Something seen within nearly every human culture across human history is the expression of our taboo sexual fantasies through fiction, art and music. And often, too. It seems only natural to use the arts as an outlet for sexual fantasies or feelings of attraction that would be potentially dangerous, impossible, or immoral to seek out in reality. It’s so common I’d wager that even you reading this article have had taboo fantasies of your own!
So why then do we find ourselves time and time again being asked: Are taboo sexual fantasies potentially dangerous? Are they a reflection of one’s moral character? Are they enabling harmful behaviours or mocking victims of abuse?
Not only is fantasy a safe, healthy outlet for those of us with risky or potentially immoral desires, it’s well-documented how survivors of sexual trauma frequently find fantasy an invaluable therapeutic tool. Regardless of if our taboo fantasies and paraphilic interests are endogenic or traumagenic in origin we are still thinking, feeling individuals. No less capable of thinking about the feelings of others than anyone else. No attraction is determined based upon a capacity for empathy, or lack thereof. If anything, people who have paraphilia that could be potentially harmful if fulfilled in reality demonstrate a healthy and well-developed sense of empathy by seeking harm-free outlets preferentially.
Instructor of psychology and sociology Casey Lytle had this to say regarding taboo sexual fantasies on their TikTok:
What can I say about you personally or your actual sexual behavior by the sexual fantasies you have? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because sexual fantasy is a completely controlled environment in which you control who’s there, what they’re doing, how they feel about it, how you’re responding to it, you can stop having the fantasy at any moment, and there’s no lingering effects in the real world or consequences in the real world.
In a follow-up video, Casey Lytle addresses the following comment he received: “this is not true. what about fantasies of rping kids? harming people? they have literally been correlated w sex acts T.T”
Casey Lytle had this to say in reply:
Well I’m glad you brought that up, because the directionality of that correlation can be problematic. Because it’s the same problem we have with criminal profiling in that that data comes from people who’re known to have engaged in the behavior and been caught. Not from everyone who has the fantasy. Violent, anti-social, and general taboo fantasies are extremely common. In fact, they’re thought to be a normal way for the brain to process emotion and vent in a safe scenario without engaging in the behavior.
In a fictional space we are free to explore and express even our most stigmatized feelings of attraction, romance, and arousal. All without the anxiety that we might be putting ourselves or anyone else in harm’s way. Like a rollercoaster, it provides all the thrill associated with danger, knowing all the while there’s no real risk.
For survivors of trauma, fantasy provides an array of therapeutic benefits. As a coping mechanism it offers us an opportunity to regain a feeling of agency and control over the pain and anxiety entangled with our traumatic memories and experiences. We can “rewrite” our traumatic moments such that we have full control over the story to change, add or omit whichever details we wish. We can use fictional characters as surrogates through which we can explore, examine and engage with our trauma from a safe distance.
This “fictionalization” of our own painful memories is not an attempt to alter them or gaslight ourselves into believing our fictionalizations over our real pain. Far from it. By deconstructing our trauma and recontextualizing it within a controlled, simulated environment like fantasy we can more easily compartmentalize the feelings associated with those painful experiences. The fictionalization of our trauma and the compartmentalization of the associated pain disconnects the pain from the experience just enough to make unpacking our trauma more palatable. When we’ve rewritten our painful memories to suit our needs and project that onto fictional characters, we can explore that trauma not as the victims of it OR as merely a passive audience to it, but as the director with full authority over the story, how it’s told, and how it ends. Then once we’re satisfied with our work, we can close the book and put our fantasies back on the shelf until we want or need them again.
Fantasy has been widely acknowledged for its therapeutic benefits by mental health professionals for some time now. Naturally, it can initially be very painful to revisit these traumatic memories through fantasy. The long-term effects of recontextualizing our trauma through fiction and art however are intriguing. Participants of research into the therapeutic benefits of fantasy found their academic and work performance had improved, they suffered less symptoms of chronic depression, and that these improvements to their quality of life lasted months or years after the study, as described by Jamie Pennebaker’s 1997 paper in Psychological Science.
