Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Fantasy and sexual motivation

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Fantasy and sexual motivation:
What is the role of fantasy in sexual motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Everybody experiences fantasies, regardless of their disposition. Some fantasise about changing the past. Others fantasies about an ideal future. Fantasies tend to serve a particular purpose to individuals. Fantasising about the ideal life increases an individual's goal-directed motivation. The same may be said about sexual fantasies. Current research has determined that sexual fantasies increase sexual motivation by allowing individuals to fulfil their sexual desires and enhance their sexual experiences. The following book chapter will examine the history of both sexual fantasies and sexual motivation, how they are interlinked, and their importance to the human condition.

To fully understand the role of fantasy in sexual motivation, this book chapter will address 3 main questions:

  • What is sexual motivation?
  • What are fantasies?
  • In what way do fantasies ultimately affect sexual motivation?

What is sexual motivation?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Sexual motivation is defined as the impulse to carry out sexual needs that are generated from an individual's level of sexual interest at any given time (Pfaus, 1999). Sexual motivation helps regulate sexual arousal levels, and compels an individual to seek out, attend to, and evaluate sexual incentives (Singer & Toates, 1986). Historically, sex and sexual motivation has been defined as a basic human need, within Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Figure 1). Sex is in the physiological needs category, along with air, water and food (Maslow, 1943). The importance of sex was also central in the work of Sigmund Freud. Within his theory of psychosexual development, Freud believed sexuality was at the core of the human psyche. He also coined the term "libido", the seeking of pleasure as a major motivating force for human activity (Freud, 1923). Despite the differing opinions relating to the importance of sex to the human experience, most theorists agree that sexual motivation is innately subjective. This means it varies from person to person. Ultimately, sexual motivation is an inferred, internal state influenced by several factors which determines engagement in sexual activity (Toates, 2009).

Theories of sexual motivation[edit | edit source]

There has been a myriad of psychological research pertaining to sex, namely around its importance to humans, as well as how levels of sexual motivation drive or impact individuals. It is important to consider that sexual motivation can be looked at from many theoretical eclecticisms to form a more comprehensive understanding of the function of sexual motivation. An explanation of some of the vast range of sexual motivation theories are as follows:

Beach (1956)

The first systematic analysis of sexual motivation was conducted by Beach (1956), who named the processes underlying sexual behaviour as the Sexual Arousal Mechanism (SAM) and the execution of sexual acts as the Intromission and Ejaculatory Mechanism (IEM). Through this, the SAM became the equivalent to sexual motivation (Agmo, 1999).

Hardy (1964)

In 1964, Hardy attempted to understand sexual motivation by implying sexual urges were incentively motivated. He stated mild stimulation of the genitals, as well as orgasm are inherently pleasurable. Stimuli associated with these events will be received positively and will subsequently be able to activate sexual motivation. This theory focused less on the physiological factors of sexual motivation (Agmo, 1999).

Whalen (1966)

Whalen (1966) then attempted to preserve the role of physiological factors such as hormones by elaborating on Beach's theory (1956) and changing the SAM to arousal and the IEM to arousability (Agmo, 1999).

Toates (2009)

More recently, Toates theorised sexual motivation and sexual behaviour is controlled by a combination of external stimuli and internal cognitive events (Toates, 2009).

Physiology of sexual motivation[edit | edit source]

Sexual motivation can be attributed to a multitude of different physiological factors. Sexual motivation incorporates many brain functions including those for arousal, reward, memory, cognition, self-referential thinking, and social behaviour (Ruesink & Georgiadis, 2017). The brain and other regions within the human body are also responsible for the release of hormones that directly affect an individual's sexual motivation. Hormones have organisational effects that direct the development of male and female sex characteristics, as well as stimulating sexual desire and behaviour. The main hormone that can be linked to sexual motivation is testosterone (Regan, 1999). Testosterone has been positively correlated with sexual thoughts and fantasies in both males and females. Testosterone is found within the adrenal cortex of both men and women, but is also located in the testes in men (Regan, 1999). Estrogen and progesterone have also been linked to motivation, although the link between these hormones and motivation to engage in sexual behaviour is not well understood (Jones et al., 2019). Oxytocin and vasopressin have been proven to regulate both male and female sexual motivation. Oxytocin is released at orgasm and is linked to both sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy. High levels of vasopressin in females may lead to low levels of sexual motivation. In males, vasopressin levels increase during erectile response, and decrease following ejaculation (Carter, 1992).

