Sexual Fantasies and the Theory of the “Sex Script”

Warning: Do not read this if you are uncomfortable with topics about sex, fantasies, sexuality, also sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, etc.

I want to start a conversation about sexual fantasies and the shame people feel about them. This is a huge topic, like most of the continuing topics I start and sometimes do not finish. (I intend to post more about the stigma of mental illness and the controversy around mental illness and violence, etc. but I’m taking a break from that topic to write about this very different one…)

In this post, which will probably be longer than intended, I would like to introduce the idea of the “sex script” in connection with people’s sexual fantasies. The information I got about this was reading posts on the internet summarizing this book:The Sex Script Hypothesis:
Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Human Sexuality, by James Park 

Here is the link to the website where you can read more about it:

http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/syn-sex.html

In reading this material, I noticed that I did not agree with some of the conclusions Park makes about people’s sexuality and even about the content of one’s sexual preoccupations. For example, he makes a big blanket statement about men and breasts:

 Female breasts frequently appear in male sex-scripts on all levels: 
Men find women’s breasts of intense sexual interest. 
Some men become sexually aroused when viewing or thinking about breasts. 
And breasts may appear as a strong fantasy object in some men’s orgasms.”

One could read this and get lead on a detour as he is assuming a lot of things that are not for sure true. It is true that for most humans, the breast was the first “preoccupation” we had. It was where we got food and comfort, etc., but women may have just as strong a preoccupation with breasts as men, whatever their sexual orientation, and some men have no interest in breasts or fantasize about other things more often. These blanket statements are annoying, but I still think Park is on to something with his main theory.

The basic idea is that society may create our “sexual scripts” (what is considered stereotypically appropriate for men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to engage in when they have sex or when they masturbate. The “sexual script” in our society is pretty limited, as you can see by watching sex scenes in most mainstream movies. There is not even a societal “sexual script” (which is a kind of narrative, by the way, and why we can discern society’s limited stories about sex from the mainstream media) for bisexual and transgendered and questioning individuals, as society does not really know what the story might be for such people. 

Anyway his point in talking about “sexual scripts” versus the concept of the “sex script” is to point out the difference. Many people do mostly have fantasies that conform to these limited “sex scenes”, however, I would wager that the majority of individuals who engage in sexual fantasy at any age tend to stray from these limited scripts into their own personal “sex script”. The sex script as I understand it is something that kind of gets “imprinted” into the human brain in the first moments of discovering sexuality and/or engaging in sexual contact with others or with oneself. Basically the majority of people’s sex script is formed during puberty, although some people exposed to sex and sexuality at younger ages, have sex scripts that begin at that time. Thus people who have been molested and abused at very young ages, from infancy up to about age 12, may have very disturbing sex scripts or may have sex scripts that mostly contain the things that they find disturbing and not arousing at all. Thus, some people may eliminate certain sexual activity from their fantasies and sex lives as they find they are repulsed by it. On the other hand, even people who experienced sexual abuse at very early ages may, without their control, notice that they are aroused by all kinds of varieties of disturbing fantasies, some of which involve coercion and/or rape or other events they remember from the abuse.

Basically around childhood all the way to age 20, the human brain is still forming, and there are young ages during which the sex script will get imprinted. So men who identify as heterosexual and report no fantasies about homosexual contact, may still fantasies about looking at other men naked, or masturbating with other men, if they were exposed to this in reality or through pornography that they experienced around the time they were aware of having wet dreams and/or masturbating.

The theory of the sex script is useful in that it explains why some couples are mystified by hearing what the other person gets “turned on” by or fantasizes about. In some cases, a person’s regular sex life, whether with one partner or more, may have nothing to do with their sex script. An obvious and common example involves gender and sexual orientation. Some people notice that they prefer to fantasize about being with the same gender though they have never been attracted to someone of the same gender and only have had sexual experiences with the opposite gender. The same can be true of homosexual men and women who may experience heterosexual sex only in their fantasy life. 

I think the main important take away about this, while I want to post about many sub topics, is that the theory of the sex script is most useful for people who have not been able to talk to their partners about their sexual fantasies due to feelings of shame or fears of disgust and rejection by the partner(s). Realizing that your sex script was formed years before you met this person or persons you may be married to or committed can be liberating for this group of people and form a bridge for how to start talking about their fantasies with their partners and sharing. 

