Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies


In this fascinating and provocative book, Dr. Michael Bader offers a groundbreaking new theory of sexual desire. Drawing on his twenty-five years as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Bader demonstrates that rather than being programmed by biology or society, sexual fantasies and preferences are really psychological antidotes to unconscious dangers. Armed with this novel theory, man and women will no longer need to feel ashamed about what arouses them or confused about ...

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In this fascinating and provocative book, Dr. Michael Bader offers a groundbreaking new theory of sexual desire. Drawing on his twenty-five years as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Bader demonstrates that rather than being programmed by biology or society, sexual fantasies and preferences are really psychological antidotes to unconscious dangers. Armed with this novel theory, man and women will no longer need to feel ashamed about what arouses them or confused about what arouses others.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Arousal represents an important advance in psychoanalytic thinking about sexual fantasies."—Nancy Friday, author of My Secret Garden

"Bader's story theory of sexual arousal is revolutionary. It has the potential to change forever the way we understand everything about sex. I believe that he has no equal among psychoanalysts in his understanding and elucidation of sexual passion."—Kim Chernin, author of In My Mother's House

"In this brilliant new work, Dr. Michael Bader offers an original and provocative theory that is the most definitive explanation I have ever read of both the psychological and social dynamics of sexual arousal. This highly readable and engaging book should be required reading not only for practicing psychotherapists but for all those who are interested in the how and why of sexual arousal."—Lillian B. Rubin, Ph.D., author of Intimate Strangers

"Bader is a clear, graceful writer, and he makes his points with rare facility in a way useful to both lay people and therapeutic professionals."—Library Journal

"An insider's look at what goes on behind the scenes of our desires."—Kirkus Reviews

"Bader comes across as a compassionate psychotherapist, dedicated to exploring desire in whatever shape it might take."—Library Journal

author of My Secret Garden Nancy Friday

Arousal represents an important advance in psychoanalytic thinking about sexual fantasies.
author of In My Mother's House Kim Chernin

Bader's story theory of sexual arousal is revolutionary. It has the potential to change forever the way we understand everything about sex. I believe that he has no equal among psychoanalysts in his understanding and elucidation of sexual passion.
Lillian B. Rubin

