We are currently involved in a national dialogue about sexual harassment, abuse, rape, and molestation, of young people, employees, job applicants, and others who are vulnerable to the abuses of power. Many of us are reading horrifying stories daily about perversity, and the ways people in power have put others in sexually compromising positions. The accusations amount to sexual harassment, and in many cases criminal activity.
There is an aspect of this conversation that I haven’t seen us have yet. The acts in question, both those considered perverse, and ones related to power, are used routinely, in sexual fantasy, pornography, and sexual role-play between consenting adults.
Current news is filled with accusations and testimonies of unwanted groping, public masturbation, and power being used to dominate and humiliate others in sexually explicit ways. As disturbing as this is, and it is incredibly disturbing, the scenarios these powerful men are enacting are quite common in sexual desire…as fantasy.
Sexual fantasy, used in masturbation, or thought about during sex, or enacted in role play scenarios between consenting adults, is filled with power play. Themes of sexual dominance and submission, again, in fantasy or play between consenting adults, are fairly common.
Not just in what many would consider extreme “Mr. Grey” sadomasochistic perversity and enactments, average people have a large assortment of fantasies that have them shaming or being shamed, humiliated or humiliating, dominating or being dominated, taking or being taken. It isn’t the fantasies that are bad. It isn’t even the enactment that is bad, as long as it is between consenting adults who have agreed to “play” certain roles.
One, on the heels of so many nonconsensual, harassing, and illegal acts of sexual dominance in the news, to assure the average reader that just because your fantasies are filled with power play doesn’t make you a disturbed, deranged person. And two, to try to explain why our fantasies are so “perverse.”
To start, though, we have to separate three things: fantasy, consensual enactment/role-play, and sexual harassment/abuse/rape/unsolicited sexual contact/context. This article is in no way an attempt to normalize or deem acceptable any of the horrid accusations and testimonies of people who have unwillingly been subjected to the enactment of powerful men’s fantasies. Their actual real-life power over their subjects was used to immobilize them and subject them to unwanted activities, and they should be publicly shamed, real-world impacted, and some jailed for their behaviors.
Very few of us share our sexual fantasies with others. A sign of a healthy couple is that they have been able to tell each other what their desire looks like, and maybe even find ways to incorporate aspects of it into their sex lives. What makes this difficult for couples to do is that our sexual fantasies, like the ones we use for masturbation or enacted in the pornography we use, are rarely about “making love”. They are things like using debasing language, being spanked or getting to spank, getting peed on or spit on, getting tied up or tying up your partner, taking risks of getting publicly caught, using and being used. These fantasies center around the execution of power, and in our daily clothed lives, we are likely less extreme in our desire to dominate or be dominated.
An example that disturbs the woman who doesn’t understand it: rape fantasies. Let me be clear. No one wants to be raped. This is about fantasy. This article will explain later why such a disturbing real-world horror can live inside us as a turn-on in fantasy or consensual sex play. But in fantasy, of which the fantasizer has total and complete control, it is not unusual for women, and some men, to play with scenarios of being raped or forced to do sexual acts. Even women who have been raped might do this, though usually not using their actual experience. The rape scenario allows the fantasizer to mentally play with the idea of helplessness, not having to claim her own desire. Some couples, and some in kinky communities, might even create an agreed upon scene to enact a staged “rape” scenario.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is your parents. I know Freudian Oedipal theories are poo-pooed in contemporary circles, but hear this radical feminist, educated in analytic theory, out. Let me lay out, step by step, a theory that links sex to power and shame and secrecy and perversion. In my layout, set aside who is what gender or eventual sexual orientation as there are many variables that inform who gets attached to/identifies with whom.
Our primary caretaker, usually our mother, is the light of our lives in infancy. She is everything. As long as our primary caretaker is minimally present, they are our universe and we rely on and love them and believe them to be an extension of our selves. When we start to realize they aren’t us, we still think they belong to us. Enter second parent.
If we had a second caretaker, they were likely present from the start, but it takes a while for an infant to take in two entities, so two primary caretakers kind of meld into one, and if one is secondary, they only get taken in as a relevant and separate entity as the infant enters toddlerhood.
At first, the second caretaker is a source of curiosity, perceived as being a completely separate being, as opposed to the primary, who was once part of the infant and still belongs to them. The secondary caretaker is also particularly fascinating as someone who comes and goes from the home base more than the primary, on their own, and returns bearing the scent of the world.
