If you’re the least bit curious to know where your biggest sexual fantasies probably come from, I promise you’ll want to hear this one. On this two-part episode, I explain how and why we create our sexual fantasies by exploring the deeper, pathogenic beliefs that we develop about ourselves in relation to our primary caregivers in childhood, and how something you might least expect is the one necessary ingredient to becoming sexually aroused.
Researchers and therapists theorize that our sexual fantasies are a way to circumvent our deeper, and sometimes hidden, pathogenic beliefs such as guilt, shame, rejection, helplessness, and identification, in order to sufficiently become sexually aroused. They believe that safety is the key to understanding the mysteries of sexual passion. Our unconscious minds prioritize our safety above all else, and our psychological safety is an emotional state that feels just as real as our physical safety. Sometimes our sexual excitement can trigger insecurities that threaten our psychological security, which leads to sexual inhibitions.
In order to explore our sexual fantasies a bit more sufficiently than just a superficial skimming of each one, I’m breaking this topic into 2 episodes: today’s episode will be about how and why we create our sexual fantasies by exploring the pathogenic beliefs that we develop about ourselves in relation to our primary caregivers as children, and the second episode, which I’ll talk about next week, I’ll be covering a range of sexual fantasies and how each one relates to the pathogenic beliefs we developed in childhood, allowing us to create an emotionally safe context to become sufficiently aroused.
These episodes are not meant to be all-inclusive, but it will certainly give you an overview that will serve as a foundation for getting deeper into our psyches. And an important distinction I want to make is that I am not a field expert on this subject however, the information that I am presenting to you is a combination of theories from the book: Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, written by Dr. Michael Bader, a psychologist and psychoanalyst with over 30 years of clinical experience, along with some of my own coaching and personal experiences sprinkled in. My intention is to bring this information to you in an easy to understand way that might light a path for you to start exploring in greater detail what some of your sexual fantasies actually mean.
With that said, let’s start by asking the relevant questions: what are pathogenic beliefs, where do they originate, and how do they take shape?
Let’s go back, way back to childhood. In order to acclimate to life, since our earliest days as a baby, we start to experiment and establish “maps” of our world. At first, we do so knowingly and unknowingly. We specifically look at the kinds of scenarios, experiences, and people that make us feel safe or, in danger. The “maps” catalogue our cognition, emotions, and behavior and they mold our temperament and our personality. They help us navigate within the world and affect how we see ourselves, how we see other people, and how we should behave in the world in order to survive and thrive, and more importantly how to avoid danger.
The maps, or beliefs, that we create early in life, construct our perception of reality and what we believe is moral. Those early beliefs aren’t expressed in words- they are sensorial, motorial, and procedural combined together with verbal maps which are usually hierarchically structured. This is where we formulate our thought pattern where if X happens, then Y comes after. Like, if my mother is depressed, then she will sulk in her room all day. Or If my father is absent, it must mean he doesn’t love me.
The beliefs we develop as children are incredibly powerful. Even if or when we modify or create new beliefs as adults or adolescents, the ones from our childhood are particularly entrenched within us. The reason is that as children, we are completely and 100% dependent on our caregivers and therefore our sense of safety and well-being is directly dependent on them. At that age, we are them, and they are us – there is no separation. They ensure our survival. The emotional and motivational systems at that stage are so powerful because our livelihood literally depends on the quality of the relationship with our caregiver, and therefore we will do anything we can to preserve that relationship. Psychological research shows that babies without an attachment to a caregiver are more frantic, chaotic, and depressed.
We need to see them as benevolent, good, fair, and righteous, so if there’s conflict, we think they’re right and we’re wrong. And what’s more sad, is that children believe that whatever way their parents treat them is how they deserve to be treated. They internalize the messages given by the parent and must adapt accordingly. We’re very intuitive as children, picking up on their mood, tone, and other situational clues, but never register them consciously. All of the implicit messages and explicit messages we receive from our caregivers become the foundation of our core beliefs. And what’s more, is that our beliefs are also influenced by brain’s limited emotional and cognitive development at that point. By that I mean that we take the insufficient evidence and experiences that we have, and we begin to draw conclusions about them (accurately or not accurately) and we incorrectly blame ourselves more than we deserve, and we overgeneralize based on the lack of information we have.
Forming an insecure attachment with a parent creates feelings of danger. If our parent becomes neglectful, cold, distant, angry, intrusive, anxious, weak, unhappy, or rejecting for example, it threatens the child’s feeling of secure attachment and the child feels anxious, registering it as a sign of danger. In order for the child to regain that feeling of psychological safety, they will do whatever is needed to reestablish better conditions. The child doesn’t realize they are doing it, it’s felt on an intuitive level, and is quickly associated with a bad feeling. But children don’t have the emotional skills to repair the relationship, so instead they change themselves, which is the only thing they have control over.
