Most people grow up believing in the myths, fantasies, and fairy tales that their time period presents them. Santa, the Easter Bunny, and Superman may be harmless in their own right, but our desire for fairy tales does not seem to go away easy. And there is a kind of fairy tale that many adults ascribe to that is not harmless. In fact, this fantasy world has plagued human happiness for all of recorded past. Now we stand in a special time in history where, for most of secular culture, it not only goes unrestrained in practice, but also in theory. Most notably in more recent times, the sexual revolution of the 1960s has polluted our way of thinking and given us all kinds of rhetoric that positions itself on the shifty sands of deception.
For example, things such as “someone can do whatever they want with their own body” or “I can look, but I just can’t touch” lose any kind of credence when we simply stop to think of the implications of these claims. Ask yourself honestly, “Do you mean I can seriously use my body to do anything I want?” or “So you’re fine if I just keep looking at you like this?” Okay, so you throw the caveat that you can’t hurt anyone in there. But guess what? A lot of consenting adults have been hurt because of the idea “I can do whatever I want with my body.” Not even consent is enough to protect us from being hurt when men and women attempt to make their sexual fantasies into realities. The concept of “I can look, but I just can’t touch” creates a fiery furnace that leads us down the dark road of dependence. This fiery passion is only fueled more and more by the moral standards of various media outlets today. From movies, television, internet, and even the books people read – all cater to a fantasy world that does not find any true reflection in reality. Therein is the difference between a good fantasy and bad fantasy: good fantasy may draw us away from reality to give us perspective on the truth whereas bad fantasy draws us completely outside of reality and has nothing to do with truth.
Since the beginning of history, the number one cause of immoral acts is immoral thoughts. It is extremely rare that someone actively engages in immorality without previous deliberation. In fact, according to Jesus, entertaining a lustful thought is a form of immorality in itself (cf. Matt 5:27-30). Why would he say this? Because living in a mental fantasy of a sexual sort that has nothing to do with our reality in life pulls us away from truth and reason. It simply leads us to use someone – a person who has no idea we are using them and who quite probably has no desire for us to use them – for something that impersonates real and true love. Though it is within the realm of possibility to have these fantasies, it is not our design. Just because something gives us pleasure, doesn’t mean it is the clearest path to happiness.
A Brief Psychology of Bad Fantasy
While the world reels from many traditional explanations of our psyche, there are many ways in which Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have provided a perspective that touches reality more simply and deeply than the likes of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, or any of their followers. To explain the ancient psychology plainly, our sense perception leads to thinking and our thinking leads to choosing and acting. This seems so apparent that it is a position that hardly needs an argument. The Freudian position, for example, requires a lot of imaginative power, accepting assumptions about lingering childhood inclinations, and tends to take large tomes to sort out. The Aristo-Thomist view of human psychology is much simpler and resounds with human experience. And ultimately means that – as has already been stated by Jesus – bad fantasies are irrational in themselves and cannot lead to good actions. Let’s take a closer look.
To start off with some examples, can we say it is wrong for a married man to have lucid sexual thoughts about someone who is not his wife? First of all, ask his wife. Or is it wrong for an unmarried man to have such thoughts about someone who is not his wife? At some point he will realize he’s not married to her and have fodder for despair that would be completely unnecessary if he would have simply controlled his thoughts. Sometimes, unfortunately, a married person will let himself entertain these thoughts such that he despairs and wishes that he is married to the person who is the source of his fantasies instead of the person to whom he has actually vowed his life. Nonetheless, these fantastic thoughts may lead to using our bodies to hurt other people, physically or emotionally, or to creating an unrealistic desire in ourselves that will never be satiated. Either way, in sexual fantasies, happiness is ultimately exchanged for something that will hurt us, someone else, or both.
The psychology of sexual fantasy has its beginning when we feel, see, hear, in a word, sense something overtly or covertly related to sexual acts. At this point our brains begin to process it according to our imaginative powers and log it in our memory. After this – and it may not take long – it moves to our intellect. We become aware of what we are thinking about. Then we are able to identify the goodness (or lack of goodness) in the thing about which we’re thinking. Now we are left to choose. As fantasy, there are many scenarios that often get entertained that do not correspond with the reality of our lives. When entertained, these fantasies invariably lead to either a form of despair or infidelity, as stated previously, sometimes both.
