Sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy:
an Evolutionary Psychological Approach
Bruce Ellis, M.A. and Donald Symons, Ph.D
Reyna Avila, Victoria Boccanfuso, Shawna Metcalfe
Loyola Marymount University
Many tests have shown that sexual fantasies are the most common form of sexual experiences. This is most likely because they are private and limitless. Sexual fantasies are believed to be extremely insightful into psychological mechanisms, such as information processing rules, that cause sexual feelings, thoughts, and actions (Ellis and Symons 1990). Men and women differ in content as well as frequency of sexual fantasies and those differences can be a result of evolution (Ellis and Symons 1990). As a result of age old taboos and constraints governing sexual expression, fantasies are the only way to live out "unacceptable" desires and curiosities. The forms through which these desires are experienced are different in stimulation and quality for men and women.
Evolution and Fantasies
Psychological differences between men and women are the consequences of different selective pressures throughout evolutionary history (Ellis and Symons 1990). The evolution of such items as contraceptives and romance novels has allowed for a freeness of the content of sexual fantasies.
One of the major fears related to sexual activities has always been the risk of pregnancy. This is a concern for both men and women. With the evolution of contraceptive pills and other similar methods of birth control, much of the tension surrounding sex is relieved thus giving sexually active people the feeling that it is o.k. to indulge freely in fantasies. Another contributor to the freedom of sexual fantasy is the romance novel. The popularity and openness with which these descriptive books are sold leads many people to think that it must be o.k. to admit the personal expression of their desires.
Fantasies are studied using selectional thinking, which generates hypotheses based on the evolutionary pressures experienced by men and women. Selectional thinking states that the human mind can be found to be clearly sexually dimorphic, which means that we consciously realize differences such as breasts in women and broader shoulders in men.
Men and Fantasies
Striking differences have been found among men and women in regard to sexual fantasies. We know that men are more likely to have sexual fantasies, but they are also much more likely to become aroused by their fantasies. More specifically, American teenage boys are likely to fantasize at least once a day, as are teenage boys in Japan and Great Britain. Adult males have shown to have specifically sexual dreams while they sleep. In these dreams as well as their fantasies, men imagine their partner, usually someone unfamiliar, as the recipient of their sexual activities. Male fantasies focus on specific details of a partner's physical appearance and less on setting.
A t test for sex differences was performed on twelve different questions that used rating scales. The scales varied but the form was the same-from 0-# where 0 was never and # was always, using usually, sometimes, rarely etc. An example of a question used is: "In your sexual fantasies do you have a clear image of the genital features of your imagined partner?" Most of the results that were found were no surprise, which is the experimenters, had hypothesized them. There was one that they did not expect though. In response to the question of "how often to you experience desires of a taboo nature? Men reported a non-significant result. A taboo lover would be your best friends lover or a relative, or in law.
Most of the other findings were expected. Men were more than twice as likely as women to report having sexual fantasies at least once a day. Men were twice as likely as women to report becoming sexually aroused at least once a day. Men reported fantasizing about a greater number of different partners during the course of an average day than women did. Men were in fact much more likely than women to report having had sexual fantasies about more than 1,000 different people in the course of their lives. Only 12% of men reported that they never substitute or switch partners during the course of a single sexual fantasy. Men reported that during sexual fantasy, visual images are more important that touching, feeling, or the responses of there fantasized partners. Finally men were also much more likely to report having a clear image of the genital features of their partners and to report focusing on the physical rather than on the personal or emotional characteristics of their fantasized partner than women were.
From the above data it was found that men's fantasies occurred often compared to that of women, they often included many different partners, were more impersonal, and are more dominated by visual images (particularly genital). The fantasies often include explicitly sexual acts and tended to focus outward on the imagined partners as sexual objects. Of all the predictions that were made before the questionnaires were given out, only one prediction failed to be shown true. The clarity of facial images in the sexual fantasy was thought to be more frequent in women, where in fact it was found that it was equal between both the sexes.
Male Literatures of Erotic Fantasy (Pornography)
Male sexual fantasies, as described above, are consistent with previous research done on sexual fantasies. It also concurs with what is seen on male-oriented pornography. Male-oriented pornography (written or pictorial) depicts visual images of the female bodies, particularly the genitals. The main theme during these feature films is that of lust and physical gratification and nothing to do with the emotional aspect of sexual activity, courtship, relationships, flirtation, or even extended foreplay. This type of pornography emphasizes physical encounters that explore every possible encounter, with every possible position.
