Some "Unusual" Sex Fantasies Aren't So Unusual After All

Voyeurism, exhibitionism, and sadomasochism are more popular than you think.

Posted Feb 01, 2019

Paraphilia is the term the mental health community has long used to refer to unusual or “non-normative” sexual interests. The number of sex fantasies deemed paraphilic has grown quite a bit over the years to the point where hundreds of things have been labeled as unusual turn-ons. However, it turns out that a lot of these fantasies aren’t so uncommon after all.

Here are three sex fantasies that are typically considered to be paraphilic by psychologists, but are actually quite common in terms of the number of people who have ever fantasized about them.

123RF/Artem Popov
Source: 123RF/Artem Popov

First, far from being rare, BDSM (which stands for bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism) is something that most people appear to have had sexual fantasies about. Some aspects of BDSM seem to be a little more popular than others, though.

I collected data from more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want and found that most women (93 percent) and men (81 percent) had fantasized about being sexually dominated before; likewise, a majority of men (85 percent) and women (76 percent) had fantasized about sexually dominating someone else. In addition, most women (85 percent) and men (73 percent) had fantasized about being tied up during sex, or tying someone else up.

Likewise, the desire to mix pleasure and pain was common, with 56 percent of men and 60 percent of women reporting fantasies about sadism (such as spanking or whipping a partner during sex), and 79 percent of women and 49 percent of men reporting fantasies about masochism (such as being spanked or whipped).

As you can see, BDSM is a pretty common activity to find sexually arousing, especially the dominance-submission and bondage aspects of it. Perhaps that explains why Fifty Shades of Grey became an immensely popular phenomenon.

Having sex in public is another fantasy most men and women appear to have had before, too. According to my survey for Tell Me What You Want, 81 percent of men and 84 percent of women have been turned on by the thought of public sex. This interest in “putting on a show” is often referred to as exhibitionism; however, this is different from the strict clinical definition of exhibitionism, which involves using nudity or sexual activity to offend or harass others. That interest is far less common, though not necessarily rare: About 7 percent of women and 13 percent of men reported having fantasies about non-consensual nudity. As you can see from these numbers, performing in front of a willing audience is clearly far more popular.

One other fantasy that seems to be quite popular, particularly among men, is voyeurism, or the act of watching an unknowing person take off their clothes or have sex. My survey revealed that 72 percent of men and 48 percent of women have fantasized about voyeurism before.

When taken together, these numbers tell us that mental health care professionals should take care when classifying a given sexual fantasy as "unusual," because many fantasies that have been labeled paraphilic are actually quite common fantasy themes.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that just because someone has fantasized about something previously doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to do it. In other words, not all sexual fantasies are sexual desires. Furthermore, keep in mind that the numbers presented above simply reflect whether people have ever had a given fantasy, not whether it’s their favorite fantasy or something they think about often (it could have been a one-time thing in some cases).

With all of that said, whether a given fantasy is classified as common or uncommon should have no bearing on whether that fantasy is considered healthy or unhealthy — that’s a completely different question. Case in point: Just because a fantasy is common — like voyeurism — doesn’t mean it’s something people should be encouraged to act out. Likewise, just because a fantasy is rare doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harmful to anyone if they decide to make it a reality.

Source: JJ-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Whether a sexual interest is healthy or unhealthy ultimately has little to do with how many people are turned on by it and far more to do with its effects, especially whether the behavior is consensual or non-consensual.


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.