The Gardener of Desire
Sex therapist Wendy Maltz helps women understand, and even shape, their sexual fantasies
Wendy Maltz, a nationally recognized sex therapist from Eugene, Oregon began studying women's sexual fantasies eight years ago when she noticed an increasing number of clients asking questions about their fantasies. Scholarly sex journals didn't offer satisfying answers, so Maltz embarked on her own quest to understand where fantasies come from, what they mean and what we can learn by analyzing sexual fantasies as if they were dreams. Eventually, she and Suzie Boss, a Portland journalist, interviewed more than 100 women, aged 19 to 66, about their hottest thoughts. Maltz and Boss wrote about the results in In the Garden of Desire: The Intimate World of Women's Sexual Fantasies. Maltz now lectures nationally on the psychology of sexual fantasy and is considered a leading expert on healing and changing unwanted sexual fantasies. Her latest book is Private Thoughts : Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
You believe that sexual fantasies are generally good for us. Why?
Maltz: Sexual fantasies are a normal, natural psychological phenomenon, reported by about 95 percent of men and women. Generally speaking, fantasies function to decrease anxiety about sex and increase sexual interest and arousal. Thanks to our erotic imagination, we all have this wonderful, built-in helper that can enhance our sexual experiences.
If fantasies are so beneficial and useful, why do they sometimes cause problems?
I often compare fantasies to dreams. We all know that dreams can contain useful psychological information. We also know that some dreams--the ones we call nightmares--are unpleasant to experience. Similarly, sexual fantasies sometimes feel great and playful, and other times can leave us feeling confused, afraid or ashamed. Problems arise if we don't have enough information to understand what our fantasies are telling us, or if we judge ourselves harshly for the thoughts that turn us on, or if we mistakenly assume that our fantasies reflect our true desires. Often, what we find at the heart of a troublesome fantasy is an unresolved emotional issue that has little or nothing to do with sex.
Actually, men's and women's fantasies are more alike than different. Both sexes fantasize most often, for instance, about being intimate with their current partner. Men's fantasies tend to be more visual and get to the sex acts more quickly. Women's involve more foreplay and more tactile stimulation. No big surprise there, right? More importantly, women's fantasies tend to focus in on the relationship dynamics between characters, while men's are more often about impersonal sexual escapades. Both men and women can get physically turned on by the hot graphics you find in porn films, for instance, but women tend not to report feeling aroused by explicit images unless their emotions are also engaged.
What was your biggest surprise in researching sexual fantasy?
The richness and range of women's sexual fantasies amazed me, even after 20 years as a sex therapist. Women's private thoughts are much more creative and original than I could have guessed. Also, I discovered that we can learn so much from our own fantasies. By consciously looking at our fantasy life, we can see how our erotic imagination has been shaped by personal life experiences and also by the larger culture. Then, we can use the power of our own minds to change fantasies we don't like and create new ones that turn us on in ways we truly enjoy.
Editors note: HealthyPlace interview with Wendy Maltz on Sex After Sexual Abuse. Watch the video.