HEALTH AND WELLNESS

Your sexual fantasies may be more problematic than you realize

David Oliver
USA TODAY
  • Scandalous sexual encounter fantasies reign in pop culture and pornography.
  • Role-playing is not problematic, sexual health professionals say, but there's a right way to go about it.
  • Sex requires strict consent from all parties involved.

The schoolgirl in a plaid miniskirt and pigtails. The nurse wearing a too-tight white dress and matching cap. The librarian with her perfect, polished hair up in a bun.

 These sexual fantasies are part of our cultural lexicon and there is no shortage of lingerie, and even Halloween costumes, to enable these scenes to become realities.  But when does role-playing cross a line? When the partner of the sexy schoolgirl or scantily-clad flight attendant, for example, fails to heed their partner's sexual boundaries or when we sexualize the people around us who embody these real-life roles.

Role-playing is not problematic in and of itself, sexual health professionals say, but it requires strict consent from all parties involved. Because one person's fantasy may snarl into another's nightmare.

"I'm not saying that you shouldn't (role play)," says Gail Wyatt, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and psychiatry professor at UCLA. "I'm saying that most people don't bother to get consent and a fully knowledgeable consent. And when you do that to someone, you introduce the opportunity to be misinterpreted or misunderstood, or to frighten your partner."

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Role-playing is not problematic in and of itself, sexual health professionals say, but it requires strict consent from all parties involved. Because one person's fantasy may snarl into another's nightmare.

The problem with sexual fantasies and pornography

Experts say it's impossible to discuss most sexual fantasies without talking about porn since the two are so closely intertwined. Porn has created these tropes – sexy schoolgirl, nurse, librarian – that can be demeaning to women .  Men face objectification too, but society's systemic mistreatment of women and girls compounds these issues.

"The nature of these fantasies may have to do with the taboo of sexualizing figures that are usually conceived as innocent or unmarred and inviolable," says Laura Brito, licensed clinical social worker and sex and relationship therapist.

Wyatt has a drastic solution: she recommends everyone stop watching pornography – though she recognizes how entrenched it is in society and how difficult it would be to eliminate it: "Porn is probably one of the most destructive current influences on human sexuality that we have because it's worldwide, and it's well-established."

An issue with these specific fantasies? The women depicted in these tropes also exist in real life. And sexualizing them can lead to problematic, and even dangerous, behavior. 

Take flight attendants, for example. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, of 3,500 flight attendants surveyed from 29 U.S. airlines, 68% said they had experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.

 "These are everyday people that people probably have in their lives," Wyatt says. "And what it does is encourages people to fantasize about the people that they see probably the most."

Porn compounds this issue by depicting the women in these roles as unintimidating. Plus in mainstream porn, sex is always enjoyable. 

"(Viewers) get a completely different distortion of human sexuality and what the body can do or what feels good, or what people don't mind you doing versus what they need to definitely consent to," Wyatt says.

It also encourages potentially criminal behaviors. "The porn featuring the 'sexy schoolgirl' role play, for example, may be problematic in that it may contribute to consumers perceiving that it is acceptable to sexualize people that are under 18," Brito says.

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When role-playing is OK

Two consenting adults who decide to make fantasy a reality? There's nothing wrong with that.

"Role-playing may be a wonderful and creative way for consenting adults to engage in sexual play," Brito says. "As long as everyone involved is consenting to the role play and the clothing, this may be a great way for people to become more comfortable exploring their sexual selves."

But bear in mind that "sex is not always something that everybody wants," Wyatt says.

"So you can be a schoolgirl or whatever. But what we don't teach or socialize or endorse, is that people have to know what it is that you are asking them to do."

Problems arise when communication falters.

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How to talk to your partner about sex and role-play

Discuss, discuss, discuss. "Partners should discuss role playing in an open manner, and long before engaging in it," Brito says. "In this way, they are able to discuss their boundaries and questions/concerns to allay any anxiety they may experience beforehand."

Get specific. "The explicit description of what it is you'd like to do to someone else is something that we do not teach people to do," Wyatt says. Explain what parts of the body are involved, what you intend to do and when. This way someone can put the brakes on sexual activity before the engines roar. 

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Ask questions and let your partner speak – before and during sex. Wyatt says you should ask your partner questions like: "What part do you want to edit? Do you want to fix it? Do you want to compromise? And if they say yes, then there should be language that goes along with every behavior. So the person has an opportunity to say stop, or that hurts, or continue, that feels good."

She adds: "Whatever is going on for them should be part of the constant dialogue, during sex. Sex is not a secret. It's not a secretive act."

If all parties are a go enjoy. "Donning costumes, sexy or otherwise, may be a wonderful way of discovering aspects of ourselves that we may not have otherwise been able to access," Brito says.

It's not just porn that promotes fantasies, but any opportunity to wear costumes. Like Halloween. "Halloween also creates a vacuum in social norms where one can be sexualized in a playful, less inhibited manner," Brito says. "People may be more likely to feel less judged in embodying their sexual self via costume."

Debrief and listen. "See how all involved partners felt about the experience and if they would want to partake in something similar in the future," Brito says. A potential takeaway: Just because you felt pleasure doesn't mean the same for your partner.