In this brilliant new work, Dr. Michael Bader offers an original and provocative theory that is the most definitive explanation I have ever read of both the psychological and social dynamics of sexual arousal. This highly readable and engaging book should be required reading not only for practicing psychotherapists but for all those who are interested in the how and why of sexual arousal.
Publishers Weekly
This analysis of the pathologies of fantasy and psychology shows the road to hedonism is not paved with bricks but with dreams. With more than 20 years of counseling experience, Bader comes across as a compassionate psychotherapist, dedicated to exploring desire in whatever shape it might take: "Sexual excitement," he writes, "is loaded with taboos in our culture and is inevitably fraught with conflict and complications." Describing clinical practices and employing stories from his couch, Bader constructs a sexual world view wherein the shame and guilt patients experience in their early years (via the usual suspects: unhappy childhoods, bad parents) later well up in their intimate lives, often times in the form of secret and seemingly deviant fantasies. Throughout the book, Bader attempts to elucidate how these fantasies are used as the bridge between sexuality and the unreleased psychological tensions that float beneath the surface of consciousness. Readers may find his interpretations of fantasies from the familiar to the strange titillating (from voyeurism to coprophilia and sadomasochism), but may wonder if it's really accurate to say that "sexual fantasies are the keyhole through which we will be able to see our true selves." Bader's methodology insists that these desires are played out on a field viewed solely through the lens of psychoanalysis, a form of treatment some believe is outdated. And even though he may be a proponent of pop-sexology, Bader never gives a nod to Havelock Ellis, who pioneered in the field a century ago. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Bader, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for over 20 years, holds that we unconsciously design our fantasies to make sexual arousal safe for ourselves. Fantasies may seem bizarre and paradoxically opposed to our perceived selves, but they represent attempts to solve problems and overcome irrational beliefs about guilt, worry, shame, and rejection. Moreover, by understanding our fantasies, we (and our therapists) can get valuable insights into our psyches and daily functioning. Bader covers how arousal works, how fantasies assist in arousal, the role of fantasies in therapy, and the social meaning of fantasies. Throughout, he gives numerous case studies, examples, and sensible and compassionate conjectures about particular fantasies and the fantasizing process. Bader is a clear, graceful writer, and he makes his points with rare facility in a way useful to both lay people and therapeutic professionals. His book complements Nancy Friday's fantasy collections, which Bader considers rich sources of validation, as well as recent collections by Iris and Steven Finz, Suzie Boss and Wendy Maltz, and Bob Berkowitz. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Martha Cornog, Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Psychoanalyst Bader argues that rather than having being programmed by society or biology, sexual fantasies and preferences are psychological antidotes to unconscious dangers and should not cause feelings of shame to arise. Using vignettes and case studies from his practice, he interprets both the conventional and the bizarre, presenting readers with a way to understand such issues as sexual chemistry and boredom, cybersex, pornography, and the differences in how men and women get excited. The book is distributed by St. Martin's Press. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
An insider's look at what goes on behind the scenes of our desires. Drawing on more than 20 years' experience as a psychoanalyst and therapist, Bader attempts to provide a useful guide for both the layperson and clinician regarding the meaning and purpose of our erotic daydreams and sexual fantasies, the "theatrical" setting for arousal. Noting the high number of Americans who purport to be dissatisfied in the bedroom and citing his patients' case histories, he contends that despite the relative permissiveness and hedonism of our culture, guilt and worry still hold sway. The cornerstone of Bader's theory is his contention that the primary concern of our unconscious minds is our physical and psychological safety. In this context, one's fantasy life becomes a sort of "canary in the mine" indicating either a healthy or oppressive atmosphere. Sexual fantasies, which he equates with sexual preferences, set and maintain these safe conditions, thereby permitting arousal. The real source of problems both in and out of the bedroom, as Bader sees it, are the pathogenic beliefs we hold and act upon. ("Sex begins in the mind and then travels downward," he declares.) These beliefs comprise our views of reality as seen through the distorting lens of childhood shame, rejection, and helplessness, which lead to sexual inhibitions and a whole array of self-defeating behavior. Approached in this manner, bondage, group sex, voyeurism, fetishism, gang rape, asphyxiation, and the many other consensual "roles" Bader touches on, become the imaginary means to a pleasurable end. Sexual fantasy becomes "a sign of health, a way to solve problems," so-called "kinky" scenarios simply implying a more convoluted routeto safety. Calling such strategies "logical" may be overstating his case, but Bader's treatise does cast light on the murky and largely unexamined question of why sexual fantasies turn us on.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312302429
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/18/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 330,168
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.45 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. Michael J. Bader has more than two decades of experience as a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, educator, and social critic. He is a frequent contributor to mainstream psychoanalytic criticism, and his series of highly acclaimed articles for Tikkun magazine has been instrumental in bridging the gap between psychology and popular culture. He lives in San Francisco.

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Read an Excerpt

The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies

By Dr. Michael J. Bader

Thomas Dunne Books

Copyright © 2002 Michael J. Bader.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0312269331


There is a boundary to men's passions when they act from feelings; but none when they are under the influence of imagination.
—John Barrymore

Sex: The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.
—Lord Chesterfield

A woman I was treating in psychotherapy—I'll call her Jan—reported that she frequently had this fantasy while making love with her husband. She imagines a large man sexually dominating her in an extremely rough and aggressive way. The man is a stranger, and he doesn't care at all about her pleasure. He holds Jan down and treats her body as a thing to be used for his own satisfaction. He fondles her in a harsh and painful manner and never looks her in the eye. He is exactly the type of man Jan loathes in her real life. However, this fantasy is very exciting to her. She finds that she needs it to have an orgasm with her husband.

