Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 9, Nov. 16, 2006


Through a Glass Darkly: Deviance in Sexual Fantasy

Arien Muzacz, B.A.

Presented Nov. 11, 2006 at the SSSS Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, NV.  

Do not duplicate or quote this manuscript without author’s permission.

Please contact akm322@verizon.net if you wish to use any portion of this material.

The subject of sexual fantasy has been discussed by psychologists for over a century, beginning with Freud in the early 1900s, and in recent decades, sexual fantasy’s relationship to deviant sexual behavior has increasingly gained attention (Davison, 1968; Abel & Blanchard, 1974; Looman, 1995; Laws & O’Donohue, 1997; McKibben, Proulx, & Lussier, 2001; Dandescu & Wolfe, 2003). However, the nature of fantasy and its role in our sexual and nonsexual lives still remains relatively enigmatic. Since sexual fantasies are arousing and their content is often considered taboo, they are sometimes not considered worthy of serious scientific contemplation, but sexual fantasies can provide valuable data as catalysts to, or records of, sexual behavior (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Deviant sexual fantasy, while less frequent than other types of sexual fantasy, has warranted investigation because it is often assumed that sex offenders are more likely to engage in deviant sexual fantasy and deviant sexual behavior (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). In this paper, I will consider the themes of dominance and submission in deviant sexual fantasy, I will discuss the role of deviant sexual fantasy in the etiology of deviant sexual behavior, and I will examine the relationship between deviant sexual fantasy and deviant sexual behavior in sex offenders and non-offenders. After reviewing the literature, I will also explain how the current research emphasis on sex offenders contributes to the stigmatization of deviant sexual fantasy and behavior, and I will propose areas for further study into the role of deviant sexual fantasies in the lives of people who act upon them.


According to Leitenberg and Henning (1995), sexual fantasies are “deliberate patterns of thought designed to stimulate or enhance pleasurable sexual feelings regardless of whether the fantasies involve reminiscing about past sexual experiences, imagining anticipated future sexual activity, engaging in wishful thinking, or having daydreams that are exciting to imagine without any desire to put them into practice” (p. 470). Zurbriggen and Yost (2004) define sexual fantasy as “private mental events” whose singular purpose is “to induce pleasurable feelings of desire and arousal” (p. 289). Sexual fantasies can also induce feelings of guilt or shame when they involve content that the individual feels is inappropriate or unacceptable (Davison, 1968).

Recurrent themes noted in studies of the sexual fantasies of heterosexual men and women over the past three decades include: sexual intercourse with a real or imaginary lover, reliving a past sexual experience, sexual acts with multiple partners, sex with a celebrity, sex acts that one would never do in reality, and being forced or forcing someone to have sex (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Of those themes, the most common are: reliving a sexual experience, sex with a current partner, and sex with another partner, either real or imaginary (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). These sexual fantasy themes are common to most people, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995), but every person’s fantasy life is different, and one person’s ideal sexual fantasy may fail to arouse or may even repulse another person.

According to Gee, Devilly and Ward (2004), deviant sexual fantasies share the imaginative and erotic aspects of general sexual fantasy, but they contain themes relating to sadism, sexual aggression, and illegal or socially unacceptable behavior. The ambiguous phrase “socially unacceptable” leaves open a wide range of possibilities, from mate swapping or voyeurism with like-minded individuals at a party to bondage, humiliation or beating of a consensual sexual partner in the privacy of one’s own home (Gellerman & Suddath, 2005). Focusing solely on the “illegal” aspect of deviant fantasy, McKibben, Proulx and Lussier (2001) state, “a deviant fantasy consists of a sexual cognition involving a nonconsenting or nonadult participant or both” (p. 261). Curnoe and Langevin (2002) offer a more extreme definition, “[d]eviant sexual fantasies may be viewed as pathological, as an escape from reality, a rehearsal to act out, as a prepsychotic state, or as susceptibility to psychosis” (p. 805).