We all have an innate need to know that we matter to someone else, that we’re admired, and that we feel competent and strong enough to master challenges. We also want to know that our parents can maintain their own boundaries regardless of whatever our needs are. We need to know they can love themselves and each other.
The needs that we have, however, are expendable when it comes to the need for psychological safety. We will alter and suppress our desires, wishes, needs, and feelings instinctively in exchange for repairing conditions that can help bring about the safely we crave. That is our human ability to adapt to our surroundings.
So I’ll give you an example from my upbringing. My dad couldn’t keep a job and my mother struggled to take care of the 5 of us, and early on we slept on the bare floor and went to bed with empty stomachs sometimes. So I developed a belief that deprivation was the normal way to live, and it’s been one I’ve had a hard time getting rid of.
We also experience our reality through a moral lens, meaning that we start to think that love and nurturance is forbidden, that it’s asking too much, or that we’re not allowed to have it. We not only accept the neglect, but we also turn it around to make it appear as though the fault is our own, not our caretaker’s. So we frame it through the perspective of, we’re too needy, instead of, my parents just can’t give it to me. It’s as though we’re saying to ourselves, “it’s okay, I don’t need much anyway, and come to think of it, I probably don’t even deserve it”. This is why sometimes we, or our partners, don’t ask for things. Specifically, we don’t ask for things that are just for us. We might ask for something functional, maybe task-oriented like washing dishes or paying the bills, but if you notice, we don’t ask for things that would bring us pleasure, like a back rub, or a massage, or some time alone to unwind. This might be because we’ve grown up with the belief that we’re asking too much and are not supposed to ask for those things because it’s excessive.
We’re essentially taking responsibility for our parent’s shortcomings and the treatment we received, and unknowingly creating theories to substantiate it. In fact, several years ago I met a woman who told me that when she was a very young teenager, her mom and dad had invited this person’s then-boyfriend to come live with them, and actually sleep in the same bed with her! And her teenage boyfriend raped her, and got her pregnant. And decades later even as a grown woman, she refused to acknowledge that her parents were complicit in what happened to her. In fact, she developed a very co-dependent relationship with her parents that she was very protective of and even defensive.
Pathogenic beliefs are the irrational, self-defeating beliefs that interfere with our ability to have healthy relationships with others, stemming from some degree of trauma in our past. The four main strategies tied to each of our pathogenic beliefs are: compliance (with the parent and the belief), identification (with the parent who showed it to us), rebellion (against the parent and the belief) and counter-identification (with the parent who showed it to us).
The problem with pathogenic beliefs is that they’re extremely difficult to change, not impossible, but they’re very stubborn. Think about it, we give more authority to the experiences and information in our surroundings that confirm our beliefs (also known as a confirmation bias) – specifically with regard to the beliefs that protect us from any perceived danger. And even more so, by changing those beliefs, there’s a lot at stake: if we dismantle our pathogenic beliefs, then we risk losing or damaging the relationship with our caregivers, or we think we might hurt them, and by doing so, consequently we would have to face just how much they’ve hurt us. And to keep that relationship in tact, we resist acknowledging those things. It can be devastating to shatter the beliefs we’ve clung so tightly to since childhood. Our world can feel like it’s falling apart. This is what is called trauma denial. It’s an act of self-preservation, it’s a very sophisticated way of deluding ourselves when there is too much at stake. And it becomes even more powerful when we’re dependent on the person.
In this context, when we find ourselves in a relationship with a person who actually loves us, our minds pay more attention to the messages or perceptions that confirm the negative beliefs we already have about ourselves and what we feel we merit, thereby discrediting any positive incoming messages that might contradict our belief system that in a sense, keep our world intact. This was certainly the case for me in my first couple years with my partner, where because I was searching for negative criticisms about me that I was stupid, unbeknownst to me at the time, I would recreate the same feeling of shame and rejection that I felt as a child when I was called stupid. And looking back on it now, I can see that I actually got a sense of pleasure from feeling that way as an adult, but what I know now is that my brain was actually searching for that next hit of neuro-chemicals that it was so used to getting as a child as my brain’s way of keeping that synaptic connection wired to the emotion I was experiencing.