But as any parent of a toddler knows, at some point, the toddler realizes that the secondary parent wants its own relationship with the primary parent, that excludes the toddler. They are not having any of it. When the secondary dares to try to hug or sit with the primary, in a way that doesn’t make the child front and center, the child will literally insert himself in between the two. Toddlers will say things that we think are so cute, like “mine” in reference to the primary, or “go away” to the secondary.
While toddlers are not aware of sex (some theorists disagree on this point but I am going with the symbolic versus concrete) they are aware of love, ownership, bodies, possession, and are quickly connected to envy, jealousy, protection, even hate. They believe they own the primary, are the only centrally important relationship the primary has, and will fight to keep it that way. Toddlers with siblings believe they are more important to the primary than their siblings. The siblings believe it too since infants require more time/care, and sibling rivalry is born out of rivalry for the attention/affections of the parents.
Envy, rivalry, and moments of hate of the secondary for their attempts to access the primary are benign compared to what happens when infants realize that the primary also wants access to and loves the secondary. That is when betrayal enters the scene. And as the growing toddler/child starts to realize that the parental couple has their own separate connection to each other, love/romance/sex/bodies/shared bed/private jokes/hand holding connection, that they are inherently excluded from, due to age/generation/maybe gender/familial role, and that the primary does not belong to them but is actually united with the secondary, the betrayal is complete.
Okay. I know this might sound too dramatic and black and white and tumultuous to be believed. But stay with me for a bit longer. What if this is happening, not every moment of the day, and not always out in the open, like when the toddler gets in between the parental couple on the couch and pushes them apart? What if the child isn’t even always quite aware it of what they are experiencing, but that their unconscious is trying to figure out their world and why they used to feel at one with the primary and are suddenly aware that the primary has a total world outside of them? What if feelings like hate and betrayal and envy are like background noise that leave a kid feeling weepy or vulnerable or crabby sometimes, are not fully formulated in thoughts, but are feelings they don’t know how to give voice to or understand.
At some point in childhood, and analytic theorists argue about exactly when, these relational realizations become attached to an increasing awareness of sex itself. Again, in perhaps an often background way, certainly in a partially unconscious way, children start to realize that adults express their connection with each other sexually, and that as children, they do not have access to that form of expression. They come to understand that due to their familial relationships with their parents, their parents will always be off limits to them in this unique expression of connection.
Kids do not necessarily have concrete thoughts like “I want to have sex with my parent” or “I am mad at my parent for having sex with my other parent” or “I want to hurt my parent for having sex with anyone but me” or “I am worried my father is hurting my mother when he is on top of her.” In fact, by teenage years the thought of parents having sex with each other is still revolting and disturbing and kids don’t want to think that their parents are capable of sex. That is because they have managed to suppress, sublimate, disown any sexual/possession feelings they used to have about their parents because we understand those thoughts are taboo. Our unconscious though…it never forgets those desires.
These are general translations, about common fantasies, but there are nuances and particularities in our personal sexual fantasies that are specific to our early familial relationships. If we are brave, we can untangle the symbolic meaning embedded in our sexual desires and uncover sublimated oedipal frustrations. The purpose of analyzing our sexual desires would be to see if we could better come to terms with an oedipal resolution, which is essential when the child realizes that although they are excluded from their parents particular union, the union feeds them in a way that allows for the generation of love that the child is a direct beneficiary of, and that they too will one day form a generative union.
While sexual fantasy is worth unpacking, it is also worth enjoying. Whether it stays in your head to be used during masturbation or during sex to mobilize or heighten your experience, or gets shared with a sexual partner in whispers as part of additional stimulation, fantasy can be fun to play with.
Some folks, as couples, or as part of a sex play “kinky” community, share their fantasies with others and negotiate a scripted scene that allows them to safely enact a desired scenario. This happens between consenting and interested adults, who make clear boundaries about what they do and do not want to do or have done, and have safe language that allows them to end such encounters if they end up feeling differently than imagined.
While some folks might have moral judgment about sexual fantasies regarding power and degradation, it is quite common/normal/harmless. The move to enact it on a nonconsenting other is why so many men are currently rightly losing their jobs and our respect.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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