There remains some debate regarding which sexual fantasies, if any, should be considered “deviant” (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Engaging in deviant sexual fantasy can meet part of the diagnostic criteria for mental disorders, but if the deviant fantasy does not also cause distress or impairment of functioning, it does not qualify as a symptom of dysfunction (Krueger & Kaplan, 1997). Should “deviant sexual fantasy” encompass all imagery of atypical, legal behavior between consenting adults (i.e., sadomasochism)? Should it contain statistically common fantasies of illegal behavior (i.e., rape fantasies)? Furthermore, if a sexual fantasy containing illegal or socially unacceptable behavior is never acted out, is the fantasy still deviant (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995)? Is every deviant sexual fantasy a potential blueprint, a ‘rehearsal,’ for deviant sexual behavior? Additional research is needed before these queries can be answered with confidence, but recent studies have started to look at the content of deviant sexual fantasy and the nature of deviant sexual behavior.

Currently, the term “sexual deviance” refers to a variety of aberrant sexual behaviors, including non-coercive paraphilias – fetishism, sadomasochism, coprophilia and urophilia, transvestism, and autoerotic asphyxiophilia – and coercive paraphilias – exhibitionism, frotteurism (or frottage), scatolophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia, voyeurism and pedophilia (Types of Atypical Sexual Behaviors, 2003). “Sexual deviance” is also used to refer to sexual acts that are illegal, such as rape, child molestation, bestiality, and nonconsensual exhibitionism, voyeurism and frottage (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Gellerman & Suddath, 2005). People who engage in non-coercive paraphilias alone or with a partner may be labeled sexual deviates, but their actions are legal, and according to the DSM-IV, sexually deviant behavior is not a mental disorder unless it is a symptom of a biological, psychological, or behavioral dysfunction in an individual that causes distress or impairment of function (Laws & O’Donohue, 1997). Laws and O’Donohue (1997) point out that when looking at sexually deviant behavior, there is a lack of consistent criteria upon which to distinguish permissible, healthy behavior from harmful, unhealthy behavior. They propose a few basic questions – Does the behavior harm others? Does it deviate from a statistical norm? Is the behavior maladaptive? – but it remains the task of mental health professionals to make those assessments (Laws & O’Donohue, 1997).

Themes in Deviant Sexual Fantasy

Having a desire to dominate or submit to one’s partner during sex or for sexual arousal is not socially acceptable (Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004), but these desires are found within the spectrum of sexual activities of consenting adults and their themes are prevalent in sexual fantasy (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Fantasies of dominance and submission may include verbal control, physical control, sadomasochism, general power differentials such as status or age (Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004), spanking, whipping, tying someone up, or seducing a virgin (Renaud & Byers, 2005).


Men and women report having fantasies about dominating a sexual partner, but these fantasies are among the least commonly reported sexual fantasies (Renaud & Byers, 2005). One explanation for the lack of frequency of these fantasies, especially female/dominant and male/submissive, may be that men and women feel pressure to conform to traditional norms of gendered behavior (Sanchez, Crocker & Boike, 2005). It is unclear from the current research whether there is an actual lack of frequency of these fantasies or a lack of reporting, but either case could be explained by respondents’ desire to conform to gender role stereotypes prevalent in Western culture, i.e., dominant males and submissive females (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). When women have reported dominant fantasies, they have sometimes been associated with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (i.e., willingness to engage in casual sex), showing that women who choose to break away from traditional gender role stereotypes in their behaviors also do so in their fantasy lives (Yost & Zurbriggen, 2006). Interestingly, Zurbriggen and Yost (2004) found that when females engaged in dominant sexual fantasy, the fantasy involved multiple partners, but when males engaged in dominant sexual fantasy, the fantasy was dyadic, with the male and one partner. Fantasies of sexual acts with multiple partners can be arousing because they depict an ideal of a powerful, desirable self (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995).