Now, unless you're someone who has similar fantasies, the fact that pain, helplessness, and degradation can be sexually arousing is surely bewildering. Even if you do share similar fantasies of domination, or even practice them, the reason that they excite you is still probably equally mysterious. The fact is, most of us know what turns us on but not why. We may know what kinds of bodies we find attractive but not why. We may know how we like to have sex or imagine having sex, but not really why we prefer doing it this way and not some other way. We may know that sex is better in hotels or in public places, that leather pants or spiked heels are sexually arousing, or that group sex is an exciting fantasy, but we rarely know the real reasons behind these preferences.

My aim in this book is to draw back the veil of mystery surrounding sexual arousal and throw a bright light into those shadowy corners of our minds that determine what turns us on or off. This knowledge, I hope, will change forever our relationship to our own sexuality. No longer will we regard our fantasy life as a source of embarrassment or as abnormal. Rather than critically judging our sexual desires—and those of our partners—as appropriate or inappropriate, healthy or unhealthy, we will be able to see these desires as windows into the deepest levels of our psyches. By understanding the logic and purpose of our fantasies, we also will understand the bedrock of our personalities. Sexual fantasies are the keyhole through which we will be able to see our true selves.

I will offer a theory of sexual arousal that explains both the most theatrical scenarios of bondage and fetishism and the mildest preferences about sexual positions in the bedroom. The power of this theory is evident in the very fact that it is able to explain such an immense range of phenomena. Not only will it illuminate the meaning of our private fantasies and preferences, but it will make explicable the mystery of sexual chemistry—what ignites it and what extinguishes it. Couples will suddenly be able to understand the causes of their sexual compatibility or their sexual boredom. Instead of suffering in silence, couples who are frustrated in their sex lives will become better equipped to explore and communicate their true feelings to each other.

My theory about the causes of sexual arousal is grounded in my clinical experience as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. But while it draws from the work of many other workers in the field, it stakes out new ground. It draws from psychoanalysis, but it is not strictly psychoanalytic. It borrows from the field of cognitive therapy—an approach that emphasizes changing bad thought patterns- -but is not a cognitive theory. It is sensitive to the concerns of sociologists and feminists, but it is not a social theory. For readers who are currently in psychotherapy, it will open up new avenues of exploration. For therapists whose patients talk to them about sex, it will offer a new model of listening and understanding. But this book is not only for professional use. It is a book for anyone who is curious about their sexuality or that of others or who has felt secretly aroused in ways that feel shameful.


Sooner or later, most of my patients talk about sex. They feel frustrated because they want to have more of it or guilty because they want less. They worry about performing during it or about feeling intimate after it. They may want to experiment with more varieties of it or feel ashamed of the wanting. They may feel guilty about having sex with the "wrong" people—the wrong gender, age, or marital status, for example—or feel bored having it with the "right" ones. They may worry about not reaching orgasm or about reaching it too soon.

The topic of sex arises in psychotherapy so often because its pleasures are both desirable and forbidden, a conflict that then creates psychological distress, and because sex is so often the vehicle through which we express a range of other feelings and satisfy a host of other needs. Through sex, we establish or avoid emotional connections, affirm or undermine our sense of masculinity or femininity, and ease everyday anxieties and tensions. Often, sexual arousal—or, more commonly, its decline—is the first sign of problems in a relationship, the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" (miners used to bring a canary down into the mines as an early warning system to tell them if oxygen levels were becoming dangerously low—if the canary died, the miners knew that it was time to get out). Our feelings about the how, where, and why of sexual excitement are often a window into the deepest levels of our psyches and the deepest sources of our suffering and pleasure.