So, at the level of perception, there will be sights, sensations, sounds that can be related to sexual activity. This is a fact of human life. We will tend at times to use these perceptions for some kind of immediate, though unrealistic, pleasure. This is a result of Original Sin. There is something disordered in us that draws us to desire people sexually that will not ultimately lead to happiness. Often in our fallen nature, our instincts like to latch on to these memories and we become tempted to envision others as a sort of physical or emotional thrill. This temptation leads to bad fantasy if whatever we’re thinking about doesn’t attach us to anything real about the world. It is just fantasy pure and simple. When we have the power to continue to entertain the thought or stop entertaining the thought, it has moved from merely the realm of a perception in the mind to the realm of our intellect and will. At this point, we can choose to entertain the bad fantasy and continue in the thrill of the thought or to discontinue the bad fantasy and return to the realm of reality.
The disunity between the way people think and reality leads to the classic definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing but expect different results. It’s almost as if we think that if we keep meditating on these thoughts that it’s going to actually bring us some kind of lasting joy or happiness. Again and again, however, it keeps us pining for more until we need these images, thoughts, fantasies to be more vivid and more frequent. They will either grow in their imaginative capacity or grow in number, until we consciously decide that they lack authentic power to fulfill us. It is at this point that sanity may take root and we can return to reality rather than perpetuating more bad fantasies.
Pretending and Depending
One of the most basic truths of human life is that we are creatures of habit. This truth is as ancient as it is self-evident. Aristotle grounded his entire moral system of virtue and vice on the concept of habit. This is as proper to our internal actions such as thinking, desiring, lusting as it is for our external actions of stealing, lying, generosity, or honesty. In fact, our external habits are formed by our internal habits. So, it is very important to form rightly ordered internal habits (and it is also the reason why freedom from lust must begin with our way of thinking). But many of us suffer from just the opposite. Our internal habits can so easily lead us to lust in a thousand ways. But physiologically something happens to us when we do this. Lustful thoughts activate some very powerful things in our brains: Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and the newly connected vasopressin.
It all starts with dopamine. Dopamine is the neurochemical that results in the exhilarating pleasure of immediate gratification. When we indulge in an image or lustful thought, dopamine is activated in the hypothalamus and we get excited about the prospect of the image in our minds. When unchecked, we begin to entertain these thoughts more often in order to return to the exhilaration the initial image gave us. At this point, a habit is forming within us. After the exhilaration of dopamine, the role of serotonin kicks in, reminding us of the exhilaration and bringing the images to mind when we are separated. Serotonin has been discovered to be found in the similar amounts in people who are newly in love as it is in people with OCD. Just like it keeps us hooked on those we love and are away from, serotonin also keeps us hooked on images that have given us a sense of pleasure.
Later, as we become more accustomed to lustful thoughts, we become attached to them by oxytocin from the pituitary gland. The signal is sent to the hypothalamus and, when it arrives, the pleasure center receives the oxytocin. Oxytocin is the classic bonding chemical that gives us a deeper, longer lasting sense of satisfaction. It is designed to increase trust, decrease stress, and give us a sense of security around a person; it is biological proof that humans are designed for monogamous relationships and the reason why break-ups can cause extreme psychological damage. Oxytocin and newly linked vasopressin are usually initiated by some kind of physical contact like a hug, holding hands, a kiss, and most intensely, during sex, most especially at orgasm. They can, however, be activated by our fantasies as well, especially if the fantasy is also accompanied by some kind of masturbation or some kind of physical comfort or gratification. All of this is to demonstrate the depth and power of human habits. Even when it comes to our thoughts, we can become deeply physiologically attached to our bad fantasies.
Simply bringing images, sounds, and scents to mind will activate our pleasure center and help us feel like that is where we need to be. The amount of dopamine and oxytocin that we experience in fantasy, however, is a bit of a tease. We were actually made to experience much larger quantities of it when our sexual appetites are awakened. In the very way we are built – to reiterate the point – from the stand point of science, we are creatures of habit. And so even if we do not allow ourselves to “go all the way,” our brains will crave the comfort of these fantasies and find solace in them. Needing fantasies, whether simply mental or pornographic, is never a comfortable thing to bring into a marriage. People have told horror stories about needing to imagine other people while having sex with their spouse or needing to use porn to get aroused. When we reach statuses as ugly as these, we are living in the fantasy and have started rejecting our own reality in life.
