There is an episode of the new HBO Max show I hate Suzie it all revolves around the protagonist, Suzie (played by star and co-creator of the series, Billie Piper), trying to decide what to think while she masturbates. Entitled “Shame”, the episode follows Suzie as she tries to rub one on her back, on her stomach, with a vibrator, without a vibrator. She thinks of her husband, Cob; a guy she saw when she dropped her child off at school that morning; cops question him in a dark room; the time in college when she kissed a boy in a closet; and an anonymous American soldier on a train. Most of the time, she tries to avoid thinking about Carter, the guy she cheated on her husband with, but he keeps showing up.

As she browses these images, her subconscious – embodied in Suzie’s mind by her best friend and manager, Naomi (Leila Farzad) – continues to question her desires. Why, even in her private fantasies, does she seem to favor a man’s pleasure over hers? Why is she always turned on by remembering something that happened when she was just a kid? Does she fetish black men? Why can’t she just think of her husband, like a good wife, instead of constantly thinking of Carter? Ultimately, despite her best efforts, she comes thinking about Carter, and the pleasure of her orgasm is undermined by frustration and disgust.

It’s a fascinating episode of television. The media rarely present the self-pleasure of women, not to mention exploring the emotional experience of it and all the excitement, silliness, confusion, pleasure and shame it can bring. What I kept wondering, however, was what control Suzie, or anyone else, has over desire. If we wanted to, could we change what we fantasize about? Or does telling us not to think of something when we jerk off just make us think about it more?

Guilt and taboo are a key part of the fun in the first place: of course, Suzie would be more turned on by Carter’s thoughts than her husband’s thoughts. I mean, what’s a sexier image to you: a forbidden date with a semi-stranger or a nice, familiar bump with the same person you’ve been banging for years, in the same bed you sleep and fart and nibble and recover when you have a cold? The forbidden is naturally more attractive and exciting. In his 1996 book The erotic spirit, influential author and sexologist Jack Morin puts it in simple mathematical terms: The central erotic equation, he argues, is attraction + obstacles = excitement. So if you’re feeling a little bit guilty about your fantasy, well, maybe that’s part of what makes it a good fantasy.

“Part of the fuel for arousal is guilt,” says Sari Cooper, therapist, sex coach and founder and director of New York City’s Center for love and sex. Guilt can be such an exciting feeling, she says, because that’s what’s unknown, and people are curious about the limits.

Yet while some guilt can fuel the erotic fire, too much guilt about our fantasies can obviously hurt our pleasure and how we feel about ourselves in general. If the stories we tell ourselves about desire and arousal are that they are inherently bad or that they are harmful to us and others, we will have a hard time embracing our own sexuality.

What about fantasies that don’t necessarily make you feel guilty but somehow annoy you? Maybe for a minute you are enjoying a perfectly pleasant daydream about that sexy person running topless around your neighborhood and then, the next thing you know, they’ve been replaced in your mind by your old man. sweaty college science teacher who regularly ate hard-boiled eggs in class. “Brains are curious! ” Tex Gibson, sex therapist in Manhattan, said the Cut over email. “They think curious things. They make curious associations. They have curious answers. And this is NOT limited to the sexual realm! Not by far. Getting away from a sexual experience – alone or with others – feeling confused or upset about where your mind has gone is completely normal, she says.

Fighting too hard against these thoughts is counterproductive anyway. If we try too hard do not think of something, we are bound to think about it. It just doesn’t work. Instead, we can train ourselves to accept any thoughts that arise and even allow ourselves to explore them further, at least in our own mind or with a willing partner. As Gibson explains, being turned on by something during a sexual experience doesn’t necessarily mean we want that thing (or that sweaty old college science professor) in real life. “Things that are most certainly do not sexy in life can be and are very sexy in role play and fantasy, ”she says.

One way of thinking about fantasies is like dreams. You wouldn’t get mad at yourself for a dream you had, and you shouldn’t get mad at yourself for what you fantasize about. “We can’t control what we dream of,” Cooper says. “It’s our imagination and maybe anxiety, worries, fears, desires, aspirations, all mixed up. This is what fantasies are.

But what if people have sexual fantasies that really upset or scare them? What if his fantasies include acts that are, say, harmful to others or even illegal? Gibson emphasizes that we are under no obligation to fulfill our fantasies, in whole or in part: “Accept that some are best kept entirely as fantasies, and keep them in your safe / spank bank for when you want; accept that some can be implemented satisfactorily and consensually – if you wish. “

Beyond that, while trying to force yourself not to think of something probably won’t help, Cooper says it’s possible to broaden the pool of potential fantasies. “We call it a ‘sex menu,’ she explains. By watching different videos or images and incorporating them into their masturbatory or self-pleasure practice, a person could turn their limited sexual tasting menu into a massive and varied sex buffet from which they can stack their plates of pleasure with all kinds of different fantasies. .

Perhaps the most important question, in the end, is not whether we can change what we fantasize about, but why we feel compelled to change it. So much of the shame around desire comes from the tension between what we think we should want and what we actually want; Suzie thinks she should be turned on by Cob, but she is turned on by Carter. Aren’t things stressful and stimulating enough as they are? It seems the least we can do, as a personal kindness, is to give ourselves permission to think about the odd little thoughts we want while we jerk off and enjoy the minimum pleasure they bring.

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