Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller
The Kinsey Institute
Blog: Sex & Psychology ( Twitter: @JustinLehmiller

  • I spent almost two years studying the sex fantasies of 4,175 American citizens & residents

  • Participants completed a survey consisting of 369 questions that inquired about their fantasies,

    personalities, sexual histories, and demographics

  • Published as a book in July 2018: TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT: THE SCIENCE OF SEXUAL DESIRE AND


  • There’s a follow-up study to TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT

    o Largely similar survey administered to 1969 adults
    o Given that we are in the midst of a “replication crisis” in psychology—and science more

    broadly—I thought it was important to begin replicating the main findings, as well as the controversial results

    So what is a sexual fantasy?

  • “Almost any mental imagery that is sexually arousing or erotic to the individual” (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Fantasies are deliberate and conscious

  • Almost everyone (97-98%) reports having them, and having them often (Davidson, 1985; Lehmiller, 2018; Pelletier & Herold, 1988)

• 60% of self-identified asexuals report sex fantasies (Yule, Brotto, & Gorzalka, 2014)

Sexual fantasy vs. sexual dream

• What do we know about sex dreams?

  • 93% of men and 86% of women say they’ve had them (Schredl et al., 2004)

  • Research suggests that 8% of all dreams are sex dreams (Pier Vaillancourt et al., 2018)

  • May be related to sleep position: Stomach sleepers have more sex dreams (Yu, 2012)

• Genital pressure transferred into dreams?
• Content of sex dreams may or may not be arousing during waking hours; dreams can reflect

fantasies, but they often don’t

Sexual fantasy vs. sexual desire

  • Desire: a strong wish or want for something

  • Fantasies are often, but not always desires

    • 79% said that they want to act on their favorite fantasy of all time in the future (Lehmiller, 2018). People’s favorite fantasies are usually desires

    • Why people don’t want to act on certain fantasies: physically impossible, illegal, inconsistent with moral values, unsafe/risky

      Fantasy vs. desire vs. behavior

• Sexual behaviors can be based in fantasies, desires, both, or neither• Behaviors can also become future fantasies and/or desires

• Despite the fact that most people want to act on their favorite sexual fantasy, relatively few have done

• 23.4% reported having acted on their favorite fantasy (Lehmiller, 2018)

The history of sexual fantasy research

  • Psychologists and psychiatrists have long been interested in the topic, but views in the field have evolved considerably over time

  • Freud (1908): fantasies reflect sexual dissatisfaction and deprivation

• “A happy person never fantasies, only a dissatisfied one.”

• Singer (1966): fantasies reflect healthy sexuality, promote arousal and enjoyment

Views of sexual fantasy today are nuanced

• Sexual fantasizing seen as a normal, healthy aspect of sexuality, but can be problematic under certain circumstances

• Fantasies may play a role in the commission of sexual offenses (Abel & Blanchard, 1974)—but fantasies are not a necessary & sufficient cause for commission of a sex crime. Co-occurrence with other factors (e.g., rape myth acceptance) is a better indicator of concern

• Using fantasy content to identify potential sex offenders (Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004)• Sex offenders have less range in fantasy content, more deviant fantasies, &

fewer romance/intimacy fantasies
• Lack of fantasies or guilt about fantasies may contribute to sexual dysfunction (Cado &

Leitenberg, 1990; Lehmiller, 2018)
• The field’s evolving views stem, in part, from the growing recognition that we fantasize for a wide

range of reasons (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995)

Why do we fantasize?

From Tell Me What You Want. In order from most to least common, here are the most popular reasons people reported having fantasies about sex:

To experience sexual arousal (reported by 79.5% of participants)
Because you’re curious about different sexual experiences and sensations (reported by 69.8%) To meet unfulfilled sexual needs (reported by 59.7%)
To temporarily escape reality (reported by 59.4%)
To express or fulfill a socially taboo sexual desire (reported by 58.4%)
To plan out a future sexual encounter (reported by 55.7%)
To relax or reduce anxiety (reported by 43.6%)
Because you’re bored and don’t have anything else to do (reported by 40.0%)
To feel more sexually confident (reported by 32.5%)
To meet unfulfilled emotional needs (reported by 29.8%)
To block out distractions during sex (reported by 19.8%)
To compensate for an unattractive or undesirable partner (reported by 11.8%)

Where and when do we fantasize?

From Tell Me What You Want. In order from most to least common, here are the most popular places/times people reported having fantasies about sex:

  • While masturbating (92.4%)

  • During sex with a partner (69%)

  • While watching TV/movies (68.9%)

  • At work (60.4%)

  • While talking to someone else (54.3%)

  • At a bar/club/party (46.5%)

  • At school (41.6%)

  • At the gym (28.1%)

  • Other (18%)

    Measurement of sexual fantasies

• Only measurable through self-report, which means our knowledge is limited in certain ways• Concerns about social desirability, accurate recall

  • Three common measurement methods

    • Fantasy checklist (quantitative)

    • Open-ended response (qualitative)

    • Daily diary (may involve checklist, open-ended responses, or both)

  • Retrospective recall issues

  • Are checklists comprehensive enough?

  • Open-ended questions can help, but they usually limit participants to reporting on a small number of

    fantasies; and even without explicit limits, participants may forget some fantasies

  • Daily diaries may promote more accuracy, but are more challenging to administer & analyze in large

    and diverse samples

  • Overreliance on college student samples

• College students may actually have the least diverse fantasy repertoires! (Lehmiller, 2018)• Overreliance on WEIRD samples

• How is culture reflected in our sexual fantasy content (e.g., activities, people, body characteristics)?