Okay, so it’s well established that fantasy can be both an effective therapeutic tool, but what about as a harmless outlet for highly stigmatized attractions?
There are several ways!
When people are left without healthy means of expressing these powerful, recurring feelings or shamed into repressing them, a kind of psychological cage is built. Always on alert to police our thoughts and fantasies of anything that could be potentially impure. In this mental prison we become both the jailed and the jailer; trapped in a stalemate between constant vigilance and avoidance. Feeling trapped and unable to trust our own thoughts or feelings leads to emotional and mental exhaustion, or burnout. Resulting in harm to both mental and physical health. We become foggy minded, anxious and begin to isolate both physically and psychologically. People put to their emotional limits may become impulsive, irrational and self-destructive.
An example of the relationship between stigma, shame and low levels of psychological well-being is detailed within one 2020 study, “The Internalization of Social Stigma Among Minor-Attracted Persons: Implications for Treatment” by R. Lievesley, C.A. Harper, and H. Elliot. One particularly noteworthy finding was that high levels of shame and hopelessness predicted a lower likelihood of seeking help, while also indicating a greater desire for a support network. While this may seem contradictory at first glance, consider being put in the position of wanting help for something, yet the mere act of opening up about it could easily lead to ostracization should word get out. The study further noted that research participants who exhibited these high levels of internalized stigmatization were more likely to actively avoid children. But I further suggest the possibility that participants exhibiting higher levels of internalized shame and guilt would be more likely to be avoidant of all social contact as a symptom of the detrimental effect stigma has on overall psychological well-being.
But as in all things, there is hope. Dr. Lindsey Doe host of YouTube channel Sexplanations had this to say in an episode about VirPed.org:
I’ve been looking for this very resource because people who feel ashamed or afraid to talk about their sexualities tend to hurt themselves or others in order to cope.
And this is true for all taboo sexualities and fantasies, not just MAPs. It’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with our own sexualities, if we’re too ashamed or afraid to talk about or express it. Having a means to express our fantasies through fiction regardless of how taboo or stigmatized provides us with a feeling of relief. The mere knowing that fantasizing about our most taboo desires is a safe, free outlet when needed, and not a step towards becoming a monster gives us hope.
People who consume or create taboo fictional erotica are all too familiar with hearing critics parrot the phrase “Fiction affects reality”. Puritans make the dubious supposition that individuals with highly stigmatized sexualities like MAPs utilizing fantasy and fictional erotica as sexual outlets will incite or encourage them to engage in risky, harmful or abusive behavior. Often likening highly stigmatized sexualities to a drug addiction, as though anyone could just suddenly become hooked on finding children attractive.
However, a study in 2019 titled “The use of pornography and the relationship between pornography exposure and sexual offending in males: A systematic review” by E. Mellor and S. Duff states quite clearly that there was no conclusive evidence to suggest a relationship between pornography and sexual offending. Furthermore, their study found that offenders reported having had less exposure to pornography than non offenders.
No one claims fiction doesn’t affect reality. Being skeptical of claims that taboo fiction causes real harm is not a denial that fiction affects reality any more than being skeptical of someone claiming sugar is poison is not a denial that food affects our bodies. The truth is that fiction does affect reality. And for many of us whether it’s used as a therapeutic tool or as an outlet for our sexualities, the effect taboo fiction has is an overwhelmingly positive one.
So whether you enjoy fantasy to help in overcoming trauma or as an outlet for your sexuality, do so with the peace of mind knowing what you’re enjoying is a harmless human instinct. And you aren’t alone. You follow in the footsteps of people who’ve come before, all throughout history. People from all cultures and backgrounds working through their trauma and expressing their sexualities through their art, writing and music, no matter how taboo or forbidden.
If you struggle with distress over taboo fantasies or attractions, you can find support here.