Yet we still don't understand it. If you ask people why someone like my patient Jan would get turned on by being sexually used in a rough and insensitive way, some would shrug and suggest that sexual arousal, like love, is essentially mysterious, unmeasurable, a subject better explored by artists and poets than psychotherapists. Others would say that sexual preferences are simply biological in nature—hormones create desire. Some people, including many sex therapists and researchers, might argue that sexual preferences are learned in childhood through imitation and role modeling. Jan, for example, might have been abused when she was young and repeated this pattern in her fantasy life as an adult. Still others, including many feminists and sociologists, would point to the effects of gender conflicts, sexual stereotypes, and sexism in shaping the roles that women and men, both heterosexual and homosexual, adopt in a sexual relationship.

None of these theories, however, really explains the root cause of sexual arousal. Those who think it is an accident of the human heart, of course, discredit the search for causes altogether, implying that if we explain sexual excitement, we rob it of its power. They think that attempts at rational explanation do an injustice to the inherent spontaneity and mystery of sexual passion. The romantics are wrong. Explaining sex won't make it go away, any more than understanding the physical laws of the universe will ruin our appreciation of a beautiful sunset. Those who think that we simply learn how to get sexually stimulated through imitation eventually run into trouble explaining exactly how we transform what we see, or what's been done to us, into such compelling sexual excitement. Can we really learn about arousal by seeing it? How can the reenactment of painful childhood abuse produce such intense pleasure in adults? Similarly, those who account for sexual fantasies by referring to the power of gender roles and sexist stereotypes face the difficulty of explaining how we seem to go from being passive victims of the social order to active sexual agents who derive intense pleasure from these apparently oppressive social roles.

The dimension missing from all of these explanations of sexual arousal is a deep understanding of human psychology. For it is the imaginative power of the mind that transforms our biological imperatives into the actual experience of sexual pleasure. If we understand the workings of the mind, the mysterious desires of the human heart suddenly become more explicable. It is the mind that tells the heart who to desire and how best to fulfill that desire. The reasons that childhood abuse often produces adults who get turned on by sexual enactments of dominance and submission do not involve simple imitative learning but, instead, a deep psychological need to transform helplessness into power. The puzzling relationship between childhood abuse and adult sexual pleasure is immediately solved if we understand these dynamics. And the answer to the question of how patriarchal gender roles create adults who derive intense sexual gratification from acting out these roles in bed lies in the complicated ways our minds internalize social expectations and make them our own. Sexual politics are not implanted in our brains by osmosis or by force. Instead, sex role learning is filtered through the most primitive regions of our mental life and is mediated through the most intimate exchanges with our caregivers. Sex begins in the mind and then travels downward.

It is understandable why many people might be skeptical of psychological explanations of sexual arousal. Sexual arousal, after all, feels biological. It feels natural, spontaneous, almost like something that happens to us, not something that we are responsible for creating. Sexual pleasure seems to be so rooted in the body, so linked to the pleasurable stimulation of specific body parts, that any idea that our minds are running the show seems intuitively wrong. When we get aroused by a person on the street, an advertisement, a character in a film, or our partner; or when we discover that this feels good and that doesn't; or when we find ourselves thinking of a particular image during masturbation, we are not aware of feeling anything psychologically complicated. It seems like a simple case of stimulus and response. We are not aware of intermediate steps between a sexual image or behavior and the experience of excitement.There are intermediate steps, however. A complicated process intervenes between stimulus and response. The thing itself—the exciting picture, story, position, or behavior—isn't automatically arousing. It arouses us for a reason, and reasons belong to the domain of the mind. After all, one person may get turned on by a particular picture or body type, while another person finds it boring. One person's Romeo may be another person's Quasimodo. Same stimulus, different response. My patient Jan got turned off by gentleness in her partner. Her best friend required gentleness. The most erogenous zones of our bodies can be touched without a hint of excitement (think of your last physical exam), while the slightest brush of an earlobe can be intensely pleasurable. Excitement is generated by the mind, a mind that endows images and sensations with just the right meaning to create pleasure. When it comes to sexual arousal, psychology makes use of biology, not the other way around. The key variable is always the unique psychology of the person who is responding. Only an understanding of that psychology can explain the wide variety of sexual preferences and fantasies that people enjoy, from the kinky to the so-called normal.