As we grow up, we’re all taking these beliefs with us into adulthood as though this is the way the world naturally functions. We don’t pause to think, for example, oh hey, maybe I’m extending myself so much at work because I secretly want my boss to be pleased with me because I’m substituting them for a parental figure that didn’t sufficiently parent me…. That might or might not have been my own example. LOL. If you are particularly introspective, like I am, or have benefited from therapy, then you won’t realize how deeply your past is affecting your present.
So let’s talk about 4 main emotions that Michael Bader says we use sexual fantasies to counteract. They are: GUILT, WORRY, SHAME, and REJECTION.
Let’s talk about guilt and worry first. Guilt and worry are major inhibitors to sexual excitement. With guilt, almost always comes worry. We feel guilty when we hurt someone, and therefore believe we are bad. The worry comes from feeling anxious that this important person is weak and easily hurt.
Everyone feels guilty about something, no matter how healthy your upbringing was, whether it’s guilt for making lots of money, or being selfish, or too independent, or being too distant from your family of origin, for example. There’s a conflict in the feeling of being independent and making your own decisions as an adult and what your early caregivers might want or expect from you. We might feel guilty that we escaped a dysfunctional family or a really horrible environment or community. It’s like we unknowingly believe that our gain is another person’s loss, and so we develop this survivor’s guilt for leaving them behind and as a result, we put limits on how happy or satisfied we’ll allow ourselves to be. And not just that, but we also somehow think that by being too happy or successful that we’re actually hurting the ones we left behind. This is natural, and our subconscious way of resolving this guilt and worry in this particular context lies in our sexual fantasies.
Women, for example, deal with guilt a lot. The role they’re socialized into is being a relationship manager, the one who is sensitive and nurturing to the needs of others, specifically their partner, and that their worth as women comes from being emotional givers. And not only that, that their worth is also inextricably linked to being objects of desire instead of being the ones desiring others. They are taught that those are their social responsibilities, which historically have been exclusive to women. This leads to a pretty big challenge for women to yield to their sexual impulses because they are taught to tend to the needs of others, thereby perpetuating the guilt that they should not be looking to themselves for satisfaction and gratification, that they should be focused on fulfilling the needs and wishes of others, particularly their partner’s. When they are so emotionally attuned to others, their guilt prevents them from being sexually ruthless or selfish enough to actively seek out what would really bring them pleasure. What is good for the emotional relationship, is often what impairs the sexual relationship. The ingredients that make for a healthy and strong companionship, such as selflessness and being very emotionally attuned to our partner, are often what undermine sexual excitement, which comes from a certain amount of selfishness and ruthlessness.
To bring this to concept to life I’ll use an example. In Michael Bader’s book, Arousal: The Secret Logic of Fantasies, he talks about the case study of a very powerful, feminist woman named Jan (who was married to a kind, sensitive man) continually fantasized about a big, bulky custodian coming into her office late one night to empty her trash cans. As he lowers himself below her desk to take the basket, he runs his hand up her leg beneath her skirt and grabs her crotch. Then suddenly, he takes her, picks her up and roughly places her on top of her desk, spreads her legs, holds her hands over her head, and rips off her panties. He confesses how long he’s wanted to fuck her, and begins to ruthlessless fuck her with his huge cock. And she makes sure to note that he’s a real asshole, he just takes and takes, and doesn’t give a shit about what she wants. Now, in real life, Jan detests men just like this, and in fact would be completely traumatized if she was raped, but in her hidden fantasies, he’s the only one that can bring her to orgasm, even since she was a teenager. She had begun to internalize that maybe her choice in a feminist career was really covering up a hidden longing to be dominated by a powerful man, and she started to feel like a phony. As Bader learned in his sessions with her, Jan’s fundamental view of men was that they were really “paper tigers”, creating a guise of strength and power, but were actually weak and fragile. Bader articulates that unless our adult selves consciously try to reconstruct our beliefs about masculinity and femininity as we become more educated, the power of our earliest constructions about ourselves and the world are not easily eradicated. And what Bader learned was that underneath it all, Jan believed that her fullest, truest expression of sexuality would intimidate and threaten men, and so far, men had proven her suspicions to be right every time. She would test and criticize them, but feel guilty for doing it. It was a vicious cycle because each time she felt guilty for belittling and hurting them, it would make her want to provoke them even more so they’d stand up for themselves. As it turned out, the hidden meaning behind Jan’s rape fantasy, was that she was creating this huge, giant man who was impervious to being hurt by her, thus subverting the guilt she felt for being such a powerful woman. By imagining a man who is powerful enough to take what he wants, it reassures her that she can take what she wants. After that realization, Jan deliberately worked on her view of men and was able to see her husband’s sensitivity in a different light; she reframed it, and was able to enjoy him sexually. Even though she didn’t stop having the fantasy, she would on occasion cast him as the ruthless stranger.