It is well documented that people who share their sexual fantasies with each other and have interest in each other’s fantasies tend to have a freer more open and perhaps satisfying sex life with their partner(s). It is never too late to start sharing these “dark secrets” with the people you are sexually intimate with. It needs to be done in an atmosphere of acceptance. The sex script provides the help for such discussions. Knowing that one’s partner may have had sexual experiences with others before one met the person is very different from accepting that one’s partner’s brain was exposed to certain aspects of sexuality in the actual reality of a “strange” sexual experience or exposed to watching or seeing some kinds of sex that are foreign to the other partner. There is some kind of strange assumption people sometimes have that their fantasies are probably similar to their partner’s, or an assumption by people who don’t really engage in fantasy, that their partner is not that preoccupied with it either. There is a lot of misplaced jealousy going on about sexual fantasy and erotica and pornography. There is a great scene in the movie “The Kids Are alright” where one of the kids finds their mothers’ stash of gay male porn and is shocked and freaked out. It may have been a scene where the kid walked in on their parents watching it; I can’t remember. What was great about it was the explanation one or both of the moms gave which was quite brief but pretty groundbreaking for a lot of people who did not know this. Basically she said “Just because we are lesbians doesn’t mean we only like watching women together in our choice of porn..” Anyway, it introduced the idea that sexual orientation and erotica, pornography, and fantasy and even couple’s engaging in watching something together, may have nothing to do with the sexual orientation or gender of the people having these experiences.

There is documentation that  “rape” fantasies are very common. What is interesting about these studies done on women with such fantasies, is that women who fantasize about being raped are actually quite healthy in their sex lives with others and also, that they tend to have a wide variety of fantasies, of which the rape fantasy is only one. So people’s assumptions that rape fantasies are unhealthy are unfounded. It must be emphasized of course that fantasy and reality are extremely different. When a patient tells me about what they consider a taboo fantasy (incest, for example, or random stuff like rubbing up against people in the subway), these are part of their sex script, not their real life. A person may fantasize about all these taboo topics, as well as violent sex and anything else that comes to mind that one might be uncomfortable with oneself. “Why am I aroused by this stuff that is illegal or bad?” Because it is part of your sex script, which you have little control over. When you can understand that fantasy is really a place where “anything goes”, you can be accepting that your partner likes to think about other people, objects, situations etc. that have absolutely nothing to do wtih you or your sex life with your partner, you really have reached an understanding of the concept of the sex script. Healthy couples not only like to share their fantasies, sometimes act them out, or even masturbate together while sharing them, or watch erotica that their partner likes to watch even if it isn’t their “cup of tea”, but also enjoy that their partner shares their sex script with them. Perhaps this is an even more intimate experience than sex itself. It is common for people to notice that they have to ask their partner to do specific things to turn them on or give them an orgasm; most people are not mind readers or body readers, and some people report the best sex to have been with the same person they had bad or mediocre sex with. The difference was the level of openness and communication about what they liked from their partner but also about showing their partner what they like to imagiine, watch or read when they are alone and aroused. It is true that most of “sex” is in the brain, so it makes sense that talking about or showing one’s partner about one’s “sex script” will be helpful. It may be difficult to hear that your partner imagines having sex with specific other people or strangers or having the kind of sex you do not have together, but this has nothing to do with possibiilites of “affairs”. A person can be extremely faithful to their chosen partner or partner(s) and have fantasies that involve behavior that violates whatever “contract” they have about their sex life. And again, this is because we do not have a lot of control over some things that make us sexually excited, and images that we watch or that just enter our brains in adulthood, but we always have control oer our behaviors in reality.

Perhaps the next post on this topic needs to be about pornography and relationships, as this is a big  deal with a lot of couples, and a lot of hurt and pain could be avoided, if people were more educated about the concept of the “sex script”…

4 thoughts on “Sexual Fantasies and the Theory of the “Sex Script”

  1. You mention that people who fantasize about having sex with people other than their partners and different kinds of sex can be extremely faithful. And that people do not have control over what they fantasize about. I would say that while many people who allow themselves to spend time fantasizing about people other than their partners are probably not having sex with anyone else, they are at the very least being unfair. I acknowledge that we can’t help what pops into our minds and what excites us. But when we savor the thoughts of experiences outside of our relationships, then our relationships run a high risk of becoming sub par to our fantasies.

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    • I disagree. The whole idea of fantasy is that it is not real. Most people who have rich fantasy lives that they actually share with their partners have a wide range of fantasies which might or not include their partners. It is more important to notice whether in a relationship the partners share their fantasies or do not talk about them than what the content of them is. In the book I mention, there are people who report having strange repeating fantasies about someone or others different from their partners and they are very committed in their relationships. Fantasies are much more connected to early sexual experience or exposure to sexuality than to your present current sex life…

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