Sex Q&A

The Difference Between a Sexual Fantasy and a Sexual Desire

April 7, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

A reader recently asked the following question:

“My wife and I have been discussing fantasies. She believes fantasies are something that may turn you on but you don’t want to actually do. Is there term for a sex act that she may want to participate in?”

Thanks for this great question. The distinction between a sexual fantasy and a sexual desire is very important, so here’s what you need to know.

sexual fantasy is simply a sexually arousing thought or mental picture that you have while you are awake (i.e., it’s not a sex dream). Fantasies can come to mind spontaneously, or you can deliberately call a fantasy to mind for various purposes, such as becoming or staying aroused, dealing with boredom, or relaxing (see here for a more extensive list of reasons why people fantasize).

The key defining feature of a fantasy is that it generates arousal—it’s a turn-on. However, just because something turns you on doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do it in real life.

By contrast, a sexual desire is something that you actually want to do. It’s future plan or goal for your sex life—something that you crave or wish to try.

Some sexual fantasies are desires, others are not. As I discuss in my book Tell Me What You Want, for most people, their favorite fantasy of all time is a desire. In fact, about 4 out of 5 of my participants have said that their biggest fantasy is something they want to try in real life—and I’ve seen this replicate in every fantasy study I’ve done.

For the 1 in 5 who say it’s not a desire, they report a wide range of reasons for not wanting to act on that fantasy. For example, sometimes the fantasy involves something that would be physically impossible to do (e.g., it might have science fiction elements or involve partners or activities one just doesn’t have the ability to pursue). Other times, the fantasy involves an illegal act, something that goes against one’s moral values, or something that could potentially be harmful to one or more persons.

Yet other times, people are afraid to try it, they’re concerned about social disapproval, they don’t have a willing partner, or they just have no idea how to even go about it. It’s also possible to simply believe that reality would never live up to the fantasy, so you might not want to risk “ruining” the fantasy.

In short, there are all kinds of reasons why a fantasy might not be a desire. I should also mention that while people’s favorite fantasies usually seem to be desires, most people have a lot of fantasies over the course of their lives and most of them probably never cross the threshold of desire, especially if you’re talking about a one-time fantasy or something you don’t think about very often.

It’s also important to distinguish sexual fantasy and desire from sexual behavior. A sexual behavior is something you actually do—and our behaviors can be based in fantasy, desire, both, or neither.

For example, fantasy and desire sometimes prompt sexual behavior—some people make the decision to act things out. And, in my own work, I’ve found that about 1 in 5 people have acted on their favorite fantasy before. Of course, this number means that most people appear to have unrealized fantasies and desires.

At the same time, however, behavior can operate independent of your pre-existing fantasies and desires. For instance, your partner might spontaneously suggest trying something completely new that you agree to, despite the fact that you’ve never thought about it or wanted to try it before. And by engaging in that behavior, it could potentially become a future fantasy and/or desire (assuming you enjoyed it).

So the way that I think about all of this is that fantasy, desire, and behavior are all separate, but overlapping concepts. And understanding this distinction is important when talking about fantasies with your partner(s). For example, when sharing fantasies, it’s usually a good idea to clarify whether these are fantasies vs. desires.

Sometimes, people automatically assume that all fantasies their partner shares are things they actually want to try, which can lead to unnecessary conflict.  So when sharing fantasies, it’s worth getting on the same page about what this is and isn’t. Are you sharing fantasies to enhance intimacy, learn about each other, and/or have a little dirty talk? Or are you sharing ideas for things you want to try together?

As always, clear communication is key.

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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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