You should know that domination fantasies, involving both the top and bottom positions, are very common among both men and women. There is a plausible theory that societies fraught with guilt and shame around sex, the ones implicitly and explicitly communicating to women that they are sluts for seeking out sexual pleasure, have a higher number of women fantasizing about being raped. The reason is speculated to be because in order to subvert the guilt and shame that inhibits her from feeling okay enough to become sexually aroused, is that in her fantasy, she is not the one seeking out sexual gratification, she is the one receiving it without being given a choice, thereby tricking her own brain into believing that she is receiving it against her will and therefore cannot by definition be a slut or promiscuous. Isn’t that funny, see how that works? Additionally, if our society discourages women from being aggressive, assertive, and ruthless, it might be another reason why fewer women feel comfortable assuming the dominant role versus the submissive role in S&M play.
Now, let’s move on to shame and rejection. In this context, what do we mean by shame? If guilt comes from a feeling of something you did, shame comes from a feeling about who you are. We feel shame when we feel revolting and disgusting. Rejection comes in to play when we feel judged from the outside, and with it we experience self-loathing and unworthiness. All of these emotions kill any sexual excitement. Shame and rejection make us want to curl up into a little ball and hide from the world, whereas sexual excitement elicits play and outward exploration. In order to overcome these contradictory emotions, our minds create an internal mental theatre where for a fleeting moment we no longer feel shamed for who we are, but instead we feel desired for who we are. In our fantasy, someone is becoming sexually aroused and excited precisely because of our presence. In our fantasies, we are negating each of our self-defeating thoughts by counteracting and subverting them. We vindicate ourselves of unworthiness, helplessness, guilt, shame, and rejection through a carefully crafted fictitious performance.
To put this into context, I’ll give you another example from Bader’s book. He was working with a woman named Esther, who was dealing with some internal conflict she was having about her body, namely shame, and a feeling of unworthiness that no one, not even her husband, would want to have sex with her after having several children. In a private moment, she divulged a sexual fantasy that she imagined when she touched herself alone. Her fantasy took place around a huge festival like Mardi Gras, and inside the venue she was getting fucked by two guys on stage. In her fantasy, she was a young woman. The MC came over to broadcast in very intimate detail what was happening with her and these two guys, or really in her mind, what was being done to her. She was on her back and the MC was encouraging the audience to observe certain parts of her body, and she noted how increasingly turned on the audience was getting as they leaned in to watch. This fantasy was particularly arousing to her because she was able to undermine any ideas that her body was disgusting, in fact, it was so highly desirable that not just 2 men at one time wanted to fuck her, but the MC and an entire audience did, too. The emphasis on the detail being described about her body by the MC indicated that her body was that much more worthy of noticing such detail. Not only that, but after more exploration, Bader discovered that she had struggled with feelings of shame and rejection from her father as she grew up, and equated his emotional distance with her and her mother compared to the closeness and satisfaction with her 2 brothers as a sign that some aspect of her femininity made him reject her. The authoritarian figure in her fantasy, the MC, represented her father who, in this context, made sure to pay special attention to the literal markers of her femininity, thus reaffirming her womanhood and validating her self-worth enough for her to become sexually aroused. When she married, she felt as though she exchanged sexual freedom for marital security, and had internalized that no one would want an aging mother compared to the youthful beauty she once was.
In this case, Esther was doing what so many women do in cultures that place such a heavy emphasis on youth and beauty. She was using external reassurances to disprove any self-doubts she had. For some of us, this looks like climbing the corporate ladder to achieve success and status, curating an image of wealth and affluence, or creating an illusion of grandeur to the outside world. As Bader says, “external riches compensate for an internal poverty of self-esteem.” For this particular woman, her external riches came in the form of men’s sexual desire for her. By eliciting and indulging men’s fantasies, she was able to temporarily nullify the shame and rejection she felt from her father, but as her youth faded, she was still in the end, inevitably left with the root of her problem.
For those of us who can see ourselves in Esther, how can we possibly expect to not experience the decay of our outer shell? Slowly but surely, our focus needs to be on the overlooked and underappreciated sexual interest of our partners, finding value and worth in other places that give us a feeling of being desirable, and being more sexually playful in general so that we can put it in a more appropriate rank in the hierarchy of our lives.
That’s it for today everyone, but stay tuned for next week’s episode where I’m covering specific sexual fantasies, such as S&M, master/slave relationship, asphyxiation, group sex, and rape fantasies just to name a few. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to get notified of new videos. Have a great week.