Figure 2. Masters & Johnson's Four Phase Model

Masters & Johnson's four phase model

To further understand the physiological cycle that occurs during sexual stimulation, Masters and Johnson (1966) created the Human Sexual Response Cycle. Within this model, they identified four distinct phases of physiological arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasmic, and resolution. During the excitement phase, physical or mental erotic stimuli such as kissing, making out, fantasising or viewing erotic images leads to sexual arousal, preparing the body for sexual intercourse (Masters & Johnson, 1966). The plateau phase is the period of the sexual experience before orgasm. During this phase, both sexes experience an increase in heart rate, sexual pleasure, stimulation and muscle tension. Respiration continues at an elevated level (Masters & Johnson, 1966). During the orgasmic phase, orgasm is experienced, accompanied by muscle contraction in the lower pelvic muscles. Orgasms can lead to involuntary actions such as vocalisation and muscle spasms, and increase an individual's heart rate even further. The resolution phase occurs after orgasm and allows the muscles to relax, blood pressure to drop and the body to slow down from its excited state (Masters & Johnson, 1966).

Kaplan's three phase model

In 1979, Kaplan built off Masters and Johnson's (1966) theory by proposing the Three Phase Model. This model incorporated the importance of desire within a sexual encounter, suggesting those who have no desire prior to the encounter will develop desire once the experience has begun (Kaplan, 1979).

Figure 3. Kaplan's Three Phase Model

Measuring sexual motivation[edit | edit source]

The most commonly used tool in assessing sexual motivation is the Sexual Motivation Scale (SMS [Cooper et al., 1998]). The SMS is a self-administered questionnaire that targets sexually active people. It consists of 29 items that evaluate how often an individual has sex for different reasons. The scale measures six factors of sexual motivation: intimacy, enhancement, self-affirmation, coping, peer pressure, and partner approval. All factors are composed of five items, except the last, which has four, and are rated on a Likert scale of 1 = almost never/never to 5 = almost always/always (Cooper et al., 1998). Understanding an individual's sexual motivation is important in determining their sexual behaviour patterns (Barrada et al., 2021).

What are sexual fantasies?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. BDSM is a popular form of sexual fantasy that involves the use of bondage.

Sexual fantasies are those deliberate acts of imagination that produces sexual desire or arousal in an individual (Seehuus et al., 2019). Sexual fantasies are often seen as "deviant", however, are actually a healthy component of ones sex life (Tortora et al., 2020). Most individuals report using sexual fantasies in their sexual activity, during masturbation, and when daydreaming. These sexual fantasies may be any kind of mental image that acquires an erotic or sexual meaning for the person involved in the sexual activity. Both psychosocial and biological variables play an important role in the development of sexual fantasies (Sierra et al., 2009).

Theories of sexual fantasies[edit | edit source]

Understanding an individual's sexual fantasies is important, as these fantasies are better predictors of their sexual interests than their behaviour (Seehuus et al., 2019). Sexual fantasies are considered a paramount aspect of sexual expression, and are an effective way for individuals to satisfy their sexual needs and wants (Noorishad et al., 2019). The following theories are paramount in understanding fantasies and their role in the human experience.

Freud (1908)

Freud proposed that fantasies are composed around a multitude of repressed desires, fears, and drives. However, the individual's attempt to repress these innate desires, while simultaneously experiencing them, opens up a third persona, whereby multiple entries into fantasy can be created (Freud, 1908). Freud stated that fantasies are always centered around the individual experiencing them, and that they are mostly a representation of conscious or pre‐conscious ideations, expressed through daydreams, infantile play or family romances. They contain erotic desires with strong emphasis on power and ambitions (Weiss, 2017).

Klein (1930)

Klein elaborated on Freud's model by adopting the idea of unconscious fantasy, however, incorporating her extensive work with children and childhood fantasies, broadening the idea of fantasies considerably. She emphasised that fantasies and experience interact to form the developing intellectual and emotional characteristics of an individual. Further, Klein stated unconscious fantasies form the basis of psychology, therefore concluding fantasies shape thoughts, dreams, symptoms, and patterns of defense (Weiss, 2017).

Isaacs (1952)

In 1948, Isaacs built on Klein’s theory to construct a conceptual framework for the study of emotional and cognitive development. Unlike what was seen in Freud's work, Isaacs claimed fantasy was present from the beginning of life. She theorised that fantasies are rudimentary thought processes by which object relations, language and self-awareness are born. Isaacs also believed fantasies could not exist without a relation to drive, and they are a true representation of the subject’s psychic reality, rather than simple wish fulfilment (Weiss, 2017).