Causes of Sex Differences
Ellis and Symons state that they do believe that people's experiences do shape what they prefer in a mate and also what they prefer in a fantasy. However, they also state that to say that peoples' experiences are all that contribute to their sexual fantasies, one would have to assume that males and females have the same innate mechanisms. To someone who believes in Darwin and his theories, it would be amazing that selection failed to produce dimorphic (two types) sexual mechanisms underlying human sexual feeling and action.
The sexual experiences of males of females are dramatically different. Males have had minimal parental investment compared to that of women. They have the luxury of choosing a mate because it is a she, as opposed to choosing a mate that will support him and stick around after the child is born. It would seem plausible that it would be an incredible payoff for ancestral males to have a relatively fast and frequent sexual arousal, allowing for the copulation with potentially many women.
The data shown here suggests that males and females have sexually differentiated systems. Some social scientists claim that sex differences are a result of sex guilt, or rather erotophobia-erotophilia. However in the study done here, Ellis and Symons found no difference in accompanying feelings: both men and women report that they enjoy and get excited by their sexual fantasies and that the same number of men as women felt guilt for their inappropriate fantasies. Which all leads to this: men and women are equally likely to violate social conventions by experiencing taboo desires.
Going reaching farther into why men are more attracted to the physical qualities of a woman than that of a woman, it was found that the androgen levels might be the physical component to these differences in men and women.
Summary of Sex Differences
In review of all of the evidence presented, from the previous studies, the historical aspect (as far as pornography and the such), and the current evidence given by this research, Ellis and Symons have reduced the sex differences of males to the following:
1. Men tend to lust and have an appetitive' desire. This can be seen in male sexual fantasies as well as pornography.
2. Because men lust, their fantasies often de-personalize the women to a sex object and therefor usually focus more on the sex organs, sexual acts, and the physical attributes of the woman.
3. Men tend to become more sexually aroused by visual stimulation therefor making the fantasy more likely to focus on the visual images of the imagined partner.
4. Men also tend to view women as the sexual object and often see themselves performing the act to the woman.
5. Male fantasies also reflect physical attraction in that they are more likely to have more than one partner in the fantasy.
Limitations and Implication
Because fantasies do not contain the social limitations that actual sexual action, sexual fantasies are a more insightful picture of male and female sexual nature. One of the limitations is that this questionnaire was given to many young persons. Their attitudes may change with age and experience. Also the questionnaire was developed by two males, the female psychological aspect of the questionnaire could have been more fully probed had a women been more involved in the creation of this questionnaire. The last limitation that was mentioned was that there in asking to explain or describe a sexual fantasy it may distort the image that the subject wanted to portray. There should be more research that encompasses the manifold dimensions of imagined erotic experiences.
The Male Sex: Fantasies
A. Many tests have shown that sexual fantasies are the most common form of sexual experiences
a. This is most likely because they are private and limitless
B. Sexual fantasies are believed to be extremely insightful into psychological mechanisms
a. Such as information processing rules
1. Causing sexual feelings, thoughts, and actions
II. Psychology and Fantasy
A. Psychological differences between men and women are the consequences of different selective pressures throughout evolutionary history
B. The evolution of contraceptives and romance novels
a. Contraceptives remove the fear of pregnancy
b. Romance novels show that it is acceptable to admit to a sexually oriented imagination
C. Selectional Thinking
a. generates hypotheses based on the evolutionary pressures
b. States that the human mind can be found to be clearly sexually dimorphic
III. Men and Fantasies
A. Men are more likely to have sexual fantasies
a. Also much more likely to become aroused by their fantasies
B. Adult males have shown to have specifically sexual dreams while they sleep
A. Expected results
a. Men were more than twice as likely as women to report having sexual fantasies at least once a day
b. Men reported fantasizing about a greater number of different partners during the course of an average day
c. Men were in fact much more likely than women to report having had sexual fantasies about more than 1,000 different people in the course of their lives
d. Only 12% of men reported that they never substitute or switch partners during the course of a single sexual fantasy
e. Men reported that during sexual fantasy, visual images are more important that touching, feeling, or the responses of their fantasized partners
f. men report having a clear image of the genital features of their partners and to report focusing on the physical rather than on the personal or emotional characteristics of their fantasized partner
B. Surprise result
a. Men reported a non-significant result to fantasizing about taboo lovers
V. Mens Fantaisies
A. mens fantaisies are:
a. more frequent
b. more impersonal
c. more dominated by visual images (particularly genital)
d. emphasized partner variety
VI. Male and Female Literature of Erotic Fantasy
A. Male-orientated pornography
a. Depicts visual images of female bodies) particularly genitals.
