Do Our Sexual Fantasies Differ When We Feel Insecure?

Man and woman making love, with woman looking away

Sexual fantasies exist to serve many different functions, from enhancing sexual pleasure to expressing hidden desires (for a few fantasy examples, see A Top Ten List of Women’s Sexual Fantasies and A Top Ten List of Men’s Sexual Fantasies). Having fantasies is considered to be a normal and healthy part of human sexuality. In fact, research has found that frequent sexual fantasizing is linked to having a more satisfying sex life [1]. To date, most research on sexual fantasies has focused on describing common fantasy themes, while very little work has considered where sexual fantasies actually come from and why fantasy content varies so much from person to person. A new set of studies has found that at least part of our fantasy content may stem from attempts to deal with personal feelings of insecurity [2].

In the first study, led by Dr. Gurit Birnbaum, participants were asked to visualize a relationship in which they either felt secure (i.e., it was easy to become close) or anxious (i.e., it was hard to become close). Afterward, participants were asked to write about one of their current sexual fantasies. Results indicated that the anxious relationship prime resulted in fantasies in which the self was seen as more aggressive toward and alienated from the partner (i.e., there was far less affection expressed)  compared to the secure relationship prime. The anxiety prime also resulted in fantasies in which the self was seen as irresistibly sexually desired. This pattern was most pronounced among men who had an anxious attachment style (i.e., guys who had a chronic tendency to worry that their partners might not become as close as they would like).  

In two additional studies, participants had feelings of attachment security or anxiety subliminally primed with photos of either (1) a mother caressing and looking at her child (security prime) or (2) a mother who was turning her back on a child who was crying (insecurity prime). Later on, participants either described one of their current sexual fantasies (Study 2) or completed a fantasy content checklist (Study 3). Across both studies, the insecurity prime resulted in participants expressing sexual fantasies containing more themes of hostility and distancing (i.e., emotionless sex, a lack of romance and affection) relative to the security prime, and this occurred regardless of participant gender and attachment style.  

The authors explain this pattern of results by arguing that feelings of insecurity generate self-protective tendencies. Specifically, the more insecure and anxious an individual feels, the more likely it is that their sexual fantasies will involve themes of independence and detachment so as to protect the self from further feelings of rejection. In other words, as anxiety increases, fantasies are likely to contain less content that could be potentially threatening to one’s self-esteem.

This set of studies tells us that our sexual fantasies are at least partially a reflection of the degree to which we currently feel insecure about our relationships and that we may subconsciously use our fantasies as a way to make us feel better about ourselves. However, whether fantasies of this nature actually achieve their goal of improving self-image and, more importantly, whether they have a positive or negative impact on relationship functioning is a question for future study.

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[1] Leitenberg, H., & Henning, K. (1995). Sexual fantasy. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 469-496.

[2] Birnbaum, G. E., Simpson, J. A., Weisberg, Y. J., Barnea, E., & Assulin-Simhon, Z. (in press). Is it my overactive imagination? The effects of contextually activated attachment insecurity on sexual fantasies. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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