Fantasies about being sexually dominant are more common among men (Greendlinger & Byrne, 1987). The assumption has been that men find these dominant fantasies enjoyable, but a survey of 292 heterosexual male and female undergraduate students found that males reported negative thoughts about sexual dominance with a significantly greater frequency than females (Renaud & Byers, 2005). The females in their study reported more frequent positive thoughts of sexual dominance (Renaud & Byers, 2005). Not surprisingly, they also found that males and females who engaged in sexual coercion in their relationships reported more positive impressions of sexual dominance (Renaud & Byers, 2005).

In a study of 130 heterosexual males and females recruited from a midwestern town, Zurbriggen and Yost (2004) found that, among males, there was a correlation between sexual fantasies of force and belief in victim-blaming myths about rape. Note 1. In Greendlinger and Byrne’s (1987) sample of non-criminal undergraduate males, 35.7% reported having a fantasy of raping a woman, and 63.7% reported wanting to use force to subdue a woman. In a disturbing connection between fantasy and behavior, males reporting fantasies involving the use of force said they would be more likely to rape a woman if they knew they wouldn’t get caught, and they were more likely to have used coercion in previous sexual relationships with women (Greendlinger & Byrne, 1987). Laws and O’Donohue (1997) argue that there should be a category of mental disorder in the DSM-IV for males who can be aroused by coerced sex, but to date, there is not.


Fantasies of submitting to a sexual partner have also been reported by men and women, but they are reported more frequently by females (20%) than males (15%; Person et. al., 1989, as cited in Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). In a study by Strassberg and Lockerd (1998) of 137 female undergraduate students, over half the respondents reported having at least one fantasy involving being forced to engage in sex.

Female fantasies of submission, rather than containing violent or harmful content, often involve romantic themes where an attractive and desirable partner or an imaginary lover becomes overwhelmed with his desire for the woman and uses force or coercion to get her to submit to his sexual advances (Strassberg & Lockerd, 1998). In that sense, female fantasies of submission are actually fantasies of being powerful and in control, affirming irresistibility (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). In a study of 85 men and 77 women, ages 21-45, Zurbriggen and Yost (2004) found that submissive sexual fantasies are not associated with negative attitudes toward self or others in males or females. Similarly, Strassberg and Lockerd (1998) report that women who engage in submissive fantasies may have a more positive view of their own sexuality and experience less sex guilt. In contrast, Sanchez, Kiefer and Ybarra (2006) found a relationship between sexually submissive behavior and decreased sexual arousal in women and made the argument that women implicitly associate sex with submission, with negative consequences. It is possible that that the meaning of submission in fantasy, i.e., power and desirability without guilt, differs from the experience of submission in reality. We know very little about men who experience submissive fantasies; there is speculation that these men consider their female sex partners their equals (Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004).

Deviant Fantasy and Deviant Sexual Behavior

The Etiology of Deviant Sexual Behavior

Abel and Blanchard’s (1974) findings led them to postulate that deviant fantasy is a key component of the development of sexual preferences, including deviant sexual behavior. Since their groundbreaking study, a variety of clinical studies involving sex offenders have identified multiple factors relating to the development of a preference for sexually deviant activity, including deviant fantasy (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004; Baumgartner, Scalora, & Huss, 2002; Kaplan & Green, 1995; Vandiver & Kercher, 2004; Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004; Daleiden, et. al., 1998; Dandescu & Wolfe, 2003). In a sample of 118 males who committed sexual offenses with adult women, these factors included a family environment that is sexually inappropriate, the use of pornographic material and deviant sexual fantasy during childhood and adolescence (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). In a study of 64 child molesters and 41 nonsexual offenders, Baumgartner, Scalora and Huss (2002) found that the child molesters were significantly more likely to have histories of physical or sexual abuse, and to have acted out in a sexually inappropriate manner in adolescence. In a sample of 24 males who committed sexual offenses against adults or children, when interviewed about their childhood and adulthood prior to their first offense, 17% reported fantasies containing deviant sexual content that, if acted upon, would be considered a sexual offense, and 8% reported that they fantasized about their specific offense from an early age (Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004). According to Ressler, Burgess and Douglas (1992), 61% of a cohort of sexually motivated murderers studied by the FBI reported having had sexual fantasies about rape in adolescence, with the first fantasy occurring between ages 12 and 17.

