In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends visit the great and terrible Oz. They need him because he can grant their wishes: a heart, a brain, courage, and a way home. When they first see him, they’re also terrified. He’s a giant, disembodied head, surrounded by smoke and lightening. And he’s angry. He’s alluring and he’s dangerous.
Until Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain on him and they realize he’s just a man with a microphone and some special effects.
The same is true of your fantasies. Once you pull back the curtain, they cease to be so enticing or intimidating. But unlike Oz, you won’t likely stumble across the truth of your fantasies. You’ll have to face them, looking for their themes, while you also face the pains of your past and present.
In his book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, Jay Stringer explains that our fantasies and sexual arousal templates are not random; they are connected to our life stories. He writes:
“The story lines and themes of our arousal reveal the imprints of our emotional and sexual histories…[Your] task is to understand how your unique fantasies may be revealing portions of your story. Many people continue to act out in similar ways over a lifetime because they have never taken time to think about the symbols and stories inherent within their arousal and fantasies. These sexual reenactments must be named if you have any hope to find freedom.” (pp. 95, 97)
An example of this will help.
Alex always found himself drawn to pornography of a man dominating another man, sometimes violently. In his fantasies, Alex was always the one being dominated. He felt ashamed about this and so kept his struggle to himself. In college, as he was around other Christian men trying to hold one another accountable, he felt he could only be open enough to admit fantasy, pornography, and masturbation, in general, nothing more specific than that.
When he began seeing a spiritual coach who asked him about the specifics of his fantasies, Alex was hesitant to talk about it. His coach explained that there are connections between what people choose to focus their sexual fantasies on and their larger emotional and relational life experiences. Alex began talking with his coach about his fantasy life and the themes of the pornography he was most drawn to. They also began exploring Alex’s larger story—his
relational patterns, his level of emotional awareness (or unawareness), his sense of meaning and purpose, and his past, including his family life growing up.
One thing that arose in Alex’s reflections was the fact that he had very little if any recollection of his father ever providing any guidance or boundaries. “In fact,” Alex reflected, “my dad wouldn’t even discipline me when I was misbehaving. I know he suffered from depression, but it kind of sucks when your dad is too despondent to even want you to do better.”
That reflection opened a curtain for Alex. He remembered even as a young boy how magnetically he was drawn to men firefighters and police officers—men who seemed to represent courage, strength, and action. For years, Alex had assumed this was just early evidence of the inborn nature of his sexuality. Now he began to see connections between his sexual desire to be noticed and dominated by another man and his own childhood experience of longing for his dad to be a stronger presence in molding and shaping him. His sexual fantasies were an unconscious attempt at reversing wounds from his childhood.
Does this mean that every young boy with an absent or emotionally unavailable father will experience the same themes in his fantasies? No, but for Alex these connections resonated deeply. Likewise, as you begin seeking to better understand your own fantasies and arousal patterns, your aim is not to have Jesus explain everyone, just to have Him help you better understand yourself.
With that said, Stringer’s work is based on research he’s conducted with over 3,600 men and women, and his findings do reveal statistically relevant connections. For example, 22% of women in his study fantasize about or pursue infidelity, and out of that number nearly 20% perceived unmet needs in their daily lives and over 15% had experienced childhood sexual abuse. Among the 43% of men who fantasize about or pursue infidelity, over 20% of them had been sexually abused. One of the most clear-cut findings in Stringer’s study was the connection between a man’s lack of purpose and pornography use. In fact, “men were seven times more likely to escalate their pornography use if they lacked purpose in their lives.”
These findings reveal that not every person will fit everyone else’s, but more importantly that our fantasies are not random. This is hopeful news, revealing that we are not uniquely and chronically stuck in cycles of sexually sinful behaviors. There are reasons we have gotten where we are, and as we allow Jesus to shine light on those reasons and heal our wounds, we can make new choices about how we respond to temptations.
I like to think of it this way: We are creatures made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), which means that right down to our bones, we are designed to be telling a story with our lives. In a fallen world, the stories we live are a mixture of beauty and brokenness, glory and shame, but there is always a story leading to the present and that story is not over.
How to Connect the Dots in Your Life
As you’re reading this, you may already be starting to connect some of the dots between your story and your fantasies. Or you may still feel completely in the dark. Either way, here are five things that can help you begin:
- Find someone to go with you on this journey.
- Whatever your story and whatever your history with unwanted sexual behavior, you’re going to need allies and guides to go with you. An ally isn’t just a buddy or a friend, it’s someone who is also journeying toward sexual integrity. It’s someone who is asking similar questions and interested in growing and gaining freedom alongside you. A guide is someone with experience who can help you. This may be someone who has a similar journey and is further down the road, or it may be a spiritual coach or Christian therapist. Often, we are so close to our own stories that we have difficult determining the difference between what is normal to us and what is good for us. For example, Alex may never have continued to acknowledge his father’s mental illness without ever asking how it impacted his own life.
- Approach this journey with sobriety.
- It does little good to dive into thinking more about your fantasy life without first developing some tools to say no to those fantasies. While the long-term aim is to recognize what your fantasies have been trying to heal so they can lose some of their allure, it is also important to recognize that repeating your sexual fantasies and behaviors over the years has rewired your brain to move quickly and easily down the path from feeling to fantasy to sexually acting out. Approaching this work with sobriety is part of why it is so important not to take this journey alone.
