They say the mind is the biggest, most powerful sex organ in the body. But, uh, don’t try visualizing that mental image too vividly or literally, unless you’re into that sorta thing?
Instead, imagine your favorite fictional crush pressing you up against a wall, or think back to the hottest sex you ever had in your life. Now stop imagining, because this magical place where all your desires are possible and acceptable exists. And literally anyone can tap into it.
“Engaging your imagination rather than relying on visual porn for example helps to build, enhance and strengthen your erotic mind,” said Dr. Britney Blair, co-founder and Chief Science Officer of the sexual wellness Lover app. “You can bring that imagination to life when you want to prime the pump on your desire or push yourself over the edge to climax while solo or with a partner.”
“It’s incredibly liberating, recognizing our own power to design the scenes and situations that turn us on.”
“In our minds we’re not confined to our studio apartments or our current sexual partners. There are no rules or judgments. Not even the laws of physics apply,” said Gina Gutierrez, co-founder of the popular audio erotica app Dipsea. “It’s incredibly liberating, recognizing our own power to design the scenes and situations that turn us on and to scrap the ones that don’t work for us.”
Don’t take our word for it, though. There’s science to show exactly how real the effects of a healthy erotic imagination are.
In a landmark 2016 study, Dr. Nan Wise — neuroscientist, sex therapist, and author of Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life — mapped the brain’s response when subjects merely imagined pleasurable stimulation on their genitals. Just by thinking about it, the pleasure centers in their brains “lit up like a Christmas tree,” Wise said.
“The mind is really the recipient of all the body’s sensations. So there’s this empirical evidence of a huge connection between the mind and pleasure,” she said.
While everyone can benefit from using their imagination as a sexual aid, it’s an especially potent practice for women and others who society has conditioned to feel ashamed about their sexuality.
“We have to do more work to lay down the connections, the neural pathways, between the genitals and the brain’s sensory reward regions,” said Wise. “Using your imagination to masturbate not only gives us the information about what stimulation we need, but also actually strengthens the connections between our genitals and the brain.”
Beyond that, getting off to our own sexual fantasies tackles another negative effect that patriarchy can have on women’s sexuality.
“We’re socialized to think of ourselves as the objects of other people’s desires, like we need to borrow someone else’s idea of pleasure” said Wise. That’s why learning how to be the subject of our own desires, to embody the pleasure we conjure up in our own mind, can be so empowering.
Everyone with a brain, genitals, and desire is already equipped to masturbate to their own sexual fantasies. And while the practice does come more naturally to some, it only takes little guidance and patience to unlock the endless possibilities tucked inside your erotic mind.
Set the right environment
Credit: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable
A major key in setting your mind up for erotic success is to ensure your environment allows your brain to feel fully relaxed, safe, and free from distraction.
Pick a time and place where you’ll have full privacy without needing to worry about any interruption, whether from roommates or notifications. For most people, that place will naturally be the bedroom. But put some effort into also making it a true fortress of sensual solitude, like by locking the door, setting your phone to airplane mode, putting on an eye mask, or maybe even using some essential oils and putting on your favorite sexy playlist.
Blair even recommends purposefully scheduling these more exploratory kind of session and making them habitual. So maybe it can be something you add to your nightly ritual before bed: Brush your teeth, do the skincare routine, put on some pajamas, then let your mind wander as you touch yourself.
Create a safe space in your mind
Of course, priming yourself with the right mindset is vital to unlocking your brain’s full fantasy potential.
One of the biggest hurdles to exploring our erotic imaginations is actually the engrained social shame many of us have picked up (even subconsciously) through sexism, homophobia, social stigmas, religion, etc.
“It’s important to know if that is coming up for you, you’re not alone. But there is no such thing as a wrong or right fantasy.” said Blair.
Treat your imagination as a judgement-free zone. To be fair, clearing or redirecting your mind away from feelings of shame is easier said than done. But certain exercises can help (which we’ll get into more in the mind-body connection section below).
Blair suggests that, while exploring sexual fantasies in your mind, try to distinguish between when you’re having a reaction versus a judgment to a certain scenario. Judgments often come from values imposed on you by something or someone else, while visceral reactions can be an indication that your mind wants to explore it further — especially if it’s something your never thought you’d be into.
