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Fantasy Island: Research Probes the Science of Sexual Desire

New book 'Tell Me What You Want' explores breakthrough research on sex fantasy.

Tell Me What You Want, in bookstores July 10, covers in explicit detail a groundbreaking new study by social psychologist Justin Lehmiller of the fantasy lives of 4,175 U.S. adults. The survey consisted of 350 questions, and according to the book, is the largest survey ever of sexual fantasies in America.

To say that the results are surprising, even stunning, would be an understatement. Not only does Lehmiller elicit descriptions of innumerable types of fantasies, but he then categorizes them by prevalence, age of respondent, personality traits, relationship status, and even political affiliation. Most interestingly, Lehmiller then provides a multitude of analyses in trying to understand why people fantasize the way they do, ranging from psychology to evolutionary biology to feminist theory. Finally, Lehmiller brings it all together to pinpoint how this information could be useful for individuals to improve their own relationships and sexual well-being.

Let's take a look at the key takeaways, starting with some foundational findings and then building to some of the more surprising revelations. First, virtually everyone has sexual fantasies. 97 percent of respondents reported having them. Second, and reminiscent of previous studies that demonstrated the vast diversity of sexual desires, most people had fantasies involving multiple partners, as well as BDSM. 89 percent fantasized about threesomes, 74 percent about orgies, 60 percent about inflicting pain, and 65 percent about receiving pain. Taking a look at these last two categories, even if we assume that there's a significant overlap, it appears that a vast majority of individuals are into some form of sadomasochism (SM). In fact, fantasies around multi-partner sex and power, control, and rough sex were the top two most common types. In addition, Lehmiller discovered five other key categories, which included the search for novelty and the taboo.

Lehmiller also uncovered some counterintuitive and quirky findings. For example, fantasies were often related to age. The younger the respondent, the more likely they would be interested in BDSM, while older ones were more interested in multi-partner and taboo fantasies. (By taboo, think of whatever makes you feel squicky and uncomfortable). Democrats were more into BDSM and gender-bending, while Republicans craved orgies, swinging, cuckolding, and fetishes. Those who were insecurely attached shunned non-monogamy, as it made them too uncomfortable, but perked up at the thought of BDSM and the taboo. Extraverts sought out group sex in their mind's eyes, those who are highly conscientious demanded novelty, while the most agreeable amongst us had a yearning for swinging. Tell Me What You Want is a treasure trove of nuggets about the American sexual psyche; one could have plenty of fun organizing an (adult) trivia game around its various fascinating tidbits.

Lehmiller provides a credible case that many of our sexual fantasies provide us with some sort of a psychological reprieve from our own conditions. So, no wonder that highly scrupulous individuals are drawn to novelty as a way of freeing themselves from the demands placed on themselves by their own minds. No wonder that older folks are seeking group interactions—they had assumedly already had a bunch of one-on-one experiences in their lives. And no wonder some personality types are drawn into BDSM as a means of losing themselves in the experience and letting go of self-awareness. This study supports other studies that have implicated the importance of personality in understanding sexual preferences.

To his credit, Lehmiller does not back down from tackling difficult and controversial subjects. He does point out that even though there is significant overlap, there are still some differences in the aggregate between the genders. For example, women tend to have more sexual fluidity, while men are more object (or partner)-oriented. However, as Lehmiller points out, "let's first dispense with the idea that the existence of a gender difference implies that one gender is somehow better than or inferior to another." He acknowledges that, "Speaking about gender differences in any capacity has become increasingly controversial ... That's problematic. Scientists shouldn't be afraid to talk about their data, and the public shouldn't be so quick to bash scientists who publish research that reveals politically inconvenient or uncomfortable truths." I offer these quotes as an example of Lehmiller's style and tone. His voice is credible, and he doesn't appear to be serving any agenda except to find the truth in the data.

The last segment of the book explores actionable steps that readers can apply to their own lives. Like other sexologists, psychologists, and mental health professionals, Lehmiller urges readers to be open-minded and explore, while focusing on communication and safety. As he stresses, not all fantasies should be acted upon, but many should, as 86 percent of respondents stated that acting out their fantasies either met or exceeded expectations, while 91 percent claimed that their experience had either a neutral or positive impact on their relationships. Throughout, Lehmiller does an adept job of balancing between being the enthusiastic cheerleader and the cautious voice of reason. The key message is that we are all much more sexually diverse and creative than we may realize, there are significant mental health benefits to being more accepting of oneself, and while acting on one's fantasies should be based on an individual case-by-case basis, most people seem to have positive outcomes in embracing their inner id.

From a clinical and sexological perspective, Tell Me What You Want reminds me very much of the seminal classic The Erotic Mind for its psychological exploration of sexuality and of A Billion Wicked Thoughts for its exhaustive analysis of raw numbers. In the future, I would not be surprised if it ranked up there with The Erotic Mind in the annals of sexological literature. From the standpoint of a lay audience, I believe most readers will find the material to be engaging, provocative, and easy to read. It is certainly well-written, but Lehmiller does an especially good job of simplifying the prose without talking down to the audience. In conclusion, it will certainly be on my bookshelf as a resource for clients who are struggling to understand and integrate their desires, and that's a heck of a lot of people.

More from Michael Aaron, Ph.D.
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