- In addition, setting up some healthy, concrete boundaries for yourself in order to create some space for you to do this deeper work will be tremendously fruitful. Regeneration’s online Awaken course, specifically the Strength Module, can walk you through how to do this from A-Z, but on a basic level you can consider things like putting a pornography filter like Net Nanny or Canopy on all your devices, setting screentime limits, and utilizing accountability software like Covenant Eyes. Jesus told His followers to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand if either caused them to sin, and although He certainly didn’t mean that literally (your hands and eyes are not the cause of any of your sins), we can recognize in His words that sometimes quitting our sins will mean cutting out parts of our lives (at least temporarily) that may be hard to go without.
- Approach this journey with kindness.
- We must, we must, we must learn to treat ourselves with kindness as we go. Learning to walk in sexual integrity is a great act of self-kindness, but people often treat it as something they’re obliged to do because they are a dirty, rotten sinner. This is not God’s heart toward you. He is well-aware of your sin and unflinching in wanting it out of your life, but that is not because He is disgusted with you. It’s because He delights in you. Jesus never said, “For God was so disgusted with the world that He sent His only begotten Son,” He said, “For God so loved the world…” That means you.
- To uncover the deeper, tender places needing your attention, you need kindness. Consider for a moment Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. Culturally, he would have been viewed as the more important one between them, but he started the conversation by asking her for a drink of water. What humility and what kindness. Paul even writes, “It is the kindness of God that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4). This was certainly true in her life, don’t you think?
- Think of what you know and love about Jesus. Think about what draws you toward Him. My guess is that it’s the stories of His kindness and compassion toward hurting and sinful people. Do you think the attraction you feel toward His love is because His love is what you are made for and what you most need?
- Approach this journey with curiosity.
- Approaching your fantasies with kindness and curiosity is something that has been a hallmark of Regeneration’s ministry long before I got here, but the combination of those specific words “kindness and curiosity” come from Jay Stringer’s book and we’ve adopted them readily. They encapsulate so well the spirit with which this journey must be taken. Curiosity has such a child-like, inviting ring to it. In fact, my coauthor, Daniel Weiss, has pointed out that in our sexual addictions, many of us have come to view curiosity with grave suspicion—as that which has gotten us into all sorts of trouble in the past. Consider again the woman at the well, and how Jesus didn’t begin the conversation by uncovering her sin, but her thirst (“Sir, give me this water so I can stop coming to this well!”)
- The truth is that curiosity itself is a gift from God. Without it, humanity never would have developed a vaccination for polio, never would have crossed the Atlantic, never would have launched the Hubble telescope, and perhaps most importantly, never would have combined peanut butter and chocolate. Without curiosity, you wouldn’t have any hobbies, skills, or friends. Curiosity has never been your problem, settling for a lack of curiosity has been. Those times you typed in a sexual search word, clicked on a suggestive ad, or logged into a hook-up app, you were searching for something. The impulse to be there was an invitation to ask what that something was and why it was important to you, but instead of looking deeper, sin convinced you to settle for momentary pleasure. And then to keep coming back. It’s time to become curious again. It’s time to begin asking temptation a million questions: “What’s brought you here? Why now? Why are you pointing me to that specifically?”
- You’re Looking for a New Path
- As you embark on this deeper journey, keep in mind that you’re not looking for a magic wand, you’re looking for a part of your life that needs care. While you may have an “Aha!” moment or two as you discover how your fantasies are attempts at resolving hurts in your life, those moments will also serve as invitations to tend to areas of your life that have needed attention, compassion, healing, and often, ongoing practice at walking forward differently than you have in the past in your emotional and your relational life.
- Alex’s discovery lessened his temptations over time, but it didn’t make them go away altogether. He needed to learn to open himself in healthy ways to his need for other men. This meant eventually telling a few trusted others about the specifics of the kinds of pornography he had been using. To his great joy, they responded to him with kindness and affirmation, and one of the men even found courage to go deeper in sharing about some of the areas of his life about which he’d been deeply ashamed. Alex also discovered he needed to get to know God in a new way: as his loving Father who is intimately connected and involved in his life. This led to forgiving his father as well as facing deficits in how he had been fathering his own children.
All of this points to how simplistically many of us have approached our sexual struggles. If you’ve viewed your sexual behaviors solely as sins God hates, you’ve missed how right next to your sin there is important treasure God loves. It is this treasure Jesus came to seek and to save. What a wonderful Savior we have that He does not come to condemn us but to save us.
If you need help deciphering your fantasies, our team at Regeneration can help!
Great article Josh! I can certainly relate to this article on fantasy. This has been part of my life since childhood. It was certainly an escape for me from a divorced family. Family dysfunction as well as being sexually violated at a young age at camp. Your absolutely correct in regards to our fantasies have common themes in them. Thank God through much counseling and my brothers in my accountability groups over the years have helped a great deal. I still battle but it’s becoming more clear to me my recurring theme are.Thanks again for this timely message for me. Praise God for his goodness..
I thank God for the wonderful insights the Holy Spirit has given you! I find your points about men’s lack of purpose contributing to their porn use, the importance of kindness, and the importance of curiosity both fresh and essential to the discussion about sexual integrity. Keep up the great work!!