Common sexual fantasies[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Popular Gear Used During BDSM and S&M

Results from a survey conducted by Lehmiller (2018) concluded there are seven main fantasy themes that humans experience. These are as follows:

Multi-partner sex

Multi-partner sex is the act of engaging in sexual activities with two or more people within a specific time period. This may include sexual activity between people of a different gender or the same gender. Multi-partner sexual fantasies are popular amongst individuals, namely because they provoke ideas within the individual about being wanted by multiple people at once. Multi-partner sex is also considered a highly sensorial experience.

Power, control, or rough sex

Two of the most popular forms of powerful, controlling and rough sex are Sadism and Masochism (S&M) and Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, and Submission (BDSM). S&M is the practice of using pain to elicit a sexual response. BDSM is a variety of often erotic practices or roleplaying involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, and other related interpersonal dynamics. Certain roleplay that is often viewed as inappropriate (such as boss/employee) are also included within this category.

Novelty, adventure, and variety

Fantasies within this category include thoughts of incorporating new sexual activities, or even new sexual locations. This type of fantasy is popular as it invokes feelings of adrenaline, which can be sexually stimulating for some. These fantasies are also common for those in long-term relationships in order to avoid feelings of boredom or repetitiveness within sexual lives.


Non-monogamy refers to non-dyadic relationships that do not adhere to the standards of monogamy. Unlike infidelity, non-monogamy is consensual among all parties involved. Although some individuals fantasise about their own non-monogamy, others fantasise about cuckolding, which is the act of letting your partner sleep with another individual, but only to either watch as it is happening or hear about the details later on.

Taboo and forbidden sex

Taboo or forbidden sex refers to those sexual acts that may be viewed as strange or less understood by the general population. Some examples of taboo sexual fantasies include fantasising about licking someone's feet, being attracted to inanimate objects, or being aroused by the washing of someone's hair. Fantasies around forbidden sex may include a sexual attraction to a family member, exhibitionism, or voyeurism.

Passion and romance

Passion and romance fantasies incorporate the desires of an individual to be treated in a favourable manner. Romantic gestures such as candlelit dinners or eye contact during sex can make an individual believe they are significant to their partner. Often those who fantasies about passion and romance are not receiving this treatment in real life.

Erotic flexibility

Erotic flexibility includes both gender bending fantasies and sexual fluidity fantasies. These fantasies allow individuals to explore different aspects of their sexual desires that they don't often allow themselves to explore.

Although the seven fantasy themes stated above are considered the most popular according to the works of Lehmiller (2018), there are a multitude of sexual fantasies in addition that may also be explored.

Measuring sexual fantasies[edit | edit source]

Various methods of self-reporting have been developed to evaluate sexual fantasies, including the Sexual Daydreaming Scale (SDS; Giambra, 1977), the Male Sexual Fantasy Questionnaire (MSFQ; Smith & Over, 1991), the Female Sexual Fantasy Questionnaire (FSFQ; Meuwissen & Over, 1991), the Hurlbert Index of Sexual Fantasy (Hurlbert & Apt, 1993), and the Sex Fantasy Questionnaire (SFQ; Wilson, 1978). However, sexual fantasies are not externally observable, meaning they are difficult to measure, as a researcher cannot confirm or deny the content of an individual's thoughts. The reliability of self-report measures pertaining to something as personal as sexual fantasies is often questioned. Self-reports are inexpensive and efficient, and easily integrated into online survey platforms – making their use popular (Paulhus & Vazire, 2007). However, this also presents disadvantages, as participants’ motivation to manage their impressions can impact the accuracy of their self-reporting. Participants may ‘fake good’ or ‘fake bad’ with the purpose of pleasing the researcher, also known as social desirability bias (Paulhus & Vazire, 2007). According to Link and Phelan (2001), stigma reduces a person's status in the eyes of society and marks the boundaries a society creates between ‘normals’ and ‘outsiders’. Because of this, individuals are less likely to expose their fantasies out of fear of experiencing things like discrimination and violence, and loss of security clearances, inheritances, jobs, and custody of children.

In what way do fantasies affect sexual motivation?[edit | edit source]

Based on critical analysis of current and historical literature, it is evident that sexual fantasies increase sexual motivation in individuals, therefore fulfilling their sexual desires. Sexual fantasies are considered an important component of a healthy sex life, typically enhancing sexual experiences (Tortora et al., 2020). According to Leitenberg and Henning (1995), individuals who show the highest sexual activity and fewer problems in their personal lives experience the most sexual fantasies. Further, having fantasies has also been positively linked to sexual arousability (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995).