In order to understand the deepest levels of the mind, we have to turn to the quintessential "depth psychology"—psychoanalysis. My theory about the causes of sexual arousal and the meaning of sexual fantasies is a psychoanalytic theory, influenced by years of exposure to psychoanalytic studies of sexuality. However, psychoanalysis, too, often falls short in its efforts to explain sexual arousal. In the course of my training I came to feel that most psychoanalytic theories about sexual arousal did not seem to fit what I was seeing in my own clinical work. While psychoanalysis is unique in its attempt to explore the deep psychological wellsprings of sexual desire, its explanations of what it finds are often mistaken. (There were, and are, exceptions. Psychoanalytic theorists such as Robert Stoller, Ethel Spector Person, Jessica Benjamin, Nancy Chodorow, and Christopher Bollas have all made important contributions to our understanding of sexual desire and have been important in the development of my own ideas. Most of all, I have been fortunate enough to have studied with Joseph Weiss, whose contribution to my own thinking has been inestimable and will be discussed in detail later.)

Psychoanalysts tend to subtly pathologize sexuality, treating sexual fantasies outside conventional norms as unhealthy. The mind is depicted as a cauldron of dark and antisocial desires. Analysts tend to interpret "kinky," or what they call "perverse," fantasies as caused by inherently "kinky" or "perverse" wishes. My view is different. I do not think sexuality is driven by kinky desires. I think that it is driven by straightforward desires for pleasure and safety. "Kinkiness" is merely the complicated route that some people need to take in order to safely feel pleasure. Further, I hope to show that many of life's difficulties stem from irrational, unconscious beliefs, and their accompanying feelings, that were formed in childhood, beliefs that interfere with normal developmental aims and satisfactions, including sexual satisfactions. Most of us are held back, both in and out of the bedroom, by these beliefs and continually struggle to overcome and master them. Sexual fantasies and preferences represent a complicated attempt to counteract and master specific irrational beliefs in order to enjoy greater erotic pleasure.

Psychoanalysts, for example, tend to view many forms of sexuality as based on hostility. My viewpoint is that the hostility often seen in sexual fantasies is not inherently pleasurable but functions as a vehicle by which barriers to sexual pleasure—in particular, certain irrational unconscious beliefs—are momentarily overcome. Many psychoanalysts would be inclined to view my patient Jan's rape fantasy as driven by a primary desire to be dominated. My view is that Jan had a perfectly normal wish for sexual pleasure, but because of particular self-destructive beliefs, she had to use a domination fantasy to achieve that pleasure.

Freud's discoveries were monumental but also biased in many ways. He could be dogmatic as well as brilliant, misogynistic as well as revolutionary, and he left a confusing and complicated legacy. Psychoanalysis today does not speak with one voice. It is a veritable Tower of Babel, with many competing points of view.

The point of view that informs both my clinical work and my ideas about sexuality is one that was first articulated by the psychoanalyst Joseph Weiss. In collaboration with his colleague, Harold Sampson, Weiss founded a research program in San Francisco that has systematically tested and validated his theories about the importance of irrational, unconscious beliefs in the creation of psychological inhibitions and suffering, as well as the complicated ways in which patients in psychotherapy seek to master or disprove these beliefs in order to get more out of life (Weiss and Sampson, The Psychoanalytic Process, and Weiss How Psychotherapy Works). As I will discuss in chapter 5, Weiss's and Sampson's research has led them not only to pioneer a new approach to understanding psychological problems, but to create a new approach to psychotherapeutic treatment, an approach that aims to affirm and facilitate the patient's innate drive toward health. In the spirit of Weiss's work, my theoretical and clinical approach to sexuality is an affirmative one, viewing sexual fantasy and arousal as resulting from an unconscious attempt to solve problems and not, as many psychoanalysts would have it, recreate them.