In a study of incarcerated adolescent and teenage male sex offenders, Daleiden, et. al. (1998) found that, in comparison to male college students and incarcerated male nonsexual offenders of the same age, the sex offenders reported fewer typical and consenting sexual behaviors and more unconsenting and deviant behaviors than the nonsexual offenders and college students. One would expect that the young sex offenders would also engage in more deviant fantasy, but neither the sex offenders nor the nonsexual offenders reported higher levels of deviant fantasy, a finding that may be attributable to a desire to withhold or minimize Note 2 their deviant fantasies (Daleiden, et. al., 1998).

There are very few studies of female sex offenders or their backgrounds. In one study, Kaplan and Green (1995) found that sex offenders reported a higher incidence of physical abuse and childhood sexual abuse, especially within the family, than non-sexual offenders. In another study, Vandiver and Kercher (2004) concurred that female sex offenders tend to have histories of sexual abuse and intrafamilial abuse, as well as substance abuse and personality disorders.

Current research suggests that developmental experiences and childhood traumas play a larger role than deviant sexual fantasy in predicting deviant sexual behavior (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004; Baumgartner, Scalora, & Huss, 2002; Kaplan & Green, 1995; Vandiver & Kercher, 2004). Patterns of coercive and atypical sexual behavior in childhood or adolescence, like those reported in the study by Daleiden, et. al (1998), can serve to reinforce ideas that sexual acts involve violence or victimization. All of the aforementioned factors – inappropriate sexual behavior within the family, physical abuse, sexual abuse, use of pornographic material, early onset of sexual fantasy, sexual acting out or coercive sexual behaviors in childhood or adolescence, personality disorders and substance abuse – combined with deviant sexual fantasy, can lay the groundwork for sexual offending.

Deviant Sexual Fantasy Among Sex Offenders

Sex offenders and non-offenders alike have deviant sexual fantasies, and a recent study found that not only do non-offenders have more sexual fantasies overall, but the percentage of sex offenders with deviant fantasies is fairly low (33%; Langevin, Lang & Curnoe, 1998). In a comparison of child molesters, nonsexual offenders, college students, and non-offending sexual deviants (fetishists, sadomasochists and polyvariants), Baumgartner, Scalora and Huss (2002) found that the child molesters and nonsexual offenders reported significantly lower levels of sexual fantasy than the college students or the non-offending sexual deviants.

There is sometimes a relationship between deviant fantasies and the commission of rape, child molestation or other sexual crimes – in other words, a relationship between fantasy and behavior – but the relationship is correlative, not causal (Gellerman & Suddath, 2005). UCSB’s “SexInfo” website warns, “Fantasies can be dangerous if you fantasize about deviant sexual behavior such as rape or child molestation. Fantasizing about these behaviors could condition you to rely on these activities to become aroused” (Fantasy, 2003). That explanation is too simplistic; most people who have deviant fantasies do not become sex offenders and not all sex offenders have deviant fantasies (Langevin, Lang & Curnoe, 1998; Baumgartner, Scalora, & Huss, 2002). As explained in the previous section, many factors contribute to sexual offending (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004).

Baumgartner, Scalora and Huss (2002) administered the Wilson Sex Fantasy Questionnaire to child molesters and nonsexual offenders. Based on their findings, Baumgartner, Scalora and Huss (2002) suggest that a majority of sexual fantasies experienced by child molesters involve being in a position of dominance rather than a position of submission, as a way of compensating for feelings of powerlessness or lack of confidence. Looman (1995) found that child molesters were more likely to fantasize about children when in a negative mood after arguing with a wife or girlfriend, experiencing rejection by a woman, or feeling angry or depressed, and that the fantasies often served to prolong the negative affective state.

