Fantasies are fictitious events that one actively imagines or at least allows oneself to imagine. Typically, the person having the fantasy harbors desires for the imaginary events in the fantasy. These desires seem essential for distinguishing fantasies from mere imagining; for a person can easily imagine events for which he or she has little desire. This desire can involve a longing for the objects or events that make up the fantasy, or it can merely involve a curiosity—or what might also be called a daydream—about what a seemingly desirable experience would be like. This does not mean that the events imagined in a fantasy need be what are commonly considered pleasant events, for a fantasy can also portray what may appear to be unpleasant events. For example, although fantasies can involve images such as reclining in a beautiful garden, becoming rich, or the pleasures of being with one’s beloved, a fantasy can also involve being beaten, raped, or even killed.

The fact that such events might normally be seen to be unpleasant does not imply that they are not desired by the person who fantasizes about them. There are persons who have such desires and the fact that someone actively fan tasizes about them suggests that, at some level of awareness, he or she desires to engage in them. Of course, there may be real-life considerations that make the person choose not to turn his or her fantasy into reality. But this suggests only that there are other considerations that are more important than the actualization of the fantasy. Thus, although someone may have a fantasy about being beaten, concerns about the degree of pain, enduring injury, or the social stigma of carrying bruises might be strong enough to weigh against acting on the fantasy.

The reason one must actively imagine— or at least allow oneself to engage in—the contents of the fantasy is that there is also the related phenomenon of apparently unwanted imagery or ideas that seem to force themselves on the person. In those instances the person may have no apparent desire for the imagery or ideas and even seek to block them out of his or her awareness.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard gives an account of what he calls a “spiritual trial” wherein the person is beset, beyond his or her will, with frightening ideas. Freud also gives various accounts of his patients undergoing such experiences. It is unclear, however, whether such events are best described as fantasies rather than as obsessive thoughts. The concept of a fantasy seems to carry with it the notion of actively engaging in—or at least not fleeing from—the imagery or ideas contained in the fantasy. The decision on how to categorize fantasies depends on how one explains their occurrence. In Freud’s view they are only unwanted at a conscious level. At the unconscious level, they are an expression of primitive childhood desires that the person still retains.

A place where fantasies play a role is in romantic love. A component of romantic love seems to be sexual desire; for people in love tend to sexually desire each other. Such desire is intimately connected to sexual fantasies, fantasies that focus on imagery or ideas that the fantasizer finds sexually desirable or arousing. It is because of this connection to sexual desire and arousal that sexual fantasies are often, though not always, engaged in during sexual activity. Fantasy has a well-known relation to masturbation. During masturbation, people typically engage in sexual fantasy. Some persons can even experience orgasm without resorting to masturbation through the sole use of fantasy. Sexual fantasy can also occur during a sexual interaction.

Fantasies play a further role in romantic love because one of the components of such love is fantasy about the beloved. People in love typically fantasize about the person they love, not just sexually, but also about when they will next see the beloved, what they will do together, how it will feel to hear the beloved’s voice, and how their life together will unfold.

Because fantasies are generated by the active imagining of desired events, it is understandable that fantasies are also a significant aspect of many religions. This is because many of the desired events referred to by religions cannot be experienced by a living person—for example, meeting a god or a departed loved one in the afterworld. As a result, the only way to get an idea of what these events would be like is to imagine them. In ancient Greek religion, the dead were believed to descend to Tartarus, cross the river Styx, and abide in the Elysian Fields. Ancient Greeks who would long to see their dead loved ones again might well engage in imagery of their reunion in the Elysian Fields. This would fit the criterion for a fantasy.

Although this last sort of fantasy might well be described as a religious fantasy, it might also be described as a romantic fantasy and even as a sexual fantasy. If, for example, the person engaged in the fantasy of meeting someone in the afterworld is romantically tied to that person and fantasizes about the meeting with romantic feelings, then it is much like a romantic fantasy. If a person engaged in a similar sort of fantasy also fantasizes about sexual interactions with the departed one, then it is much like a sexual fantasy.

The loved or sexually desired person in the religious fantasy does not have to be a dead person, for it can also be a god or supernatural being—the only way to have an idea of what such an event would involve would be to imagine it. Many religions stress the idea of feeling love for God, the gods, or other supernatural beings. In Hinduism there is the practice of bhakti or having love or devotion to a particular god. This is expressed in the myth of the god Krishna and the gopi, or cowherd maidens, who adore him and even have sexual intercourse with him.

Similarly, in Christianity, the love of God or Jesus is considered an ideal. This feature of Christianity finds dramatic expression in the writings of Christian mystics like the Renaissance writer Saint Teresa of Avila. In her autobiography, Teresa describes how the soul goes about “in a state of the greatest need” looking for God. She then describes what she calls her “raptures,” which she says, “the Lord was pleased to grant me.” She experiences the “greatest sweetness and delight,” with her faculties “suspended in joy” (Teresa of Avila 1997). Much of Teresa’s descriptions bear similarities to the experience of romantic love. Consequently, her continual thinking of Jesus, her longing to be with him, and the yearnings and joys she experiences when she thinks of him are not too different from a romantic fantasy. Although Teresa does not refer to imagining any specific sexual acts with Jesus, her descriptions of the experience of desire penetrating her to the very depths while her soul soars upward likewise have something in common with elements in the sexual process.

That this sort of religious fantasy can contain sexual elements is also suggested by Stayton (1980). According to Stayton, many Christian clergy have sexual experiences while contemplating God or Jesus. He gives the case of a Catholic priest who, because of his intimate feelings toward God, would ejaculate while he was meditating about God. This would happen without the stimulus of physical contact. Although Stayton does not refer to the specific content of the priest’s meditations, when we consider that sexual fantasy alone can lead to orgasm, it seems likely that the priest’s experience would involve sexual imagery and thus, besides being a religious fantasy, would also be a sexual fantasy and perhaps even a romantic fantasy. Considering this, it should be clear that distinctions between different sorts of fantasies cannot always be drawn.

Next post:

Previous post: