Laura Borrowdale, founder of Aotearotica journal, in her kitchen. Photo / Simon Baker

Aotearotica, the first of which was funded by a small grant from Creative NZ, was intended to be an exploration of sex, sexuality and gender, says its founding editor Laura Borrowdale, a gender studies teacher and mother of two girls. She launched the publication after realising she was critical of porn and yet there was nothing being offered as an alternative.

“It was always intended to give people access to their own imagination and their own fantasy, as opposed to this rote reliance on porn,” she says. “Writing opens up imagination, and in the converse way, conventional pornography closes it down.”

Diverse contributions came from the likes of celebrated writers Ruby Porter, Chris Tse and essa may ranapiri; Laura says they were never short of quality submissions.

She likens the process of appreciating the words and art of erotica to reading a book versus seeing the movie, the images you create in your head are far more personal and nuanced than someone else’s interpretation.

“The sexiest stuff is what happens in your head rather than what happens on a screen,” she says.

One of the more controversial pieces that appeared in Aotearotica was Laura’s own short story, titled ‘The Bull’ — illustrated by American egg tempera artist Michael Bergt — in which a young woman confronts a testosterone-fuelled beast. It’s a metaphorical piece that explores sex and aggression, mythology and animal instinct. ‘Night Swimming’ is another of Laura’s short works that aptly describes the anticipation and transportative aspects of sex. The two pieces also appeared in Laura’s knowingly titled collection of short stories, Sex, With Animals.

“With both of them I was trying to explore not what happens necessarily in your body when you have sex, but in your head. But I think they were explicit enough in terms of language and unusual enough in terms of that portrayal of female sexuality that they could be seen that way.”

Aotearotica continued until 2021, when Laura decided not to put the call out for more submissions. By then she felt they’d achieved what they had set out to do: validating and celebrating women and the LBGTQIA experience of sexuality; simultaneously mainstream journals were becoming more accepting of work that explored and touched on sex and sexuality, so she felt Aotearotica was no longer needed. But that’s not to say we’re living in completely liberated times.

“I feel like we segment things away,” she says, of our attitudes to sexuality in New Zealand. “If we’re talking about women it gets put in a specific category and the conversations we expect women to want to have around sex and sexuality are different than the ones we expect men to want to have. And I think that does both parties a disservice.”

More On Sex

With advice for the (s)experts.

Ask An Expert: ‘I Love My Partner. Why Aren’t We Having Sex?’ Psycho-sexologist Chantelle Otten has some hands-on advice to enhance your erotic life.

The Sensitising Sexual Wellness Treatments You Didn’t Know About. If it’s Earth-shattering orgasms you’re after, consider one of these hot procedures.

Ask An Expert: My New Partner Wants To Tie Me Up In Bed. Should I Let Them? Sexpert Emma Hewitt guides a reader into the steamy waters of BDSM.

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