Sex is everywhere. In advertisements. In video games. On television. In the movies. In the bedroom, and on our minds. Unfortunately, that positioning rarely comes paired with an authentic understanding of the subject, and how it makes us feel. Of course, we know it’s important to talk about sex. Often, for practical purposes related to prophylactics and contraception. But also for reasons related to intimacy, emotion, and fantasy. Because buried thoughts on taboo subjects tend to manifest in shame. And that’s worth living without.
In attempts to surface this discussion, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a leading expert on human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology, organized one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys surrounding Americans’ attitudes towards sex and fantasy ever conducted, a two-year study involving more than 4,000 Americans. The results, which are discussed in his new book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, shine new light on ways in which these things operate within the context of American relationships. We spoke to Lehmiller about his thoughts on sexual fantasies, sexual shame, and how to renegotiate the relationship thereof.
You spoke to a lot of people in your study. What were some of the biggest concerns people have surrounding their own fantasies?
People carry around a lot of shame, guilt, and embarrassment with respect to their fantasies. They also tend to think that their fantasies are much rarer than they really are, which further feeds those feelings of shame. The way we feel about our fantasies stems largely from the fact that what we’re taught is normal when it comes to sex — from our family, society, culture, etc. — is very narrow and, further, that deviations from this are immoral or unhealthy.
How does this sexual shame manifest itself within a relationship?
Sex shame can manifest itself in many ways, but it often appears as an avoidance of sexual communication and lower sexual satisfaction. When people are afraid to talk about sex because they are ashamed of their desires, they may end up having sex less frequently. When they do it, they’re unlikely to have the kind of sex that they really want to be having.
So, what are some of the most common sexual fantasies out there?
There were three major categories of fantasies that almost everyone, male and female alike, reported having. Group sex, BDSM, and novelty or adventure. And there were a lot more similarities in men’s and women’s fantasies than you might expect. I found that many of the fantasies people tend to stereotype as being as masculine (like threesomes) and feminine (like emotional fulfillment) were actually things that a majority of men and women alike were fantasizing about.
But there were also some differences.
Yes. Notably, women were more likely to fantasize about same-sex experiences than men, whereas men were more likely to have gender-bending fantasies (like crossdressing or having sex with a transsexual partner) than women. I also found that women were more likely to fantasize about BDSM and to place more emphasis on where they were having sex; by contrast, men reported more taboo sexual fantasies and placed more emphasis on who they were having sex with.
How can someone tell if a sexual fantasy they have is problematic or not?
All I can tell you is that the vast majority of the time that people are worried about their fantasies, they probably don’t need to feel that way. Where you should be concerned and seek professional help is when you find yourself frequently fantasizing about nonconsensual sex acts or activities that pose a great risk of harm to you or to others and you’re worried that you might act on these desires. Also, when a fantasy — no matter what it is — starts to take over your life to the point where it’s highly distressing or starts to interfere with your work or relationship, that’s another good sign that professional counseling is in order.
Did your work show any sort of shift in fantasies over time?
I found that threesomes and group sex were more popular fantasies among older adults (especially those in their 40s and 50s), whereas passion and romance were more popular fantasies among younger adults. A lot of people would have expected the reverse pattern.
What does this mean?
As I discuss in the book, I think what’s going on here is that our psychological needs change as we age and, as they do, our sexual fantasies evolve in ways that are designed to meet those needs. So, for example, when we’re younger and perhaps more insecure, our fantasies focus more on making us feel validated; by contrast, when we’re older and have settled into a long-term relationship, our fantasies focus more on breaking sexual routines and fulfilling unmet needs for novelty.
That makes sense. What are some mistakes people make when trying to incorporate fantasy into reality?
When it comes to acting on your fantasies, there are a lot of caveats. For one thing, just because you fantasize about something doesn’t mean you need to act on it. Make sure it’s something that you truly want to do. Assuming it is, it also has to be something that is safe, legal, and consensual.
I found that most people who acted on their fantasies reported that the experience was at least as good — if not better — than they were expecting and said that it improved their relationship. So there’s a lot to potentially be gained by enacting our fantasies.
However, every fantasy comes with potential risks and may not turn out as well as you imagined. Group sex is one of those cases where there’s an especially big risk of it not turning out well, I suspect because most people don’t have a script for it and just can’t predict how they’ll feel until they’re in that situation. Be sure to think everything through as much as possible and take precautions. To that end, consider having a safe word that will convey to your partner (or partners) that things have moved beyond your comfort zone. Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to acting on a sex fantasy is not communicating enough before and during it.
How should someone proceed with a partner who doesn’t share your fantasy?
If you’re expecting to find a partner who shares every single desire that you have, that’s probably unrealistic. Remember that it’s okay if you and your partner don’t have the exact same set of desires. The good news is that most of us aren’t just fantasizing about one thing and one thing only — we tend to have multiple sex fantasies. So odds are that even if you and your partner aren’t a match on a given fantasy, there will be several other areas where you’ll have common ground.
Finally, what lessons do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope readers walk away from this book feeling more normal about their sexual desires. Odds are, you’re far from the only person who’s fantasizing about what you’re fantasizing about. I also hope that people walk away with the tools and skills they need to communicate more effectively about desire with their partners in a way that helps them to establish happier and healthier relationships. Finally, I hope it gives people a better sense of the potential risks and rewards that should be kept in mind when deciding whether to act on a given fantasy.