The human mind is a mysterious organ that can suddenly conjure an aardvark undergoing a gynecological exam while operating a hot air balloon. So it’s difficult to know when or if we should feel too bad about anything we cook up, especially when we’re being intimate with others. Case in point: A guy writing to sex columnist Dan Savage wants to know if thinking about other women during sex with his girlfriend is grounds for shame and guilt, or if he is innocent of the sex thought crime charges levied against him.
Writer Guilty Over Nebulous Ecstasy (GONE), asks:
I’m a 32-year-old guy, my gal is 34, and we’ve been together for two years. Every time we get it on or she goes down on me (though not when I eat her out), my mind wanders to fantasies involving porno chicks, exes, or local baristas. A certain amount of this is normal, but I’m concerned that this now happens every time. When I’m about to come, I shift my mind back to my partner and we have a hot climax, but I feel guilty. Advice?
First off, we must all feel collectively uncertain about our roaming sex thoughts because some variation on this question — what do you REALLY think about during sex? — has been asked on Reddit over and over and over. Those answers range from funny to weird.
“The 1957 Milwaukee Braves starting lineup,” one commenter writes. “Can I cum in her” and “should I just cum in her,” another offers. “Dead puppies,” another says. “What can I say, it’s the only way to not let the first one off too fast.” Most of the answers center around thinking of how good it feels, to simply lasting as long as possible. “Don’t cum don’t cum don’t cum don’t cum,” is one such regular answer.
While deeply insightful, such answers don’t actually get at the letter writer’s question, which is, basically, is it okay to think about other people or not? There’s no honest way to know how often people fantasize about someone else, fictional or otherwise, while having sex. It’s unprovable, and there’s great incentive to lie. (We did conduct a private Twitter poll just out of curiosity, and as of this writing, roughly 32 percent of respondents said they do think about someone else “sometimes” during sex. No one said they always did it. About 39 percent answered “rarely”; an impressive or dishonest 29 percent said “never.”)
One online survey of 1,300 people in 2015, from a sex toy company in London, found not-too-far off results: That 46 percent of women admit they’ve thought of someone else during sex, while 42 percent of men throw some other lady into their mental rotation. Hard to say why — perhaps women are slightly less satisfied in bed and need that extra visual boost — but the people most fantasized about were close friends, colleagues and bosses, and exes. Yes, many people dipped back into memories from people they’d actually slept with. Some people went on to sleep with the people they’d admitted to fantasizing about while with others.
While that’s going to be terrifyingly gross news to some, most experts on sex or relationships maintain that imagining someone else up top while giving an entirely different person the business down below is generally normal and benign—with some caveats, of course.
One therapist writing at Psychology Today takes the angle that it’s okay every once in a while to think of someone else, but wouldn’t be cool on a regular basis to think of someone else every time you do it. Seth Meyers (presumably not that Seth Meyers) writes:
Once in a blue moon, if you find yourself in the middle of an intimate act fantasizing about another, you should not be horrified or feel guilty. If you find yourself fantasizing about someone else on a regular basis, your fantasy has become a coping mechanism to handle feelings about your relationship. You could be bored or angry at your partner, and your fantasy becomes your defense against incorporating intimacy with your partner.
In other words: I’ll give you the literal real estate of my body, but not the mental real estate in my mind! Solid move.
A therapist at Health.com says to go to town on the rich inner fantasies front:
So thinking about other men — celebrities, complete strangers, aliens, whatever! — by no means implies that you’re unhappily married or not sexually satisfied by your mate. In fact, having a variety of sexual fantasies is actually a positive thing if it helps improve your arousal when you’re with your partner.
Note: Alien erotica is real.
Two experts — psychologist and sex therapist Gail Wyatt, and gynecologist Lewis Wyatt—writing at The Root also say that the practice of calling up a virtual rolodex of other people during sex is very common. Sex with one person may become routine, and by basically inserting this other fantasy into play, they explain, you can spice up your own relationship on the sly to your partner’s benefit. They write:
Actually, the question is not who you are thinking about but for what reason. If you are using fantasy to heighten your sexual arousal and ability to experience an orgasm with your partner, that is not cheating. There is no question that fantasizing can make sex more pleasurable if your partner receives the benefits (more pleasure and perhaps an orgasm).
But they all caution against a few scenarios that may not be so innocuous. The Root:
When is it really cheating? When you are thinking about another person because you are actually having sex with him or her or planning to. In other words, you are not just fantasizing — you are remembering actual sex that you had or want to have with someone else. This is not fantasy for stimulation or excitement to benefit your partner; this is fantasy that may indicate that you would really prefer to be with someone else. This is when you might call out the name of someone else — you are so into your fantasy sex that you get confused about who you are actually with.
They go on to say that if you’re imagining someone else you’d rather have sex with, it’s “replacement sex,” which they think counts as infidelity, and you need to stop using your partner.
Of course, a lot of advice like this will sound theoretically perfect yet really difficult to pull off: If you can only just realize you’re thinking about someone else too much during sex, all you have to do is stop and recalibrate, and instead think of either someone you’re not actually trying to sleep with, and/or spice up your sex life. Just get up in there, talk about the single most difficult subject in a relationship and clear the air! Or, you know, break up and go be with that other person you can’t stop imagining bent over the bed.
That said, one thing most experts do say that sounds dead on and a thousand percent correct is that you should never tell a partner that you’re thinking of someone else. The Root says:
Remember, fantasizing about other people is not a problem unless you make it one or think that it is. If you ask your partner who she is thinking about, you may get your feelings hurt, when you are actually enjoying sex.
This happened to a girl on Reddit, who said her boyfriend admitted to her (during a non-sex conversation) that he thinks of other women during sex with her just like he does when he jerks off, and as you can imagine, she will be scarred for the rest of her life.
The problem is, we all know on some level this is happening sometimes, at least for many or most of us. Sex for some people needs to feel pure and exclusive, unless what’s sexy is talking about other people while you’re doing it. But that’s something two people mutually participate in, so it’s not the same thing as finding out someone is having a private movie screening in their head while with you. Even if it’s common and normal, it can feel disingenuous.
The counter-argument here is that we should all just accept that this is normal and mostly okay so that we can all get over it and live our lives with brutal honesty: Babe you feel so good inside me right now even though I’m just imagining my high school boyfriend. Love you!
Something in the middle would be the mutual acknowledgement that some of this may happen, without disclosing it in the moment. Dan Savage’s advice falls perfectly within these aforementioned parameters: He tells GONE to just try to shift his energy back to his girlfriend more often during sex to remain engaged and not sweat the rest. “A lot of people allow their mind to wander a bit during sex — supplementing the present sensations with memories, fantasies, local baristas, etc. If it keeps you hard/wet/game and isn’t perceptible (if you don’t start mumbling coffee orders), your partner benefits from your wanderings,” he writes.
In a perfect world, we’d be perfectly aligned sexually, emotionally, intellectually, romantically and in every other way so that every time we have sex it would be an epic demonstration of deep intimacy and sexual fulfillment. Instead, a lot of people have been having the same sex for a long time, and they need that extra jolt — the kind that, sometimes, only the local barista can provide. Compassion, much like daily caffeine, is critical.