It’s easy to get scared off by an intense response to a fantasy, and write that off as being too weird or outside the norm for your taste. But if you give yourself a second to assess where that response is coming from, you might actually find that the intensity comes from a part of you that you’ve never tried tapping into before.
“Everything is okay in the world of fantasy. No fantasy is a crime.”
Or maybe not, and that’s fine too. The point is, if you feel safe doing it, just try leaning into parts of your erotic mind that feel challenging and see where it goes.
“Everything is okay in the world of fantasy. No fantasy is a crime,” said Blair. “Whatever turns you on in your mind is totally healthy. Your fantasy doesn’t say anything about you except that you are lucky to have a rich imagination that you can use to have an exciting and enduring erotic life.”
That’s another major benefit of sexual fantasies versus traditional porn, too. You don’t have to worry about any ethical concerns, because your imagination can’t hurt you or anyone else. You’re in total control.
“You imagination is a completely safe space,” said Dipsea’s Gutierrez. “We can play out fantasies that are risky or illicit that we would never actually want to happen in real life. In our minds we’re free to experiment without consequences.”
Familiarize yourself with (but don’t feel limited by) common sexual fantasies
While the whole point is to tap into the unique potential of your own mind, a good jumping off point is to explore whether the most common sexual fantasies spark your interest. Researchers have labeled them into different categories, though there’s a world of possibilities within those labels as well.
Dr. Blair described these categories as multi-partner sex like group sex or threesomes; power, control, or rough sex; novelty, adventure, and variety; taboo and forbidden sex; partner sharing and non-monogamous relationships; passion and romance; and erotic flexibility like homoeroticism or gender-bending.
Jess O’Reilly is a sex educator, author of The New Sex Bible, and Astroglide’s resident sexologist. She explained that through each of these fantasy categories you can help identify the specific core erotic feelings that get you into a heightened state of arousal.
“Oftentimes, they relate to fantasy, escapism or subverting otherwise ‘negative’ emotions. You might find that sex is really hot when you feel powerful, submissive, challenged, mindful, or playful,” she said. “You may also find yourself aroused by feelings that you don’t naturally associate with pleasure, like jealousy, inadequacy, fear, and even humiliation can be exciting.”
What our brains often gravitate to most is pure novelty. What gets you off in a fantasy can actually be the total opposite of your real-life sexual orientation or even completely removed from you, as an abstract scenario happening to someone else entirely.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable
So don’t be weirded out if you learn that you’re as horny for that fish-god monster from The Shape of Water as the Academy Awards were in 2018. Or maybe you’re one of the many women who enjoys a rape fantasy — which, as Dr. Wise points out, in a fantasy context is the opposite of a real-life rape since, “you’re choosing to have the fantasy and who’s overpowering you. You’re in complete control.”
One other general rule of thumb Wise found is that while men tend toward more visually-oriented fantasies centered around preferred body parts, women tend to focus on overall scenarios. However, it’s impossible to distill the endless possibilities of human sexuality into neat categories. Which is why you also shouldn’t get discouraged or ashamed if none of these common fantasies do it for you.
“Our capacity for imagination is limitless,” said Wise. Don’t feel pressure to confine yours to a specific label.
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Start building your erotic imagination through fiction, porn, memories… anything!
The truth is that, while other obstacles might make it hard initially to give yourself permission to explore sexual fantasies, using your imagination is a very natural and innate part of being human. Who doesn’t fantasizing about getting up from their desk in the middle of a hard work day and quitting, or spend time daydreaming about how they’d furnish their dream apartment?
“We make Pinterest boards and save Instagram photos, collect and catalog all these things that we like. I recommend starting to do that for your sex life,” said Gutierrez. “Become more mindful observing what attracts you to someone. The moments where you feel sexiest. What you want to say out loud during sex but hesitate to. Then the next time you want to use your fantasy for pleasure, you know exactly where to draw from.”
Everything in your life can become part of your horny mood board.
Everything in your life can become part of your horny mood board.
