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Entertaining Fantasies? Don't Worry, Everyone's Doing It


Sometimes during sex, Gina, a happily married woman of 39, mentally morphs her husband into Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme--or a hunka-hunka fusion of all three.

His arms and chest swell into strapping, heave-ho pistons of testosterone-pumping power. She, in turn, feels "tiny," temptingly gorgeous, a boiling Vesuvius of irresistible sexuality.

Like Gina, who asked that her real name not be used, most of us do our share of mental morphing during sex and throughout the day, according to one of the most comprehensive studies to date on sexual fantasies.

The new research examined more than 200 published studies spanning the past 50 years. Psychologist Harold Leitenberg at the University of Vermont and psychologist Kris Henning, now at the University of South Carolina Medical School, found that 95% of people think of sex at least once a day. Gay and straight people have similar fantasies Leitenberg said, only gays' imagined lovers are the same sex.

They also deflate Freud's famous theory that only the sexually deprived fantasize.

"People who have sex dysfunction and the least amount of desire are the ones who are not fantasizing," Leitenberg says. "People who are actively engaged in sex are the ones who think about it all the time."

In two of the studies, researchers found that women and men who reported having satisfied sex lives fantasized more frequently during masturbation, foreplay, intercourse and general daydreaming than individuals with "inhibited sexual desire." Fantasies may be triggered by external cues, hormones, sociobiological wiring or the stimulation of the sex act itself.

What's clear from the research, however, is that women and men have very different ideas about what is sexy. (Men: a sexathon with the Laker Girls. Women: Brad Pitt spouting poetry while grilling salmon sans shirt.)

In a 1990 study surveying more than 300 college students, Donald Symons, an evolutionary chologist at UC Santa Barbara, and Bruce Ellis, now a researcher at the University of Michigan, found that women's fantasies focused on mood, ambience, non-genital touching, and the woman's emotional and physical response to the encounter as well as that of her partner. Women also were more likely to fantasize about someone they were emotionally and romantically involved with or a past lover.

Men, Symons found, reported that the "genital features" of imagined partners in their fantasies were important. Men were much more likely to fantasize themselves as the dominant partner, to imagine multiple sex partners, to emphasize sexually explicit acts carried out in sheer lust and to focus on visual imagery over emotions. Their scenarios were "impersonal" and without attention to detail or the encumbrance of relationships.

In another of the studies, most of the men reported that in the middle of a single fantasy episode they switch partners. A third of men in another study reported that they fantasize about group sex. One man fantasized himself as "mayor of small town filled with nude girls from 20 to 24. I like to take walks and pick out the best-looking one that day, and she engages in intercourse with me. All the women have sex with me any time I want."

But the genders had some erotic daydreams in common--typically about sex with a current, past or imaginary lover in varied venues, involving a variety of sexual practices and positions.

"There is a need in these fantasies to feel tremendously attractive," Leitenberg says. "Women are more likely to have submission fantasies and men are more likely to have dominance fantasies, although both types serve the same purpose ... affirming sexual power and irresistibility."

Like Gina, about 70% of men and women fantasize about somebody else during lovemaking--often an imaginary lover. But fantasy has its price for some people. A study of 178 people who fantasize during sex found that 25% felt guilty about it. They said they felt such fantasizing was immoral, abnormal, socially unacceptable and an indicator that something was wrong with their relationship.

Experts on sexuality recommend saving your guilt for something really immoral.

"There is this old joke Rodney Dangerfield tells where he and his wife are trying to have sex and it's going kind of slow, so he says to his wife, 'What's the matter, you can't think of anyone else either?" quipped Al Cooper, director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre.

"Fantasizing is a way to add something to your sex life ... it's normal," Cooper says. "If you do it in your imagination, you don't have to go out and do it in real life. It does not mean you are not happy. It's like the submission fantasy: You don't want it to happen, but it's kind of a turn-on."

Only a minority of couples share their fantasies, but a study of 2,079 undergraduates from seven countries found that most believed they would not feel jealous if a partner shared erotic fantasies about other people.

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