An individual's sexuality takes many forms, but the underlying meaning is always the same. Whether that person's sexual arousal is a response to a picture, person, sexual position, or elaborate daydream, it derives from the same set of psychological dynamics. Jan, for example, not only daydreams about being sexually dominated, but she also prefers to be on the bottom during the actual sex and is sexually attracted to men who look powerful and ruthless. The same set of core psychological issues generated arousal in all of these situations. In the end, sexual excitement feels the same and has the same meaning regardless of the situation that elicits it. A daydream about being ravished by a stranger might subjectively feel quite different from getting aroused by someone who merely looks strong and tough—the former feels like a private form of thinking, the latter a simple reaction—but the excitement connected to both comes from the same psychological source. Sexual preferences are merely sexual fantasies that are enacted in the external world.

But don't we commonly practice our sexuality differently than we daydream about it? Isn't it true that our behavior with a partner might not conform to our fantasies? Sexual behavior is obviously much more subject to social prohibitions and potential embarrassment than a private daydream, and sex with a partner requires compromise and accommodation in ways that are absent in fantasies. These differences account for the obvious discrepancies between our private wishes and our public behavior. Nevertheless, what we would most like to do, while sometimes secret, is similar to and derives from exactly the same source as what we like to imagine. We may make compromises in our actions (and even enjoy them), but the underlying causes of our pleasure are still the same as they are in our most private daydreams. And these causes are usually hidden from our view or, in the language of psychoanalysis, are unconscious.

Jan had no idea why simulating a quasi-rape scenario turned her on. As we were to learn later, there were reasons, but these reasons were not conscious, and initially she could not articulate why this fantasy was arousing. In fact, it embarrassed her because it contradicted her self-image as a strong and confident woman. Why would being roughed up by an insensitive man in bed bring her to orgasm, when such a man, and such a mode of relating, generally repulsed her? Jan worried that she must be a masochist. Yet something in this quasirape scene aroused her. That the "something" was entirely unconscious worsened her shame. She did not understand why domination aroused her and worried the fantasy came from some shameful place in her.

No one likes to feel driven by forces outside his or her control. One patient of mine announced in her first session that, even though she knew it was irrational, she had the belief that she could choose to feel any emotion she wanted. When we explored the origins of this idea, we found it arose soon after her father died. She remembered feeling completely overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, desolation, and loneliness. Unfortunately, her family was in complete denial, barely reacting at all to the father's death, completely detached from any feelings of grief in themselves or others. My patient felt particularly helpless in the face of her grief because no one helped her with it. No one was attuned or sympathetic to how she felt. As a result, she became ashamed of her feelings. Because no one had understood her feelings, she felt that they were some kind of disgusting alien presence inside of her. It was in response to this feeling that she defensively developed the conviction that she could completely control her emotions. Her belief that her conscious mind was in total control was a response to the shameful fact that it was not.

We are always more vulnerable to feeling ashamed of our sexual feelings and fantasies when we do not understand them. We do not understand them, first and foremost, because they are unconscious. Freud once said that three scientific discoveries had irretrievably damaged our narcissism—the arrogant assumption that we are the center of the universe. One was Copernicus telling us that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa. The second was Darwin showing that we were descended from the apes. Freud himself claimed the third, namely his discovery that powerful unconscious processes belied conscious rationality. Freud believed the cause of sexual arousal was unconscious. It is an affront to our vanity, our pride, to realize that something as personal and "natural" as sexual arousal is caused by something outside of our conscious awareness.

We all are, moreover, unconscious of a great many things. Some seem superficial, but our lives depend on them. We're not conscious, for example, of the many movements and reflexes required to drive a car. We take them for granted, and yet when we were learning to drive, they all seemed new and had to be exercised in a conscious and deliberate manner. Once acquired, the rules, requirements, and neuromuscular adjustments needed to drive became nonconscious or automatic. We simply could not drive if we had to be conscious at all times of our decision-making process.