Although the content of sexual fantasy for a sex offender may not vary greatly from the content of sexual fantasy for a non-offender, Gee, Devilly and Ward (2003) observed that the function of deviant sexual fantasy may be like the function of pornography, in that the fantasy content may serve to desensitize a potential offender to the inappropriate aspects of an offense, making him more likely to bring the fantasy into reality. In a recent case cited in the Australian press, numerous documents describing fantasies of removing and eating children’s body parts were seized by police at the home of a 42-year-old man who was arrested for possession of 794 pornographic images of children (Ahwan, 2006). Although the man, Robert John Walker, told the court he wrote down his fantasies to avoid carrying them out, psychiatrist Craig Raeside observed that the documents were too graphic to be used as a preventative measure and were more likely feeding his fantasies and increasing his risk of sexual offending (Ahwan, 2006). Gellerman and Suddath (2005) warn that fantasies involving sexual acts with children can signal a greater degree of risk than violent sexual fantasies involving adults, and the observation of these fantasies by a mental health professional “establish[es] a duty to prevent potential future victims, even when there is no expressed intention or a history of acting on the fantasies” (p. 487).

The Internet provides many opportunities for adults to solicit minors for sex, and current investigations by law enforcement agencies and national television news programs assert that “virtual” social settings like online chat rooms may blur the line between fantasy and reality enough to put minors at risk (Mitchell, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2005; Harpo Productions, 2006). Interactions between undercover agents and adults who communicate with minors about sexual topics can provide valuable information about the role of deviant fantasy. Following Gee, Devilly and Ward’s (2003) hypothesis that deviant fantasy may serve to gradually desensitize potential offenders until they are comfortable with the prospect of actually committing a particular sex offense, it is notable that online offenders and captured sex offenders had comparable rates of child pornography possession, 41% in online investigations and 39% of offenders with adolescent victims (Mitchell, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2005). Undercover police investigations conducted online may shed some light onto the risk factors within the population of adults who solicit minors for sex, some of whom may be potential sex offenders, and help mental health professionals assess the dangerousness of individuals who present deviant sexual fantasies in the course of treatment (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2005; Gellerman & Suddath, 2005).

While the presence of deviant sexual fantasy is not the sole factor contributing to the commission of sex offenses, Gellerman and Suddath (2005) recommend that whenever anyone presents a deviant sexual fantasy in a therapeutic setting, “[a] thorough assessment of the risk factors for dangerousness, the nature of the fantasy, and the attitudes and behavior related to the fantasy may help distinguish whether the fantasy represents a serious danger” (p. 494). Since members of the nonsexual offender and college student groups surveyed by Daleiden and his colleagues (1998) reported engagement in sexual activities with unconsenting partners, and Renaud and Byers’ (2005) subjects reported using sexual coercion, more investigation into unincarcerated populations is also warranted, as those individuals obviously posed a threat of violence to their sex partners.

A thorough examination of the function, method, and effectiveness of treatment for sex offenders is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, acknowledgement that sex offenders are a heterogeneous population with different personality types, even when their crimes are similar, can have important diagnostic and treatment implications (Okami & Goldberg, 1992; Swaffer, et. al., 2000; Curnoe & Langevin, 2002; Gray, et. al., 2005). When more research exists about the function of deviant fantasy in sex offenders, professionals will be better equipped to address how offenders use deviant sexual fantasy. In addition, more information about the other factors that contribute to sexual offending will enable treatment of sex offenders to evolve into more effective, tailored interventions that could contribute to lower rates of recidivism within this potentially dangerous population (Swaffer et. al., 2000; Vandiver & Kercher, 2004; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).

Deviant Sexual Fantasy Among Non-offenders

The focus of researchers on illegal activities involving unconsenting partners serves to promote stigmatization and gives the impression that individuals who have deviant fantasies or who engage in deviant sexual behaviors are criminal or mentally ill, in spite of evidence to the contrary (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995; Baumeister & Butler, 1997; Langevin, Lang, & Curnoe, 1998). The majority of research on deviant sexual fantasy and deviant sexual behavior has been conducted on sex offenders, even though less than 50% of sex offenders report deviant fantasies (Langevin, Lang, & Curnoe, 1998).

