Long Reads

This is what women think about when they climax

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Stylist Team
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What do women think about when they have sex, and why?  Cherry Healey and Lisa Williams investigate…

If there’s a woman who can claim never to have let her mind wander during sex, we would like to meet her. Not because we don’t believe her, but because – if that is the case – we think she may be missing out.

By sex, we mean either sex with a partner or masturbation, and by ‘letting her mind wander’, we don’t mean thinking about office politics or what to have for lunch tomorrow. Rather, we mean letting her mind wander into the depths of her erotic imagination: allowing her delicious thoughts to wash over her while what happens in her head chimes with what’s happening in reality, until she comes to a thunderingly satisfying climax.

It’s a phenomenon that we don’t talk about very often, probably for fear that our partners might find it offensive or just a bit weird, but there it was, in plain sight, among the results of male sex toy TENGA’s latest global self-pleasure study

It found that 78% of women surveyed had tried masturbating, and that 25% of those women masturbate weekly. Some 35% of women said they watched porn and/or read erotica while masturbating, 24% thought about a previous sexual experience, and an overwhelming 54% said they fantasise to help them get the horn. We estimate that the actual number is probably a lot higher.

35% of women said they watched porn and/or erotica while masturbating

This is not a new insight. A study by the University of Louvain in 2014 found that women who have ‘erotic thoughts’ during intercourse were more likely to have regular orgasms than those who don’t. Similarly, a study in 2011 found a link between women who have trouble climaxing and their inability to think wild-and-sexy during sex.

So what are women thinking about while they orgasm? For the real juice, you have to have a thumb through Nancy Friday’s book My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies. We have a website and co-host a sex and relationships podcast called The Hotbed and we often recommend that our followers read this book, as it’s nothing short of mind-blowing.

For the book, Friday – who sadly died last year – asked hundreds of women to share their sexual fantasies with her. Under the safety blanket of complete anonymity, these women revealed fantasies that were as wild and as daring as you can imagine. Many of them are beyond our own imagination, which makes them even more enjoyable and mind-opening to read. It’s also very normalising. If a woman in My Secret Garden can admit to thinking about being a huge-breasted statue in a museum being penetrated by a well-endowed Pan-style statue, then your own fantasy – whatever it may be – probably doesn’t seem nearly half as weird. Some women think about having sex with animals, others think about sex with faceless strangers, then there’s rape, domination, gender-bending and lots of same-sex encounters. In short, if you can think of it, or have read about it, someone, somewhere is thinking about it when they get off.

But for us, what is often more interesting is not what women fantasise about while they’re climaxing, but why these fantasies pop up. Many talk about these sexy stories starting on autoplay in their heads the moment they start to get excited, so what elements contribute to these unsolicited images?

My Secret Garden was published in 1973. Many of the women interviewed were housewives. Many got married young and had only had one or two sexual partners. Their fantasies are perhaps a reflection of not having the same experiences many women can now boast about. Many talked of strict upbringings and puritanical parents, and admitted that this guilt gave them an added sexual thrill. Similarly, Friday isn’t the only person to opine that because women’s desires have so often been suppressed, their fantasies often contain an element of being dominated or forced to do something: that way they don’t carry the guilt of taking part in the act.

“Because women’s desires have so often been suppressed, their fantasies often contain an element of being dominated or forced to do something”

Friday did a couple of follow-up books, including Women on Top in 1991, which featured more women-on-women and women-in-charge fantasies, which she said were a reflection of the inroads to equality made by women in the preceding decade. The fantasies were so wild that the book was banned from several libraries in the US.

We live in yet more permissive times, and though we haven’t found true equality with men yet, we have more options than ever before. So are our fantasies different as a result?

Sex with a celebrity, group sex or an extramarital affair were popular fantasies offered up in a survey by dating app Doppler last year, but apparently the percentages were low and the results simplistic (it was also a multiple-choice questionnaire, which is woefully inadequate in the face of the fierce female imagination).

While we await the latest big fantasy survey, now that our beloved Nancy Friday has passed, we asked our listeners to send in a fantasy of theirs. Here are some of the responses we got:

1. I am sharing a bed with my husband’s friend. It is a platonic and purely practical arrangement. During the night, our bodies get closer and closer, until we are spooning. I can feel his erection on my thighs and between my legs. It doesn’t count as cheating or as anything we need to acknowledge the next day because we are fully dressed. And that is enough to bring me to orgasm.

2. I am a heterosexual cis-woman, but most of my fantasies involve me being a man and having sex with women. I have no idea why! But I like to think of myself as having a huge, insatiable penis, having to bed woman after woman until I come to my own climax.

3. Thinking about hot men I love watching on TV, imagining myself in their hands on a TV set while a whole crew is watching, and the director is applauding our ‘performance’. Little do they know that for me, it’s the real thing.

Sex with a celebrity, group sex or an extramarital affair are apparently popular fantasies

We like to think that women have now been set free from the sexual repression of the past, and that they can pursue whichever erotic avenue they choose. But we still have a long way to go. We still have orgasm inequality, with heterosexual women being far less likely to climax than men or lesbians. Body confidence is a huge issue for our listeners, too, who told us in one of our own surveys that it was the greatest barrier to getting the sex they both want and need. Lastly, with careers, children, daily exercise, nightly meditation, monthly detoxes, quarterly declutters and all the other things we are told we need for a full and happy life, there are simply not enough hours in the day to devote time to sex and masturbation. 

Neither is there much education out there for girls and women who want to know about the possibilities of their bodies. We think pleasure should be part of the sex education syllabus at school rather than it focusing solely on sex as procreation and the myriad of STIs you might contract if you partake.

Looking back at our listener fantasies, we wonder whether the penis envy is a result of a lack of body confidence. Give yourself a man’s body and you can free yourself from worries about stretch marks and cellulite. Is the spooning episode something to do with a busy woman wanting lazy, quick sex that doesn’t require any communication or even having to take your clothes off? And can the TV set sex tell us something about our screen culture, with couples spending more time watching sex on TV that doing it themselves? 

We find the topic extremely interesting but, we also feel that as long as women are climaxing then it doesn’t matter what they’re thinking about, or if they’re able to be completely in the moment when they come. If we look back at the TENGA survey there’s another, more subtle, lesson we can learn. If 78% of women have tried masturbation (in comparison to the 96% of men), then what’s going on for that remaining 22%?

But it’s not all bad. One of the responses we got from our listeners was from a man, and this is what he said: “My wife and I like to talk about fantasies when we have sex. Some of our favourites are: her f**king the hot lesbian real estate agent, me watching her get f**ked by a guy, and me with a hot gay guy.

“We even sometimes pretend to be these people when we have sex. Sometimes we send text messages pretending to be one of our fantasy people. We’ve talked about it but will never do any of them for real. Too much risk involved. Talking about them is hot enough!”

It’s this kind of open communication between couples that we encourage. When women know how their bodies and minds work, and can communicate it effectively, then there will be less guilt and more orgasms. It’s a small step towards equality, but why not start there?

Listen to Cherry Healey, Anniki Sommerville and Lisa Williams on The Hotbed podcast for more frank discussions about sex and orgasms. Subscribe on iTunes here or Acast here, and follow the team on Instagram here

Images: Unsplash, Wesley Quinn, Annie Spratt, Madi Doell