Similarly, we are also automatically scanning other people in our environment and responding accordingly. We are constantly, but subliminally, reading the facial expressions, mannerisms, and tone of voice of other people for cues about what they are feeling and what they are likely to do. If we did not do it, we would be out of synch with the world around us. This process of "reading" other people, like driving a car, involves filtering and decoding a vast amount of interpersonal information and coming up with the appropriate response, all in the span of a heartbeat. Not only is this interpersonal process unconscious, it is essential that it be so. Unconscious thinking is much faster and more efficient than conscious thinking. If we had to be aware of the complexity of each interpersonal interaction, we would be paralyzed.

Recent research shows that this kind of unconscious information processing does not even require the use of the brain's cortex, usually seen as the seat of rationality and consciousness. Nonconscious awareness, learning, and responsiveness seem to be located in brain structures beneath the cortex. This subcortical system is constantly resonating with our social environment, intuiting the emotions, motives, and intentions of other people to help us connect to them securely and productively. It is always "on," and it does its job in the silent background of everyday life. (For an excellent review of this research, see Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love.)

In many ways the brain's nonconscious processing is often far more accurate and efficient than its conscious processing. We often see its workings in our choice of sexual partners. When the characters of Tony and Maria first saw each other across a crowded dance floor in West Side Story, they knew, in one magical moment, they were meant for each other. In real life a similar—albeit less magical and, we hope, less tragic—type of attraction happens all the time. My patient Jan, for instance, knew from her first date with the man whom she later married that he would be kind to her but not excite her sexually. She later admitted she intuitively "knew"—before they'd even held hands—that their sex life would be tame and tepid. She tried to hide this awareness from herself, rationalizing that it was enough that he was kind and sensitive—qualities missing in most of the men she'd dated—and hoping the sex would improve over time. She could also tell with equal speed if a man would "fit" and fulfill her aggressive sexual daydream. She told me that she didn't even have to talk to such a man to know that there would be good sexual chemistry. She could tell from a "look," a certain carriage, a special "energy" if he would be an insensitive and aggressive "taker" in bed. Such a "look" would trigger a familiar feeling in her, a feeling of alertness, of tension, and then of excitement. On the occasions she had sex with such men, she was invariably correct in her assessment of the man's sexual proclivities.

This kind of sexual intuition is not unusual. Certain images can stimulate us instantly because they contain the requisite subliminal information. Certain personality traits, however subtle, can do the same. If a man, for instance, gets turned on by being sexually dominated by a strong and aggressive woman, he will find himself "naturally" turned on by certain women and not by others. He does not have to have sex with them to know if they can and will enact his preferred fantasy. Certain aspects of a woman's appearance or manner will unconsciously "fit." He will feel attracted and not know exactly why. It is as if such a man is able to tune into a special channel that other people cannot see or hear. In contrast to men with other predilections, this man's nonconscious mind has read all the available cues, put them together in an instant, and alerted him with various arousal signals that this particular woman fits his special psychological bill. The end result of this complex process is the simple experience of attraction, an experience that feels entirely spontaneous.

To say that a particular trait or image "fits the bill," however, only raises again the central question that this book is attempting to answer: what determines each person's "bill," each person's particular set of requirements for sexual arousal? Why, in West Side Story, was Maria exactly whom Tony was waiting for and vice versa? Whether it's in the form of a real person across the dance floor, a fantasy we use during sex, or a preferred sexual position or style of lovemaking we all require specially shaped psychological keys to unlock the internal doors to our sexual pleasure. When we happen upon such a key in the outside world, or imagine one in our fantasies, the arousal that results feels entirely natural and absent of any premeditation.

Sexual fantasies might be likened to microchips in which complex information is reduced and contained in a tiny, nearly invisible space. A version of this metaphor was first used by the psychoanalyst and sex researcher Robert Stoller. Stoller used the image of the "microdot" to convey the idea that a complicated fantasy was condensed into the moment of sexual arousal. Stoller's microdot, having entered the computer era, has now become a microchip! My patient's sexual fantasy of domination is just such a microchip. A huge amount of psychological information is packed into a simple fantasy. Similarly, a man's preference for big-breasted women, a woman's attraction to men in authority, someone's excitement about anal sex, or the erotic appeal of youthful innocence are all sexual microchips. All are experienced as simple and inexplicable sexual reflexes, but all contain a great deal of unconscious information and processing. The erotic outcome is the tip of the iceberg that is experienced consciously. The rest lies beneath the surface.

