Whatever turns you on

Whether your sexual fantasy involves latex, cowboy hats or custodians, the author of a new book says it comes from -- and can help explain -- your childhood needs and fears.

Published January 30, 2002 8:33PM (EST)

You may not think you have sexual fantasies, but Dr. Michael J. Bader says you do.

According to Bader, author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies," everyone -- from the ortho-fetishist to the secret harborer of elaborate rape fantasies to the writer of sneeze erotica, right on down to the woman who likes guys in cowboy hats or the guy who likes guys in cowboy hats -- has a fantasy. And each of these fantasies, however mundane or bizarre, works in exactly the same way: to compensate for the guilt or fear or worry each of us carries over from childhood.

Bader is a general psychotherapist and psychoanalyst by trade, but over the years it's his conversations with patients about sexual fantasy that have proved to be the most revealing. Ask someone to tell you what turns him or her on and, chances are, you're cutting to the quick of that person's basic fears and anxieties.

Into latex? According to Bader, you probably grew up feeling vulnerable, afraid of your parents or ashamed of your body. Wearing latex makes you feel invulnerable and safe. If it's your partner you want to see in plastic, Bader's bet is that you grew up with depressed parents whose unhappiness you felt responsible for. Put your partner in black latex and, suddenly, he or she seems unblemished, invincible. Finally, there's no one for you to worry about. Voil`! It's safe to get turned on.

If Bader's theory explains why some people fantasize about dominating while others want to be submissive, it's less useful in making sense of that great divide between fantasy and real life. If the fantasy's a turn-on, shouldn't bringing it to life make it even more powerful? And since so few people do actually act out their fantasies, how are we to treat the distinction between men who, say, only fantasize about having sex with 14-year-old girls and men who go out and do it?

Bader talks to reporters in exactly the same place he asks his patients to tell him about their sexual fantasies: a comfortable office in San Francisco. He has practiced psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for 23 years. Sitting back in his leather armchair, Bader looks psychiatric enough, even if he does occasionally talk like a dominatrix. Bader says that, in the realm of fantasy, anything goes. And given all that mental freedom, you just have to marvel at what we humans can come up with.

Is there any fantasy you've heard of that struck you as particularly outrageous?

The most bizarre fantasy that I ever heard of had to do with asphyxiation, which is pretty common. What was unusual was the plot: This woman's fantasy was that a man puts her in a plastic bag, which envelops her completely. It's airtight, except for a valve opening at the level of her genitals. The valve is closed. Soon she begins to run out of oxygen and gets panicky as a result. The guy opens the valve and for just a moment, she feels a reprieve where air can come in; she's resuscitated. And at just that point, the guy puts his cock in the hole and starts to fuck her through the hole of this body bag. And his cock seals the hole, so that the air stops. And she begins to run out of air again, as she's being fucked through the bag, until she finally loses consciousness at the moment of orgasm. That's the fantasy. The approaching threat of death brings her to orgasm.

I thought, well, this is just such a fascinating thing where her unconscious or her conscious mind created this scenario that's just precisely the one she needs.

But why does this woman -- or anyone else -- need a sexual fantasy?

Well, sexual arousal turns out to be more complicated than we think. There are all these threats to it: One is guilt, one is worry. You can't get turned on if you're feeling embarrassed or ashamed of yourself. You can't get turned on if you're feeling guilty or worried. But you still want to have sex, right? So you develop a fantasy that counteracts those dangers. The fantasy makes it safe for you to feel aroused. You no longer feel guilty or worried or ashamed.

For her, what was exciting was that she had no control. She gave control to the guy. And it was her helplessness, and the fact that he had life or death power over her, that was the turn-on. The way it worked was, it counteracted her own feelings -- left over from childhood, probably -- of responsibility and power and guilt.

So people like to be submissive in their fantasies because it helps relieve some of the guilt they have about wielding power in real life.

Right. I just recently talked to this guy who liked to go to prostitutes and have them spit and piss on him. Well, what's up with that? "Why do you like to do it?" I say. And the guy says, "Oh God, I don't know. I guess I must feel like I'm a shameful piece of shit or I was treated badly as a kid. Or maybe it's just an addiction. Or maybe I'm just a pervert." You could hear the shame in him.

But when I asked about his family, he told me that his mother was basically this lazy drunk, kind of promiscuous and sloppy, and he found himself embarrassed about her, looking down on her. So maybe he tended to see all women as degraded and inferior. And that's really an inhibition. That really holds you back sexually. You know, who wants to imagine having sex with someone who they think of as degraded?

So, once he had a fantasy about a woman degrading him, pissing on him, then he didn't have to feel guilty about pissing on or degrading women.

It's like those big CEOs who go to a dominatrix and they like to put on a maid's uniform and clean the bathroom. You think, "Well, what the fuck is that?" But it's the same thing. These guys feel responsible all day and they're basically giving everybody orders, they're trying to control the universe and what they really want is to be told what to do. They want to give up responsibility, not because they're weak, but so that they can just let go. Surrender to their own pleasure.

So does that same theory explain why some women fantasize about being raped or overpowered?

It's pretty similar. Take Jan, who I talk about in my book. She's a feminist academic. Jan has a fantasy of a custodian coming in and throwing her on the desk and ripping off her panties and fucking her without any regard to what she wants. This is so exciting to her that it brings her to orgasm in a minute.

So, she's having sex with her real husband, who is very nurturing and maternal, but what she really wants in her fantasy life is to be taken and overwhelmed. Jan feels very ashamed of it, like, "Shit, obviously all this feminism stuff must be a ruse, I must be really at my heart of hearts a weak woman if what I really want is to subordinate myself to a man."

