Social psychologist and sex researcher Justin Lehmiller, PhD recently published a phenomenal book on Americans’ sexual fantasies, Tell Me What You Want. This fascinating, readable, and entertaining book is based on original research that he conducted, which involved asking over 4,000 Americans more than 350 questions about all aspects of who they are and what turns them on. This makes for a mountain of data and all sorts of interesting information about what gets Americans going.
He has spoken in other interviews about the incredible range of sexual fantasies and which are most common. (For example, check him out on The Science of Sex podcast and the Sexology podcast.) Anyone who has felt ashamed about their turn-ons (or threatened by their partner’s) will most likely be reassured by the results.
For this interview, though, I wanted to focus on another aspect of his results—how our demographic traits might influence what is more or less likely to turn us on. For example, what are the most common sexual fantasies for a sixty-year-old, conservative, married person compared to a twenty-year-old liberal single? Because Dr. Lehmiller collected lots of demographic information from his respondents, in addition to information about possible turn-ons, he was able to figure out which kinds of fantasies tended to be most common for different groups of people. In other words, how do our sexual fantasies relate to who we are? How might they evolve over time as our life circumstances change?
Obviously, everyone is an individual and these results are group averages. Also, the fact that something is common does not make it superior, nor does something being uncommon make it problematic. This is just another example of the rich variability within our species.
Ari Tuckman: What gave you the idea to explore the connection between respondents’ demographic traits and their fantasies?
Justin Lehmiller: Most previous research on sexual fantasies has focused on how one demographic trait in particular is linked to people’s fantasy content: gender. While exploring gender similarities and differences is certainly important and interesting, I couldn’t help but wonder how our fantasies are connected to other aspects of the self. For example, how do our fantasies change with age? How are they connected to our religious and political identities? To our relationship status? To our sexual orientation? To our culture? Or how about to our personality traits and characteristics? In short, I wanted to take a broader look at what our fantasies might say about us than had been explored in previous research.
Ari Tuckman: So, how do our demographic traits influence our sexual fantasies?
Justin Lehmiller: I found that people’s demographic backgrounds were associated with their sexual fantasies in a number of ways. Of course, because we’re dealing with correlational data, we can’t say that having a certain trait necessarily causes a given fantasy; however, the pattern of results suggests that certain demographic factors might very well make us more or less likely to have certain fantasies.
For example, I found that everything from gender to age to religious background to political affiliation were linked to the kinds of things that people were fantasizing about. With respect to gender, while men and women had a ton in common when it came to their fantasies, there were some notable differences. For instance, men were more likely to fantasize about group sex and to do so often, whereas women were more likely to report frequent fantasies with emotional and romantic content. With respect to age, younger adults reported more fantasies about BDSM, whereas older adults reported more fantasies about group sex. And in terms of political and religious background, those who self-identified as Republican and/or as having a religious affiliation reported more fantasies about taboo sexual activities.
All in all, I found a lot of interesting connections between who we are and what we’re fantasizing about. I think there are some interesting reasons why, too. For example, in understanding why taboo fantasies are more common among religious and political conservatives, I suspect that some element of reactance might be at play here. In other words, the more you’re told that you can’t do something, the more you come to want to do it. Because conservatives have the most moral restrictions placed on their sexuality, this might explain why taboo content appears in their fantasies somewhat more often.
Ari Tuckman: Do our sexual fantasies evolve over time as our lives change?
Justin Lehmiller: As I mentioned earlier, age was linked to the kinds of things people fantasized about. What I think is going on here is that our psychological needs are changing as we age and our fantasies may be changing in order to accommodate them. For example, if you consider something like group sex, the stereotype is that this would have the most appeal to college-age adults, but that’s not what I found. Instead, I observed a curvilinear relationship, meaning that interest in group sex increased to a point, then decreased again. Specifically, people were most interested in group sex in their forties and fifties, but less interested when they were much younger or much older.
I think what explains this is that sex—any sex—is a novelty to a young person because they’re new to it and haven’t been doing it very long. They don’t need to do it with a whole group in order to find it exciting. But as people get older and enter long-term relationships (most of which tend to be monogamous), we often see a craving for novelty that sets in, and group sex is one of many ways people may try to add an element of novelty or newness to their sex life. Then, when they get much older, people’s health status and needs begins to change, which may affect what’s pleasurable or desirable (or practical) when it comes to sex, and group sex just might not be as appealing at that stage.
Ari Tuckman: Even as an experienced sex researcher, what most surprised you about these results?
Justin Lehmiller: There were a lot of surprises. Based on previous research, I was expecting men’s and women’s fantasies to be pretty different, but they turned out to have a lot in common. For example, men’s fantasies had a lot in the way of emotional content in them. In fact, more often than not, men reported using their fantasies as a way of meeting emotional needs, such as feeling desired, validated, or competent. Men’s fantasies aren’t the emotionless, mechanical sex acts that a lot of people might assume. Likewise, women’s fantasies were much more sexually adventurous than you might think. The vast majority of women reported having had fantasies about group sex, BDSM, and trying new and different things in bed (or wherever it is that they like having sex).
Another thing that initially surprised me was that I found a link between low self-esteem and having more BDSM fantasies. Most of the research I’ve seen has found that people who are into BDSM are just as psychologically well-adjusted as everyone else, so I found my results to be perplexing. However, when I dug a bit deeper into the data, I found that there was a difference between those who just had the fantasy of BDSM and those who had acted on BDSM desires. Those who had actually engaged in BDSM had higher self-esteem and fewer feelings of shame and guilt than those who had the fantasy only. So I think what’s really going on here is this: the people who have learned to accept their sexual desires and who are integrating them into their sex lives in a healthy way are faring better psychologically than those who are repressing and trying to run away from their desires.
Ari Tuckman: It can be easy to oversimplify complex research results. What should readers not conclude from these results?
Justin Lehmiller: Some readers might look at my results and conclude that they’re wrong because they don’t speak to their own personal experiences. Here’s what those readers need to know—while I did find that having certain personality traits and demographic characteristics predicted certain fantasies, it was not the case that having those traits guaranteed having those fantasies.
Our sexual fantasies have very complex origins and are predicted by numerous factors, each of which may only play a small role. In order to really understand one’s fantasies and where they might come from, you need to consider a person’s entire constellation of traits rather than looking at individual traits in isolation. It’s entirely possible for two people to have the same fantasy, but to have that fantasy for different reasons. Likewise, it’s possible for two people with very similar demographic traits to have completely different fantasies because they have different personalities and/or sexual histories. There are no universal rules here.
I feel like there are two really interesting and important implications of Dr. Lehmiller’s research. First, our sexuality is influenced by all the rest of who we are, what we do, and what we have experienced. It is an integral part of our personalities, not some separate and mysterious force. Second, even when there are strong correlations at the group level, we are all individuals and need to figure out how to make our sexuality work well within the context of the rest of our lives. What the group-level data shows us though is that there are many, many ways that people find to do this.
Lehmiller, 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.