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What We Think About When We Think About (and Have) Sex

A new study on sexual fantasies will surprise you.

Source: OPOLJA/Shutterstock

Justin Lehmiller is a Kinsey Institute fellow, social psychologist, and sex researcher whose new book, Tell Me What You Want — based on a survey of over 4,000 Americans — breaks down our most prevalent thoughts about sex. Lehmiller found that the three most common sexual fantasies among American women and men are: threesomes, group sex, and BDSM. We talked about why our sexual fantasies matter — and what they can teach us about ourselves.

Q: Why do our sexual fantasies matter? To us as individuals, and collectively as a society?

A: Our fantasies matter for several reasons. One is that almost everyone has them — yet most people keep their fantasies to themselves and, more often than not, feel guilty or ashamed of them. The result is that we’re carrying around a lot of emotional baggage that prevents us from getting what we really want and, more broadly, from actually communicating about sex with our partners. We stand to be far happier as individuals and as a society if we can break down the barriers to talking about and sharing our fantasies with our partners.

Also, when we run away from our fantasies by repressing them instead of accepting them as a part of us, we lose control of them, and they come to control us. Repressing our desires has the ironic effect of making us think about them more — it creates an obsessive preoccupation that can ultimately be harmful to our mental health.

Q: In 1973, it was highly controversial for Nancy Friday to assert that women even had sexual fantasies. How far have we come, or not, since then?

A: We’ve certainly come a long way since then in terms of the way we think about female sexuality — however, we have a long way to go. People still cling to a lot of stereotypical ideas about what it is that women want when it comes to sex, and my data challenge a lot of these stereotypes, such as the idea that women’s fantasies focus mostly on romantic themes. Women did report romantic themes in their fantasies more often than men did, but it definitely wasn’t the case that romance was the biggest or most important fantasy theme for them. One of the most interesting things I found was that women’s sexual fantasies were far more adventurous than most people give them credit for. For example, the vast majority of women I surveyed had fantasized about group sex, BDSM, and sexual taboos.

Q: Are sexual fantasies cross-cultural? Is there any literature on variation?

A: I focused my work on sexual fantasies in the United States. I did this intentionally, because I wanted to look at how our fantasies were connected to various aspects of U.S. culture, such as how U.S. body ideals for men and women relate to the characteristics of the people in their fantasies. I would love to explore how fantasies vary cross-culturally, and that’s something I plan to do in future work.

I found some evidence that our fantasies do reflect our culture, so I would expect to see some variation. For instance, in places where the body ideals are different from those in the U.S., I would expect that people’s fantasy partners would look quite different. Also, given that sexual practices differ cross-culturally (e.g., oral sex is widely practiced in the U.S. but is almost non-existent in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa), this would likely impact the types of activities that appear in our fantasies as well. The same goes for what is considered taboo when it comes to sex — taboo themes were very popular in my fantasy analysis, but what is thought of as sexually “taboo” is culturally relative.

Q: What percentage of your respondents liked sharing fantasies with a partner?

A: About half of my respondents reported having shared their biggest sexual fantasy with a partner before. Of those who had done so, the vast majority reported positive outcomes. The numbers varied depending on the fantasy, but between two-thirds and three-quarters of participants said that their partner responded positively. Furthermore, those who shared their fantasies reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction, more satisfying romantic relationships, and fewer sexual difficulties with desire, arousal, and orgasm. So, by and large, sharing one’s fantasies was linked to positive outcomes across the board.

That said, there were some people who reported negative reactions, which means there are potential risks in sharing one’s fantasies. For example, some may feel shamed or judged by their partner for disclosing their desires. This means that when it comes to talking about your fantasies and desires, it’s important to proceed slowly and make sure there is a solid foundation of trust, communication, and intimacy first.

Q: In the age of easy access to internet porn and digital connections, how are our sexual fantasies changing?

A: This is a tough question to answer! A lot of people assume that online porn is fundamentally shaping and changing our desires. For example, much has been said and written recently about how the rise of incest-themed porn and media depictions (e.g., on Game of Thrones ) is creating a surge in incest fantasies. However, what we don’t know is whether this interest was there all along and if these porn/media depictions are simply bringing it out into the open.

That said, based on my findings, it seems clear that porn, to some extent, both shapes and reflects our sexual fantasies. More often that not, it just reflects what we desire: I found that more than 80 percent of my participants said they had intentionally sought out porn that depicts their fantasies. Thus, people often use porn as a way of vicariously living out their fantasies. At the same time, about 1 in 7 participants said that their favorite fantasy of all time stemmed directly from something they saw in porn. This means that porn does have the potential to help us generate new sexual interests and desires (something that makes sense in light of what social psychologists refer to as the “mere exposure effect”). This isn’t to say that we’re always learning new desires or fantasies every time we watch porn, just that the potential is there for us to learn new fantasy content.