It is important to underscore the point that individuals who are not sex offenders have deviant sexual fantasies and engage in deviant sexual behaviors (Baumgartner, Scalora & Huss, 2002). While it remains the duty of mental health professionals to assess other risk factors in cases where a deviant fantasy contains images of extreme violence or involves children, there are other areas of paraphilic (fetish) and sadomasochistic fantasy that involve images of adults and do not pose a risk to anyone (Gellerman & Suddath, 2005; Laws & O’Donohue, 1997). These deviant fantasies serve to arouse and may be acted upon with a consenting partner. For example, a fantasy of frotteurism that involves touching or rubbing against another person, and the act of frotteurism with a consenting partner, is neither illegal nor symptomatic of a mental disorder (Krueger & Kaplan, 1997). However, if the fantasy involves touching or rubbing against an unsuspecting and unconsenting person in a crowd, it represents an illegal act, and if the fantasy or the behavior continues for at least 6 months and is accompanied by distress in social or occupational functioning, it meets the diagnostic criteria for the mental disorder of frotteurism listed in the DSM-IV (Krueger & Kaplan, 1997).

The continuum from “normal” to “mentally disordered” holds true for other deviant sexual behaviors as well. Fetishism, sexual fixation on an object or group of objects, can encompass a range of fantasies and behaviors from the normal to the abnormal (Mason, 1997). Exhibitionistic behavior and voyeurism are legal when they involve other consenting adults, but become illegal and can be symptomatic of a disorder when they involve strangers (Murphy, 1997; Kaplan & Krueger, 1997). Acting out fantasies of dominance or submission like the ones described earlier, and practicing sexual sadism or masochism in tandem with other sexual activities, is not pathological (Baumeister & Butler, 1997; Hucker, 1997). More extreme forms of sexual sadism, like stabbing and mutilation, unquestionably are (Hucker, 1997). Laws and O’Donohue (1997) make a succinct statement in regards to fetish that can be applied to any deviant sexual fantasy or behavior: “If all parties are consenting, it hurts no one” (p. 4).

Advocacy groups like the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) are committed to creating a political, legal, and social environment in the United States that advances the equal rights of consenting adults who practice forms of alternative sexual expression, including types of deviant sexual behavior (NCSF Mission Statement, 2005). Large cities like New York, San Francisco, Tampa, and Los Angeles have “fetish parties” where adults with deviant sexual interests can gather, and some “bondage fanatics” are even found at gatherings in rural towns like Omaha, Nebraska (Alexander, 2006; Doty, 2006). Baumeister and Butler (1997) note that sexual activities like oral sex or masturbation “were once condemned” and are “now relatively common and accepted” (p. 225). They believe that sexual masochism, which has grown more prevalent in media images, is on its way to being similarly accepted (Baumeister & Butler, 1997). They could be right, given that homosexuality was also classified as a mental disorder until 1973, and today, it is not (Spitzer, 1981; Laws & O’Donohue, 1997).

Individuals’ right to privacy and negative stigmas surrounding sexual deviance make these behaviors and fantasies difficult to study outside of institutions, as individuals may not admit to engaging in these behaviors or to having fantasies about them (Laws & O’Donohue, 1997; Alexander, 2006). The focus of research on criminal populations and media reports about sex offenders may actually contribute to people’s desire to hide or underreport deviant fantasy or deviant behavior, because they do not want to have anything in common with criminals (Alexander, 2006). Although a few studies have included noncriminal, non-offender samples within their subject pools, very little is known about the function of deviant fantasy in the etiology of deviant sexual behavior in noncriminal populations (Daleiden, et. al., 1998; Baumgartner, Scalora, & Huss, 2002). Future research could include the fantasies of individuals willing to admit their engagement in sexually deviant behavior, following the example of Baumgartner, Scalora and Huss (2002), who included a sample of noncriminal fetishists, sadomasochists, and polyvariants. Studying noncriminal individuals who engage in deviant sexual behavior, and looking at the content of their sexual fantasies, can help researchers determine how deviant behavior evolves within that population, and further inform comparisons between them and sex offenders.