b. Sheer lust and physical gratification
c. Devoid of relationships, foreplay, and courtship
B. Emphasis on physical encounters
c. Number of women
VII. Causes of Sex Differences
A. According to Darwin the different sexes have to develop different sexual mechanisms
B. Some social variables may contribute to sexual fantasies, but not determine all of the fantasies
C. Males have a minimal parental investment
a. Gives them the ability to obtain multiple partners to have their children
VIII. Would benefit ancestral male to be visually aroused by females for quick copulation
A. Erotophobia, sex guilt, according to social scientists is the reason for different sexual fantasies
a. In the study performed both males and females had the same amount of discomfort with fantasizing about taboo subjects
IX. Both men and women felt positive about sexual fantasy and arousal
A. Visual sexual arousal may be attributed to high androgen levels in the brain.
X. Summary of Sex Differences
A. Lust is an appetitive' desire in men, as seen in pornography
B. Men's fantasies tend to objectified and tend to focus on sexual organs
Critical Review Points
I. Are sexual fantasies really more common in men or are men simply more likely to admit to these fantasies?
II. The author states that men report having more than 1,000 different people present in their fantasies in the course of their lives, yet the survey was taken at a junior college and it is generalizing from people who are only of the way through life to the entire population.
III. The Authors state that social stigmas of how the different sexes are supposed to act actually go against what nature is telling us (ex: the good father is the one that stays around and doesn't mess around). Then how is that there is still a huge market out there for the male-orientated pornography?
1. Sexual fantasies are the most common form of sexual experiences
2. The evolution of artificial contraception such as birth control pills has the occurrence of sexual fantasies
c. not affected
d. only minutely affected
3. Adult males have shown to have specifically sexual dreams while they sleep
4. A person who it would be taboo to have sexual relations with would be _____________.
a. a relative
b. an in law
c. your cat
d. both a & b
5. Men are twice as likely to ___________ and _________ than women on an average day
a. become sexually aroused : masturbate
b. have a sexual fantasy : become sexually aroused
c. fantasize about the cat : masturbate
d. have a sexual fantasy : visualize images
6. Men are just as likely as women are to fantisize about having a taboo relationship.
7. T/F Males tend to fantasize about relationships that include commitment and monogamy.
8. Which of the following tend to be the themes of male sexual fantasies:
b) visual stimuli (especially genital)
d) both a and b
9. T/F Darwin would agree with social scientists in that there is one underlying sexual mechanism in both men and women, and that circumstances and experience shape their sexual fantasies.
10. The evolutionary concept of Selectional thinking is based on
a. evolutionary pressures experienced by men and women
b. the popularity and openness that sexual expression has gained
c. the evolution of contraceptive pills and other similar methods of birth control
d. the fact that the human mind can be found to be clearly sexually dimorphic
Ellis, Bruce J. & Symons, Donald.(1990). Sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy: an Evolutionary Psychological Approach. The Journal of sex research, 27,4, 527-555.
Sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy: an Evolutionary Psychological Approach
- View point as taken in the part of the male
- Many tests have shown that sexual fantasies are the most common form of sexual experiences
Sexual fantasies are believed to be extremely insightful into psychological mechanisms
- Evolutionary reasons for fantasies
- Men were more than twice as likely as women to report having sexual fantasies at least once a day
- Men were in fact much more likely than women to report having had sexual fantasies about more than 1,000 different people in the course of their lives
- Men reported a non-significant result to fantasizing about taboo lovers
- Causes of Sex Differences
- Would benefit ancestral male to be visually aroused by females for quick copulation
- Both men and women felt positive about sexual fantasy and arousal
 Note that it is plural, Bodies, indicating that there is a larger ratio of women to men in the pornography.