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”…

Polyamory and The Prejudices Against It

Ok. This is not going to be scholarly or exhaustive. Wikipedia covers so much information about this lifestyle choice including guidelines for therapists working with polyamorous patients, a topic I will touch upon in this post.

I do confess that I was quite ignorant about this topic until I started working with a polyamorous or “poly” patient, a young woman, a few years ago, and then I got interested as I learned a lot from her and others. I have worked with LGBTQ people who are polyamorous as well as heterosexuals who are polyamorous; there isn’t any difference in the philosophy or approach to relationships based on your sexuality, as polyamory is concerned with the topic of relationships between humans, more than sexuality and sexual or gender identity.

I approached the topic with an open and curious mind from the beginning and did not fall into the therapist trap of thinking that polyamory was an issue to be addressed as some kind of “problem”, but more that it would be a part of her discussion of her relationship issues. I was not unaware of this kind of lifestyle but had not gotten the chance to see it up close and learn about it.

As I said there are many scholarly studies as well as organizations, etc. around this topic. I just want to address the major misconceptions and stereotypes our monogamy oriented society has created towards polyamory. Imagine the President of the United States being an open polyamorous person. Once you do that, if you can even imagine it being possible right now in our current society, you can imagine the mainstream culture about so called family values’ view of it… Our society seems to expect the president to be married anyway, so the concept of a “single” president is just as foreign. Here are some misconceptions and “stereotypes” related to this minority group:

1. Polyamory is the same thing as polygamy.
Nope. Polygamy usually involves a man married to or involved with and cohabitating with multiple women and in rare minorities a woman with several male partners/husbands. The only thing in common here is that both groups exist in subcultures that accept and ascribe to these lifestyles. Polyamorous individuals emphasize equality in relationships, so a person may have multiple lovers or partners, but his or her partners usually also have multiple partners. It by definition is against there being a double standard in relationships. Gender equality is another big part if it. So actually polyamory is a very good approach towards no tolerance of any double standards, such as “I can love/be with others but she cannot…”

2. Leading directly to another common falsity, namely that polyamorous people are polyamorous in order to be promiscuous, or that polyamory is mainly about sex and being able to have sex with a lot of people.
The very term polyamory derives from “poly” meaning many and the amorous part means love, thus “many loves”. While many polyamorous people have a healthy sex life, most people who choose this lifestyle think of themselves as having and maintaining several romantic relationships at the same time and are more focused on the whole relationship, and not just the sexual aspects of the relationship. In fact many of the people who don’t choose this lifestyle are more promiscuous, for example, individuals who are single but choose to have sex with a lot of people or some people who suffer from sex addictions. Some sex addicts will have multiple sex partners in the span of a day or two. Some sex addicted individuals are in “monogamous” relationships but are actually leading a double life and secretly having many sexual encounters with strangers. In contrast, a polyamorous individual tends to be focused on getting to know a new person as a prospective romantic partner and, while s/he may be having sex with several lovers, these are actual relationships, not anonymous encounters. Each person involved is aware of the other person’s relationships and this kind of lifestyle tends to be concerned with openness and honesty, so secretive behavior is not sought out or encouraged. If your partner tells you about going on a date with someone else and you are accustomed to this type of behavior and would do the same, you are not very likely to be invested in secretive behavior.

3. Here is another false idea about polyamory: Most polyamorous people are gay men, thus even implying a stereotype that gay men do not like or engage much in monogamy. Well we know this is not true. First of all,many women of whatever sexuality are polyamorous too as are heterosexual men. In addition, this is quite false as LGBTQ populations are right now fighting for the right to get married and be thus recognized by society for being in monogamous relationships. Yes it is true that in places like New York, many gay men are comfortable with “open” relationships, not requiring complete monogamous fidelity. However, it is a big leap from being in a serious relationship and engaging in sex on the side once in a while that is tolerated or enjoyed by your partner and/or engaging in other sorts of casual sex in an open relationship to being polyamorous. The former that I described may be more common among some gay men, but it is an example of precisely how far that behavior is from polyamory. Also of course, there are plenty of gay men who are very monogamous anyway.

4. Anyway we now come to a very common misconception in our monogamy oriented society, that a polyamorous relationship is the same thing as an “open” relationship. Here the terms are confused. Basically all polyamorous relationships could be considered “open relationships” but not all open relationships are polyamorous. The contract in a typical so called open relationship is a rather vague permission from each partner for the other to be with other partners. Polyamorous relationships are more structured and involve a more complete concrete and detailed contract between multiple people. Which leads to misconception number 4, a bad trap most people fall into out of ignorance or plain prejudice.