The nonconscious mind is operating not only in our interactions with things and people, it is also constantly affecting our conscious state of mind and emotional well-being. Even in ordinary social life, well outside a therapist's consulting room, the evidence for the centrality of unconscious thoughts and feelings is everywhere around us. For instance, we all take for granted that during sleep we make up elaborate stories and reflect on complicated problems in our dreams while our conscious minds are completely asleep. If someone close to us consistently forgets our birthday, we intuitively will not believe his or her claims of innocent forgetting but instead infer some other unspoken, ulterior, and unconscious motive. A patient of mine got a headache every time he visited his in-laws but was unaware of the connection until I brought it to his attention. Another patient got depressed every May and didn't have a clue as to why. She eventually realized that the explanation lay in the fact that her mother had died in May. Many of our responses are explicable only if we assume the existence of unconscious thoughts and feelings.

The unconscious is all around us. We chuckle when we observe prepubescent boys and girls exaggerating their disinterest in the opposite sex because we intuitively sense their struggle to suppress and keep unconscious their real feelings of attraction. A friend of mine dropped out of college when she was one course shy of graduating, claiming that she was just "tired of school." Even the most psychologically naive of her friends knew she was responding to some other issue, more deep-seated, about which she was unaware. We've all had the uncomfortable experience of realizing that a mannerism, trait, or behavior of ours is exactly like that of a parent, even though we have consciously vowed never to be like that parent. The unconscious process of identification has slipped below the radar of our conscious will. The unconscious basis of sexual arousal, then, should not be startling. The fact that it feels natural and instinctive does not mean that it is without complexity or without psychological meaning.

While I have come to reject many assumptions of psychoanalysis about the nature of sexual desire, one fact is irrefutable: psychoanalysis, more than any other theory, has helped us appreciate the power of the unconscious mind and informed our attempt to unlock the meaning of sexual excitement. Its aim has always been to get below the surface of our conscious experience and explore the deepest levels of our personalities. Freud thought—and I agree—that the aim of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious. He felt that when certain kinds of thoughts and feelings are kept out of our awareness, they come back to haunt us. In my clinical experience, when people come to understand their sexual preferences and fantasies, they not only feel less embarrassment, but gain tremendous insight into other areas of their personalities as well. They realize that the forces that shape the objects of their sexual attraction and that draw them to particular sexual scenarios are the same forces that affect their professional ambition, their capacity to love, and their mood states. We do not lose our passion by understanding its sources. By delving into the deepest levels of desire and conflict that generate our fantasies, we can stop feeling as though we are the victims of alien sexual impulses and compassionately appreciate our own needs and foibles. As sexual shame dissolves in response to insight, our capacity to enjoy our sexuality increases. More than that, however, when we understand our sexuality, we understand ourselves.


The identities of the patients in this book have been very carefully disguised in order to protect their privacy and the confidentiality of their therapy.

Excerpted from Arousal by Dr. Michael J. Bader. Copyright © 2002 by Michael J. Bader. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 How Sex Works 17
2 Sexual Fantasies as Antidotes to Guilt and Worry 50
3 Born to Lose: Sexual Fantasies as Antidotes to Shame and Rejection 80
4 From the Conventional to the Bizarre: Interpreting Sexual Fantasies 115
5 Sexual Pleasure and Boredom in Relationships 142
6 The Role of Sexual Fantasies in Psychotherapy 180
7 The Social Meaning of Sexual Fantasies 218
Conclusion: The Future of Sex: Final Reflections, Unanswered Questions 258
References 287
Index 289
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