Sexual Fantasies about One's Partner versus Someone Else: Gender Differences in Incidence and Frequency

Article excerpt

Sexual fantasies can provide important insight into some of the different scripts that underlie the sexual arousal and sexual behavior of men and women in our culture (Gagnon & Simon, 1973). Because sexual fantasies are private and do not depend on the participation of a partner, they may be more revealing of gender differences in sexuality than actual behavior (Ellis & Symons, 1990). If men and women do differ, at least to some extent, in what they find sexually exciting or in their attitudes toward sexuality, these differences may be more apparent if they are not diluted by the inevitable compromises that people make in the interest of maintaining a relationship. In addition, in fantasy one can imagine whatever one likes unconstrained by social convention, practical and legal barriers, or by fears of embarrassment, criticism, or rejection (Wilson, 1997). Therefore, fantasies may provide a clearer picture than behavior of what is truly erotic to men and women.

Whether gender differences in sexuality should be attributed to distal evolutionary factors or proximal sociocultural factors remains a controversial and contentious topic (Angier, 1999; Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Eagley & Wood, 1999). However, as Oliver and Hyde (1993) noted in their meta-analytic review of gender differences in sexuality, evolutionary psychology and sociocultural theories actually agree on a number of predictions. For example, both theories generally predict that, on average, women will be more cautious than men in choosing sex partners and less interested in sex for its own sake outside of any romantic or relationship context. Evolutionary psychology perspectives on sexuality suggest that, compared to women, men may be more primed to respond to opportunities for having sex with multiple partners outside the context of a relationship. Sociocultural theorists similarly argue that due to differences in socialization, social roles, and sexual scripts, women are more prone to inhibit sexual interest unless it occurs within the context of a committed relationship.

Prior research has revealed a number of consistent gender differences in sexual fantasy content that are congruent with both evolutionary psychology and sociocultural perspectives (see review by Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Surprisingly, however, no previous studies have examined whether men and women differ in their likelihood of having sexual fantasies about their current partner as compared to fantasies about someone else (extradyadic fantasies). If men are indeed more likely than women to be aroused by sexual stimuli outside the context of a relationship, one would also predict that despite considerable within-gender variation, men on average would be more likely than women to have sexual fantasies that involve someone other than their current partner. In addition, it could be hypothesized that when women do fantasize about someone other than their current partner, they would be more likely than men to fantasize about a former partner with whom they have shared a close emotional connection in the past.

Because prior research has consistently shown that men report having more frequent sexual fantasies in total than women (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995), the present study will control for this response pattern in data analysis. Otherwise, any difference in the frequency of extradyadic fantasies could simply reflect the fact that men report more frequent sexual fantasies in general. We predict that even after controlling for the total frequency of sexual fantasies, men as compared to women will report that a larger proportion of their sexual fantasies involve someone other than their current partner.

We also controlled for two other behaviors that men engage in on average more often than women that might be related to having a higher proportion of extradyadic fantasies. Men tend to report that they have had a greater number of sex partners than women (e. …