If you asked Tiger Woods, whose infidelity was made so public, whether he wanted a divorce from Elin Nordegren, I think it was clear at the time of the divorce that he still wanted to be with her. The problem is that Tiger couldn’t escape the fantasies that he created for himself. And he had the status to make his fantasies into realities, or at least attempt to. The problem, as with all things in the world of sexual fantasy, is that they didn’t fulfill him the way he imagined they would. So after his escapade, he would want to go back to his wife but simultaneously couldn’t stop his nasty little habit. His story is bad enough, but it is a microcosm, a case study of the general culture of sex today. Whether people have the ability to act on their fantasies, the fantasies are the driving force for both infidelity and disappointment. I’ve heard people rejoice when they’ve lost their phone or deleted themselves from Facebook because it gave them a sense of great freedom. This is because we have hopes that these things will bring us a satisfaction that they rarely obtain. Imagine if you didn’t have thoughts that incessantly cause you to desire more than you have at the present moment. Imagine if you were genuinely satisfied just being who you are right now. Freedom from having our minds controlled by fantasy will lead us to a contentment and satisfaction that no lustful thought ever could. Unfortunately, we already have all these bad habits of lustful thinking, and habits die so terribly hard.
Reality and Sexuality
Skeptics and liberals in the area of sex may know that they already disagree with the following claims and not even give them a chance. But this once again proves that their open-mindedness only goes as far as their agendas. Though often suppressed and misrepresented in popular culture, the Catholic Church actually puts forward a beautiful and holistic view of human sexuality. This is demonstrated by considering our natural way of existing, loving, and ultimately, propagating the species. That sex should only occur in the context of a life-long relationship that has the possibility of procreation is written into our design. This relationship should be the result of an unshakeable commitment made before God and others. This commitment and relationships links us to another person physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Such a strong link is naturally the best environment for raising children. Unfortunately, there are many circumstances where this reality was not held in view – either from the outset or at some point after – and people engage in sexual activities and thoughts driven by our broken nature rather than the clear design. This is why we have so many cases, which used to be viewed as marginal but now are so common, where a couple must separate and sometimes the children must suffer the intuitive pain from the result of a broken union that was meant to last till death.
The design of procreation and rearing of all of humanity finds its source in the really special unity of man and woman. It’s not primarily special because of the feelings of love shared the couple, but because of the powers essential to the unity. Man has what is necessary to fulfill the clear design of woman and vice versa. Out of this compatibility, new life emerges naturally into a context of life-long love. How is this not beautiful and simultaneously not true? It is beautiful and simply true. The reality of our sexuality is not that the joy and fulfillment end when the sex ends. The reality is that the enjoyment of sex is meant to lead to the deeper, longer-lasting enjoyment of love in our family life. Children who share the same genome as their parents will be more readily understood, in their skills and in their flaws. This is not to say that children in families who do not share the same genes cannot be loved just as much. In fact, when that is the case, it is the result of extraordinary love on the part of both the parents and the children.
In any event, the reality of sex bonds two individuals and establishes the basis for family to spring up naturally in an environment of self-giving, life-long love. When we attach ourselves to premonitions and fantasies that do not reflect this image of our sexual design, we cheapen the deep bond of love as self-giving to something we can use for a more immediate albeit fleeting pleasure. The idea behind love is to take the joy that you have in your life and give it to another, that your whole life would be a gift to another’s life. This is the Church’s understanding of sexuality. The Church is not the bad cop simply trying to get into the bedroom and control us, as the rhetoric would suggest. Rather, the key to understanding sexuality is to understanding the simple truth: You are a gift. And this gift is to be selflessly given to benefit the lives of others, especially in our immediate families. The Church is calling us to something beautiful! She wants us to clear our minds of bad fantasy and open our hearts to being a life-long gift and to bring up a new generation that knows deep, committed, and selfless love. Love is meant to be a life-long gift that is expressed through our bodies, not only our thoughts and fantasies. The Church wants us to help us slow down and realize that we are made for more than jumping from one pleasure to the next. Once we slow down, rid ourselves of sexual fantasies and fleeting pleasures, only then will we hear that the entire universe never ceases to confidently whisper to us, “You are a special gift.”
 This is following Thomas Aquinas’ enumeration of external perception (the five physical senses), internal perception (phantasy, memory, estimation, and imagination), and the rational qualities of the soul (intellection and volition).
 We take in information through our senses and form them into something called phantasms, which are things that can be logged in our memory and recalled later. Imagine your favorite childhood toy, hiding place, tree, or the smell of the tree or the smell of your childhood home that no longer exists. When you do this, you are recalling the phantasm of the toy, tree, or smell. As you just did, you can recall these images whenever you like to. The same goes for any perceptions that relate to sexual activity.
 As Tolkien said in a letter to his son Christopher, “Every story is about original sin.” G.K. Chersterton said, “The most self-evident claim of Christianity is original sin.” Our world has lost touch with the concept of sin because it’s inconvenient. But just look at the world in every generation: war, corruption, violence, lying, stealing, and cheating, in a word, human failure. Original Sin is the only and best explanation of this state of things in every generation of human existence. Getting rid of Original Sin has also conveniently downplayed the culture’s acceptance of a Savior.