5. Polyamorous people are in multiple love relationships at the same time because they aren’t equipped with the ability to communicate well in relationships and don’t take loving long-term relationships seriously. Very wrong. Quite the contrary; many polyamorous people have much better communication skills than monogamous couples. As such relationships involve establishing ground rules and a kind of very spelled out no secrets contract between each individual and couple, communication
in an open and honest way is a given most if the time, as well as a necessity for people leading this lifestyle to be comfortable in their relationships. Many polyamorous people have highly developed skills at communicating and working things out in their relationships, as jealousy is not clouding their judgment. This is a long topic, so suffice it to say that often the frustrations a very good communicator faces in being polyamorous is dealing with people who are new to it or who do not live up to the principle of all parties involved understanding the agreements… Sometimes a monogamy oriented person thinks they can be polyamorous but actually hasn’t thought it out enough and really is not able to follow the main principles of it. That is why most “poly” people look for other people that are very much identified as poly because there will be less misunderstandings. For obvious reasons monogamy and polyamory just do not mix at all because they represent opposing philosophy. Yet I would propose that there is plenty of room in our society for both lifestyles to coexist better if these misconceptions I am listing here were to get cleared up. In addition society would have to value them equally. That will take a while. Just take President Kennedy and his clan as an example of monogamy in its worst aspects. Cheating, double lives, the fantasy of “Camelot” of the Kennedy presidency. Not sure I’ve read exactly how many sexual partners he squeezed into his lifetime…

6. Monogamy is the be all and end all, and polyamorous people are simply unable to be monogamous. This is patently false. Some polyamorous people have tried out monogamy and simply found it limiting or just that this lifestyle was not for them, and so they chose to be polyamorous as it was their preference, not a judgment about monogamy or an inability to be monogamous. Polyamorous people, whatever their sexuality, often have a “primary” relationship that may last longer and be taken more seriously than their other romantic relationships, but usually the philosophy is that one can live or be in love with more than one “life” partner at the same time without trivializing any of these relationships. To simplify, polyamory is really by definition the opposite of monogamy, in the sense that many monogamous people believe there is “the one” out there, while polyamorous people place less importance on this kind of “soul mate” philosophy. So called “serial monogamists” tend to operate under the principle that each of their relationships is an attempt at being with the one love of one’s life, and the final one that “works out” ie. doesn’t end, is the one person one is meant to be with, or else the best choice possible. One could argue that a person who is in one serious relationship followed by another is not that different from a polyamorous person. The polyamorous person simply chooses to engage in more than one relationship at a time. A monogamous person could end up having more relationships than a polyamorous person in a lifetime. A side note, people also commonly think incorrectly that polyamory has some kind of emphasis on quantity over quality.

7. Polyamorous people are mostly into group sex and other types of “kinky” behavior. Some are, but plenty of polyamorous people do not engage in that kind of behavior. Some monogamous couples engage in this kind of behavior so it is not exclusive to any particular lifestyle choice.

8. If a polyamorous person goes to therapy, they probably need to examine their lifestyle and figure out what causes them to “not be able” to be monogamous or even that the person needs to try to change this choice if lifestyle. While this sounds ridiculous, you would be surprised at how many therapists out there think polyamory is some kind of deviant behavior that must have roots in the persons upbringing or sexual development or related to the persons parents failed relationships or something like that. This misconception sounds a lot like the old one where a parent might bring their son or daughter to therapy to make them “not gay”. Unfortunately this used to be common.

In any case, when a polyamorous individual chooses to engage in therapy, most often the reasons are the same as with anyone else, ie. issues around anxiety, depression, creative blocks and career issues, and low self-esteem (this low self-esteem is about the individual’s struggles with negative self-image and has little to do with being polyamorous, by the way…) Of course when you’re in therapy your relationships with your parents and other family members often get discussed as do your romantic relationships and your own comfort with your sexuality. However the emphasis is on each particular relationship with each individual. In some cases a polyamorous person will find him or herself involved with someone claiming to be polyamorous but actually not following the principles around ground rules and openness. So someone may come to therapy and say that s/he stopped dating a person after they discovered that this person’s partner was unaware that’s/he was dating that person. Some people claim to be polyamorous and may consciously think they want to be, but might not truly understand what it involves and are actually not cut out for the kind of open communication this lifestyle tends to require or lend itself to.

9. Polyamorous people are abnormal because they don’t get jealous or possessive, otherwise known as the false idea that monogamy is the best way to live and the best kind of relationship to have. Also not true. Our society finds it easier to follow this mainstream idea that one should aspire to loving one person and walking into the sunset with that “soul mate”. While it is true that people who really are polyamorous do not get jealous or possessive most of the time, this is not abnormal, it is simply different. If you want to stretch your mind, one could even posit the idea that ideally individuals would be neither jealous nor possessive. Indeed, imagine if society dictated that you should only have one child as people having two or more children were thought to be incapable of loving two or more children at the same time. To most people that sounds crazy, or we would live in a society where having only one child was the way to go. In a sense polyamorous people simply believe that they can and do have romantic and sexual feelings for more than one person at the same time and also do not mind if their lovers or partners also do the same. To some extent most people tend to try to decrease their jealousy and possessiveness anyway as these qualities usually do not help one to have a healthy and equal relationship with a partner. Perhaps polyamorous people are actually just better at putting this principle in action, or perhaps I am now suggesting that monogamy turns out to be a choice for people who simply are unable to love another one the way that polyamorous people are, that monogamy is simply easier, less challenging and just happens to be the norm, and we could “take a page from their book” as the saying goes…