It turns out that's completely wrong. Jan is someone who grew up feeling like she was too much for a man. She was much stronger than her mother, and she drove her father nuts, and she grew up with this feeling that if she really let it out, she could just blow them all away. And a lot of women feel that way about men. Even though they may think of men superficially as really macho, or as bullies, underneath they often think of men as really brittle or fragile, brittle egos, you know, that a woman has to take care of.

So part of what Jan felt so liberated by is the fact that she could imagine herself in the arms of someone who was so strong and ruthless and selfish that she didn't have to worry about him at all. She could just think about herself. Surrender herself to her own excitement.

You've also heard from a lot of guys who fantasize about having sex with prepubescent girls, and with them, too, there's this huge divide between fantasy and reality. Just as Jan doesn't actually want to be raped, so these men have a symbolic, fantasy-world attraction to young girls, not an actual one. But some people do feel compelled to make their fantasies real.

Most guys who fantasize about having sex with 16-year-old girls don't actually go out and do it. Fantasies don't usually lead to reality. They don't even make the reality more likely, necessarily.

But still, that's the $64,000 question. What's the difference between the 40-year-old guy who actually goes and has sex with a 16-year-old girl and the one who just fantasizes about it? I've never been able to figure out why Joe acts on it and Sam doesn't. And the only thing I can think of is that some people come from certain backgrounds where there's a lot of sex, and boundaries are broken. Then maybe you're more likely to be able to go over that line.

As I said, most people don't feel like they have to act on their fantasies. The number of people who fantasize when they're having sex with their partner about something, or someone, else is very high. There's that Johnny Carson quote about when turkeys mate, they think of swans. It's so common. People are entertaining all sorts of images. Maybe they're borrowing from a movie or an erotic story they just read. That's very different than acting on it.

So then it's probably fair to say that a lot of people are having fantasies that they won't be telling their partner about.

That's true. And see, I think the answer has to do with the fact that intimacy and ongoing relationships, because of the increased familiarity, the more intimate you are, the more you care about your partner, the more you worry about them, and feel responsible for making them happy. And that's the mark of a good relationship. There's nothing pathological about it. But if you follow my model and you say worry and responsibility interfere with sexual excitement, then I think you have a kind of automatic tendency for intimacy to breed sexual boredom.

You must have people come in here and tell you that they don't have sexual fantasies at all.

Yes, I do. I think sometimes it's because they repress them and oftentimes it's because they misunderstand what a sexual fantasy is. A lot of people think that a sex fantasy is simply like a story you tell yourself when you're having sex or masturbating. And in fact, that's what the culture thinks it is, too: the Marquis de Sade, or some other elaborate theatrical narrative. What I think is that everybody has preferences about the way they like to get turned on. There are certain body types people prefer, and not others. Certain temperamental traits that turn people on and others that don't. If you look beneath the surface, you see that all of these are implied sexual fantasies. The reason that one woman likes a guy who looks like a punk is the same reason that another woman has an elaborate fantasy about having sex with a biker in a biker bar and blah, blah, blah. It's just that the one takes a form of a little bit of theater. And the other is simply a response.

Say you've worked with someone to resolve their guilt or fears from childhood, do their sexual fantasies then change?

I have rarely treated anyone where the basic fundamentals of their fantasy have radically changed. I've had people who liked being a top, and by the end of treatment then were able to experiment with being a bottom. But it's rare that someone who really likes being a top will switch his or her default basic preference to be a bottom.

It's an interesting thing, because let's say you had an inhibition at work that came out of that pathology and it made it so that you couldn't ask for a raise or assert yourself. I'll guarantee you that if the person was in therapy with me long enough, they'll come out asking for raises, asserting themselves at work. But they wouldn't come out with a different sexual fantasy. And my explanation is kind of mundane, but, at work, the symptom of not asking for a raise hurts you, and in your fantasy, it makes you have fun. So you have no real motive to change it.

After 9/11 there were a lot of theories going around about terror sex, why people were suddenly so promiscuous in the wake of that disaster. You disagreed with most of them.

The most common explanation was that terror sex was a way to fight against death. That was the most sophisticated analysis. Another theory was that fear morphs into sexual excitement, that the two things are close on the spectrum. In my view, neither of those explanations go very deep. What I argued was that there were a couple of things going on: One, it's safer to get turned on after a catastrophe. The paradox is that external danger can increase internal safety. People think they've got nothing to lose. The rules don't apply. You don't have to worry about being rejected, and you don't have to worry about rejecting.

So catastrophes like 9/11 are actually sort of a turn-on?

Yes, my feeling is that when the social rules break down, it frees people up from the internal reflection of those social rules. In a time of disaster, what does it matter? It's not that we're fighting against existential fears of death, it's that since we could die tomorrow, we don't have to worry about hurting each other. You can let it all hang out.

Do any of your patients ever divulge fantasies that are so out there, or so violent or whatever, that you feel like maybe you should try to get them to change them?

The only way that someone's fantasy can be a problem is if somebody can only get turned on if their actual sex life corresponds to their fantasy in a way that makes having satisfying sex with their partner impossible. Like a guy who can't get turned on unless he's tied up and dominated, and a woman who can't get turned on by tying up a guy. Then you have a real problem.

But no, even with the most bizarre fantasies, I'm genuinely fascinated. I don't feel one iota of horror or disgust about it, at all. I'm aware that I'm hearing something that's way out there. But for me it just triggers intense curiosity. And then we try to explore it. And then I'm just so damn curious. I find it delightful, in a way, that the mind can come up with such a thing.

By Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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