Future Areas of Research

The advantage to having a paucity of information on any given topic is the opportunity for future investigation. Very little is known about deviant fantasy or deviant sexual behavior in adolescents, non-heterosexual populations, or female sex offenders (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995; Kaplan & Green, 1995; Hunter & Mathews, 1997; Vandiver & Kercher, 2004). Many of the studies referenced in the above discussion have stated that further research will be necessary before their findings can be validated or generalized (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995; Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004; Langevin, Lang, & Curnoe, 1998; Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004; Dandescu & Wolfe, 2003).

Exploration of individuals’ sexual fantasies is rife with methodological flaws and ethical constraints (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995; Laws & O’Donohue, 1997). Self-report measures are rarely uniform or completely accurate, multiple-choice questionnaires may not capture the depth and breadth of fantasy or sexual experience, volunteer subjects may not represent the population at large, and certain topics (e.g., deviant sexual behavior in adolescents) cannot be studied without posing an ethical dilemma (Laws & O’Donohue, 1997). Compounding these problems, there is no psychometrically sound method for measuring sexual fantasy (Laws & O’Donohue, 1997). Methodology (i.e., grounded theory), data collection methods (i.e., self-report questionnaires, fantasy logs), and limitations on sample size or variation all leave room for replication and advancement with larger samples or more diverse populations (Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004; Strassberg & Lockerd, 1998; Okami & Goldberg, 1992; Kaplan & Green, 1995).


The content and function of deviant sexual fantasy vary widely. Deviant sexual fantasies depict deviant sexual behaviors that are illegal or socially unacceptable (Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004). One common theme in deviant sexual fantasy, dominance, relates to feelings of desirability in women, and can relate to feelings of desirability or to acts of sexual coercion in men (Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004). Another common theme in sexual fantasy, submission, relates to a positive view of one’s own sexuality in women (Strassberg & Lockerd, 1998). More research on men who have submissive fantasies is needed before conclusions can be drawn about their beliefs or characteristics (Zurbriggen & Yost, 2004).

Deviant sexual fantasy does not necessarily indicate a risk of harm to self or others, but it is often correlated with other factors, like physical or sexual abuse in childhood, as a precursor to sexual offending (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004; Kaplan & Green, 1995). Within the mental health community, particular attention should be paid to individuals reporting deviant fantasies involving children, as those individuals are thought to be at greater risk for committing sexual offenses than individuals who report other types of deviant sexual fantasy (Gellerman & Suddath, 2005).

Deviant fantasy is no longer considered a causal factor of sexual offending (Gellerman & Suddath, 2005), but more investigation is necessary into the role played by deviant fantasy in the development of deviant sexual behavior, especially within non-criminal populations. Future research could focus on developing assessment tools for sexual fantasy, or on replicating studies with larger or more diverse samples. Studies of deviant fantasy in adolescents, sexual minorities or female sex offenders would also enrich this growing body of research. Armed with more information about deviant fantasy and deviant behavior, mental health professionals can better determine when a deviant fantasy is “just a fantasy” that will not be acted upon, when it is a precursor to a sexual offense, and when it is a plan for consensual sexual behavior.


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Note 1. Sample question from Burt’s (1980) 19-item Rape Myth Acceptance Scale: “When women go around braless or wearing short skirts and tight tops, they are just asking for trouble” (Yost & Zurbriggen, 2006).

Note 2. Prior to treatment, sex offenders often try to give “socially desirable” responses, and either underreport their sexual fantasies, or report them inaccurately, e.g., saying that they only fantasize about teenagers, and admitting, post-treatment, that their most frequent fantasies are of prepubescent children (Swaffer, et. al., 2000; Gray, et. al., 2005).

Note 3. This figure could be inaccurate because sex offenders often try to give “socially desirable” responses, and may underreport deviant sexual fantasies (Swaffer, et. al., 2000; Gray, et. al., 2005).