Case study[edit | edit source]

The case study below will be used to exemplify how sexual fantasies may negatively affect an individuals' sexual motivation:

The problem with sexual fantasies: A case study

A young adult female presented for treatment as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Jane Doe (JD)* had been sexually and physically abused by a family member from the age of five to adolescence. She endured mostly genital stimulation and penetration. JD presented with clear post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, also reported unwanted sexual fantasies pertaining to sexual abuse. She stated she was unable to achieve orgasm with a partner or during masturbation without the intrusion of sexual fantasies involving being personally dominated and harmed, remembering her own sexual abuse, or imagining the sexual abuse of another child. After successful treatment of her PTSD, JD reported she was still experiencing unwanted sexual fantasies, resulting in deep feelings of guilt, and shame. Treatment consisted of self-applied aversion therapy to unwanted sexual arousal to sexual abuse cues. Decrease in sexual arousal to these cues was concurrent with the introduction of treatment, resulting in a decrease in feelings of guilt and shame and an increase in feelings of control.

*The above case study was adapted from research conducted by Wilson and Wilson (2008). Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

According to theorists, sexual motivation:

varies from person to person.
is the same for every person.

The main hormone that can be linked to sexual motivation in males and females is:


Fantasies affect sexual motivation by:

Increasing levels of sexual motivation in individuals
Enhancing sexual experiences
Increasing sexual arousability
All of the above

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Sexual motivation is defined as the impulse to carry out sexual needs that are generated from an individual's level of sexual interest at any given time. There have been a myriad of sexual motivation theories, with the most recent concluding that sexual motivation and sexual behaviour is controlled by a combination of external stimuli and internal cognitive events. Sexual motivation can be attributed to a multitude of different physiological factors. The brain and other regions within the human body are also responsible for the release of hormones that directly affect an individual's sexual motivation. These hormones are testosterone, oxytocin and vasopressin. Oestrogen and progesterone have also been linked to motivation, although the link between these hormones and motivation to engage in sexual behaviour is not well understood. Sexual fantasies are those deliberate acts of imagination that produce sexual desire or arouse in an individual. There are seven main fantasy themes that humans can experience: multi-partner sex; power, control or rough sex; novelty, adventure, and variety; non-monogamy; taboo and forbidden sex; passion and romance; and erotic flexibility. Both sexual motivation and fantasies are typically measured using self-report. Although measuring sexual fantasies allows researchers to understand what motivates sexual acts, self-report measures on topics pertaining to sex can create problems like social desirability bias. Current literature suggests that sexual fantasies are a healthy aspect of ones sex life, and having these fantasies positively increases an individuals' sex drive. Further understanding on the effects of fantasies on sexual motivation that is gender specific is paramount in developing a clear understanding on the topic as a whole.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Agmo, A. (1999). Sexual motivation—an inquiry into events determining the occurrence of sexual behavior. Behavioural Brain Research, 105(1), 129–150.

Barrada, J. R., Castro, Á., Fernández-del-Río, E., & Ramos-Villagrasa, P. J. (2021). Motives to have sex: Measurement and correlates with sociodemographic, sexual life, and psychosexual characteristics. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 645493–645493.

Beach, F.A. (1956). Characteristics of masculine sex drive. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1-31. University of Nebraska Press.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204–232.

Carter, C. S. (1992). Oxytocin and sexual behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 16(2), 131–144.

Cooper, M. L., Shapiro, C. M., & Powers, A. M. (1998). Motivations for sex and risky sexual behavior among adolescents and young adults: A functional perspective. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 75, 1528–1558. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.6.1528

Freud, S. (1908b). Creative writers and day‐dreaming. SE 9:155–66.

Freud, S. (1923). Psychoanalysis and libido theory. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 18, 235–259. Hogarth Press.

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Noorishad, P.G., Levaque, E., Byers, E. S., & Shaughnessy, K. (2019). More than one flavour: University students’ specific sexual fantasies, interests, and experiences. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 28(2), 143–158.

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Regan, P.C. (1999). Hormonal correlates and causes of sexual desire: A review. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 8(1), 1-16. <>

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Seehuus, M., Stanton, A. M., & Handy, A. B. (2019). On the content of “real-world” sexual fantasy: Results from an analysis of 250,000+ anonymous text-based erotic fantasies. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(3), 725–737.

Sierra, J. C., Ortega, V., & Zubeidat, I. (2006). Confirmatory factor analysis of a Spanish version of the sex Fantasy Questionnaire: Assessing gender differences. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 32(2), 137–159.

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Tortora, C., D’Urso, G., Nimbi, F. M., Pace, U., Marchetti, D., & Fontanesi, L. (2019). Sexual fantasies and stereotypical gender roles: The influence of sexual orientation, gender and social pressure in a sample of Italian young-adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2864–2864.

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Wilson, J. E., & Wilson, K. M. (2008). Amelioration of sexual fantasies to sexual abuse cues in an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse: A case study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39(4), 417–423.

External links[edit | edit source]