Sex Ed

Is It Possible For Someone To Not Have Sexual Fantasies?

October 16, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

A reader asked the following question:

“My wife claims she has no sexual fantasies. Is this possible?”

Sexual fantasies are usually defined as waking mental images or pictures that one finds to be erotic or sexually arousing. I’ve conducted several studies on sexual fantasies using this definition and have found that, while the vast majority of people report having had fantasies before, a small number of people say they’ve never had one.

For example, as the basis for my book Tell Me What You Want, I surveyed 4,175 Americans about their sexual fantasies. Toward the beginning of this survey, I defined what a sexual fantasy was (and also clarified how a fantasy is different from a dream) and then asked participants whether they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy. What I found was that 97% of people reported having had sexual fantasies.

In other studies I’ve conducted, I’ve reliably found that 2-3% of people report having no fantasies. So who are those individuals—do they really not have any fantasies at all?

Some of them may be persons with what is known as aphantasia, which involves an inability to voluntarily conjure up mental images. In other words, they literally cannot have fantasies about sex—or fantasies about anything else, for that matter.

Little is known about aphantasia. The term itself was only coined in 2015 [1], so there’s just a handful of studies on the topic; however, research suggests that this can be congenital (lifelong) or acquired (meaning the ability to experience mental imagery is lost), and also that is it probably has a neurological basis. Indeed, patterns of brain activation are different for those with and without aphantasia when they attempt to visualize an image [1].

I’m not aware of any published studies exploring aphantasia and sexuality, so we don’t yet have a solid understanding of the implications for one’s sex life—however, the fact that aphantasia exists tells us that some people just can’t have sexual fantasies.

That said, it’s unlikely that the 2-3% of people without sexual fantasies all have aphantasia. For example, some of them might not have been entirely honest because they have sexual fantasies they don’t wish to admit to. In other words, it might be easier for some people to lie and say they don’t have fantasies at all than to admit to having fantasies that they find to be shameful or embarrassing.

However, it’s also possible that some people have fantasies that they just don’t think of as fantasies. Since publishing Tell Me What You Want, I’ve traveled the country putting on lectures and workshops and I’ve had the chance to speak to a ton of sex therapists and everyday people about sexual fantasies. One of the things I learned through my conversations is that some people have sexual thoughts that they don’t personally count as “fantasies” because they think that a fantasy has to be something kinky, or maybe something that they’ve never done before.

In other words, some people seem to think that a sexual fantasy has to have a “fantastical” element to it—but it doesn’t. Fantasies can be mild or wild. They can be sweet and gentle, or rough and animalistic. They can be things you’ve already done, things you hope to do, things that you could potentially do but would never actually want to do, or things that would be utterly impossible to act out.

Many of the sex therapists I’ve spoken with have worked with clients who claimed to have no fantasies, only to later discover that they actually did—the clients just weren’t thinking of their fantasies as fantasies. Part of the way the therapists discovered this was often by asking a different question, such as “what do you think about when you masturbate or touch yourself?” Fantasies and masturbation often go hand in hand, so to speak.

In short, if someone says they don’t have sexual fantasies, it is certainly possible that they’ve never had one because we know that some people literally cannot fantasize. However, it’s also possible that some of the people who say they don’t have fantasies are holding back because of sexual shame, or they simply have a different conception or understanding of what a sexual fantasy is.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for previous articles or follow the blog on Facebook (facebook.com/psychologyofsex), Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit (reddit.com/r/psychologyofsex) to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

[1] Tween, O. (2019, May 3). Investigation into Aphantasia: Neurological, Functional, and Behavioral Correlates. https://doi.org/10.31237/osf.io/q7v2k

Image Source: 123RF/Roman Samborskyi

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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