What Our Sexual Fantasies Reveal About Us

New research finds that aspects of fantasies reflect psychological traits.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Ukolova Alina/Shutterstock
Source: Ukolova Alina/Shutterstock

Two people can have sex fantasies about the same activity, but the way that activity plays out won't necessarily be the same. For instance, imagine that two individuals who are turned on by the idea of a threesome described their fantasy to you in detail. It’s quite possible that these fantasies would bear little resemblance to one another beyond the number of participants involved. One individual, for example, might describe wanting to be the center of attention and talk about having sex with two people they know extremely well; by contrast, the other individual might desire a threesome with two strangers in which everyone participates equally.

What accounts for this great variability in content? It reflects a tendency to construct sexual fantasies in a way that meets our unique psychological needs. A recent study I published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (co-authored by Dr. David Ley and sex advice columnist Dan Savage) supports this idea. 

The focus of our paper was specifically on cuckolding fantasies, or fantasies in which one derives arousal from the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. I have a lot I could say about cuckolding fantasies, but for now, I want to focus on what this study of cuckolding suggests about the way we construct our fantasies more broadly.

This study looked primarily at gay-identified men who reported having had cuckolding fantasies before. We asked participants to describe their typical cuckolding fantasy in narrative form and found substantial variability in the way these scenarios were described. For example, most participants talked about wanting to watch their partner having sex; however, others preferred to listen as it happened or to hear about it after it took place. In addition, some — but not all — scenarios included BDSM elements, some emphasized condomless sex, some focused on who their partner was having sex with and/or his penis size, some focused on a very specific sexual position or activity, and some focused on how much pleasure their partner was receiving.

We predicted that the specific elements of cuckolding fantasies that participants emphasized in their descriptions and found most appealing would be linked to their personality traits — and that’s exactly what we found. Here's an overview of the key findings:

1. Participants who were high in the Big Five personality trait of agreeableness (which involves showing great care and concern for others) emphasized the importance of seeing their partner receive sexual pleasure.

2. Participants who were high in the trait of sexual sensation-seeking (which involves having a preference for thrilling and risky sexual activities) tended to emphasize the importance of condomless (also known as bareback) anal sex. They also tended to fantasize about their partner having sex with someone who had a very large penis.

3. Participants who had an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (or those who reported an easier time separating sex from emotion) didn’t care as much about who their partner was having sex with in these scenarios. By contrast, those with a restricted orientation (that is, those who see sex and emotion as going together) wanted to know who their partner was going to be with. I suspect this may be because restricted men don't want to introduce a potential element of threat into the relationship.

This pattern of associations between personality traits and preferred fantasy content suggests that what turns us on about our fantasies is a unique function of our psychological needs. This means that two fantasies about the same subject — like cuckolding — are not necessarily interchangeable across persons.

This is consistent with what I found in a much larger study of sex fantasies I conducted, which formed the basis for my latest book, Tell Me What You Want. I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans of all genders and sexualities and found that there's a general tendency for people to contextualize their sex fantasies in light of their personalities. In Tell Me What You Want, I discuss a number of other traits and characteristics that are linked to the content of our fantasies, including extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and attachment anxiety

What all of this means is that if we want to understand the origins of a given fantasy, we’re missing a major part of the story if we focus on broad factors (like evolutionary and cultural forces) to the exclusion of individual differences.

In short, our sex fantasies, it seems, tell us something important about who we are.

References

Lehmiller, J. J., Ley, D., & Savage, D. (2018). The Psychology of Gay Men’s Cuckolding Fantasies. Archives of sexual behavior, 47(4), 999-1013.

Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

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