We all have that one fictional character or public figure — whether from books, TV, movies, video games, or even politics and the internet — that just does it for us. Begin there, expanding into a specific sexy scene that got you going or whatever comes to mind when you think of that person. Heck, maybe you’re like me and realize that a silky, authoritative voice is actually your kink, leading a bunch of non-erotic popular podcasts to become your go-to spank bank material.
Audio erotica can be a great place to start if you don’t want to take the training wheels off yet to explore sexual fantasies of your own making. Unlike visual porn, audio erotica still exercises the muscles of your erotic imagination, asking you to fill in the details and paint the full picture. While we always recommend Dipsea, there’s also plenty of free ways to try audio erotica like r/gonewildaudio and Girl on the Net.
Once you’re ready to bring yourself more to the forefront of the fantasy, begin with a memory of the hottest, most visceral sex you’ve ever had. Really ground yourself back in that moment by recalling your senses: What position were you in? What did the person’s lust feel like? Were you sweating? How exactly did they touch you?
Touch yourself while pulling from all the erotic mental material you’ve curated, and don’t be afraid to really get your whole body involved in mimicking the sensations you’re creating through your mind. Maybe that means masturbating while you’re on all fours, or matching the tempo of the fantasy, or even dry-humping a pillow. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to orgasm throughout any of this, though, and instead just zero in on embodying the experience of your imagination.
“It’s about giving yourself full permission to explore all our internal pleasure places, and how we experience them in both our minds and bodies at the same time,” said Wise.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable
Try these exercises to strengthen your mind-body connection
Through her research and other studies in the field, Wise has ultimately found that, “This distinction we make between the mind and body is really a very arbitrary one.”
One of the best ways to embrace this in a way that engages your erotic fantasy life in is through something called mindful sex.
This increasingly popular branch of sex therapy describes a bunch of different practices and exercises that add a layer of sexuality to mindfulness, to help you stay present in your body while experiencing pleasure, train your mind to focus on whatever arouses you, and engage in a non-judgmental curious sexual mindset. Try out basic exercises like pleasure mapping (which Dipsea has a guide for), mindful masturbation (which you can read about here), and sensate focus (which you can read about here).
Wise also suggests a very simple exercise for getting your imagination more connected with your genitals on a neurological level: Just start by tapping or pleasurably touching your genitals, then stop, then think back on the sensations you felt while touching them. Try to recall and summon them back in your body: What did it feel like in your body when the stimulation was building, then dissipating?
At first, it might not feel like much at all and the pleasure may be pretty mild compared to what you’re used to while using more immediate erotic visual aids like porn.
“But you’ll slowly start to develop a better connection to that pleasure sensation channel in your brain,” she said.
Use your imagination during partnered sex
While sexual fantasies are a great way to enhance self-love, learning how to engage with them during partnered sex can also do wonders to get people over the edge and into orgasm.
At this point though, you might be wondering: Is it even OK to fantasize about other situations — or maybe even other people — while having sex with a partner?
“It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, as long as you’d come home to eat.”
“Yes, it’s an unequivocal yes! Because thinking about stuff is not the same as doing it,” said Wise. As the famous saying goes, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, as long as you’d come home to eat.”
It’s totally normal for your mind to desire novelty, especially if you’re not in a new relationship anymore. In fact, Wise found that one of the best ways to ensure a couples’ longevity is precisely this kind of openness and understanding that people need to fuel their erotic imagination with new stuff.
“If we can get over these kind of hang ups, get past this fear of our partners having a fantasy about somebody else while they’re with us, and instead use it as an opportunity talk about: What would you like? What haven’t we tried? What are you afraid to tell me? Because that’s hot. That’s really hot,” said Wise.
Or maybe instead of thinking about someone else, you’d simply rather use your imagination during partnered sex to transport you both to a setting or scenario that heightens your arousal even more.
In the end, what you do with your erotic imagination is up to you. You can share it if you’d like — or keep it all to yourself. That’s what’s so great about sexual fantasies you cut from your own cloth: They’re all yours, and no one else’s.
UPDATE: Jul. 4, 2023, 4:31 p.m. AEST This article was originally published in May 2020, and has since been updated in July 2023.