• Very difficult to say what’s “normal” (in the sense of being common) when it comes to fantasies due to lack of diverse and representative samples

• Have we been overusing the paraphilia label?

The 7 most common sexual fantasies


  • Online study advertised as a “survey of sexual fantasies”

  • N = 4175 adults (all US citizens or residents)

    • Mean Age = 32 (SD = 13.57; Range 18-87)

    • 50% male-assigned at birth, 49% female-assigned

• 49% male-identified, 46% female-identified, 5% non-binary

  • 72% heterosexual, 13% bisexual, 6% gay/lesbian 4% pansexual

  • 79% White, 21% racial minority

  • 55% monogamous romance, 14% open relationship, 24% single

  • At the beginning of the survey, participants were provided with a definition of a sexual fantasy: “mental images you have while you are awake that you find to be sexually arousing or erotic.”

  • As part of this survey, participants were asked to “please describe your favorite sexual fantasy of all time in your own words.”

  • They were also asked to sum up their favorite fantasy of all time in one word that captures the main idea or key theme

  • Qualitative analysis performed on the one-word fantasy descriptions. I grouped words into thematic categories

  • When words were unclear/ambiguous, I consulted the fantasy narrative

  • Some fantasies were too generic to be categorized (e.g., participants who said they simply wanted

    “sex” or “intercourse” or “pleasure”)

  • Words mentioned by <0.1% of the sample were not categorized. These were generally very esoteric

    (e.g., “diphallia,” “HumanCow”)

    1. Multipartner sex

  • Threesomes were most commonly mentioned, but many also fantasized about larger groups (orgies, gangbangs)

  • When asked whether they’d ever had various types of multipartner fantasies, just 5% of men and 13% of women had never done so

  • Participants said what they were doing in this fantasy was more important than who and where

• Partners often described generically, except those in relationships often included their partner

  • People usually wanted to be the center of attention

  • Men and women differed in preferred gender ratio for threesomes

  • Men more open to FFM, women more open to MMF and same-gender threesomes

  • Consistent with previous research on threesomes (Thompson & Byers, 2016) and sexual fluidity

    (Diamond, 2008)

  • When sex occurred in larger groups, voyeuristic and exhibitionistic elements were often present in the


    2. Power, control, and rough sex

  • Comprised of various BDSM activities, ranging from mild to wild

  • When asked whether they’d ever had various types of BDSM fantasies, just 7% of men and 4% of

    women had never done so

  • Sometimes overlapped with multipartner desires (e.g., gangbang)

  • Forced sex combines multiple elements of BDSM

  • Fantasies about sex being forced on you:

    • 61% of women had fantasized about it before; 24% fantasized about it often

    • 54% of men had fantasized about it before; 11.5% fantasized about it often

    • 68% of non-binary participants had fantasized about it before; 31% fantasized about it often

  • Fantasies about forcing sex on someone else:

    • 20% of women had fantasized about it before; 4% fantasized about it often

    • 38% of men had fantasized about it before; 7% fantasized about it often

    • 38% of non-binary participants had fantasized about it before; 9% fantasized about it often

  • Many described forced sex as their favorite fantasy, with several using the word “rape” to characterize it

  • However, the fantasizer is in complete control and sets the terms, so it bears no resemblance to real- life sexual assault

  • Most fantasies about forcing someone made it clear that they didn’t want to assault their partner (e.g., “they secretly want it”)

  • There was a wide spectrum in terms of intensity; many described safety concerns when it came to acting it out

    At least 4 theories on the popularity of BDSM

  • 1. Learned behavior - operant conditioning process

  • 2. Escape from self-awareness or distraction (Baumeister, 1988)

  • 3. Altered state of consciousness (Lee et al., 2016)

• Submission and masochism linked to transient hypofrontality, dominance and sadism linked to flow• 4. A form of meaning (Baumeister, 1989)

• “I live to serve,” “My only goal is to please my mistress.”

3. Novelty, adventure, and variety

  • Sexual activities that one has never done before or would like to attempt in a new way

  • Having sex in unique settings

  • Having unexpected, surprising, or thrilling sexual encounters

  • Can overlap with BDSM and or multipartner activities (not mutually exclusive)

  • Experimenting with food (e.g., whipped cream, chocolate, ice cubes, strawberries)

  • Experimenting with technology (e.g., watching porn during sex)

  • Using sex toys

• ”Pegging” was a particularly popular activity

  • Role-playing

  • Varying locations (e.g., public or semi-public settings, beaches, outdoors)

  • The Coolidge Effect

    • Habituation of arousal to same stimulus--observed in animals (Wilson et al., 1963; Lester &

      Gorzolka, 1988) and humans (O’Donohue & Geer, 1985; Joseph et al., 2015; Kelley &

      Musialowski, 1986)

    • Occurs in both males and females

    • Novel stimulus reawakens/reinvigorates arousal

  • Self-Expansion Theory (Aron & Aron, 1986)

• Humans have a fundamental need to expand and grow the self—can be achieved through

relationships and novel experiences

4. Taboo and forbidden sex

  • “Forbidden fruit”—these fantasies are considered disgusting by some, many are considered paraphilias, and some are illegal

  • A more common fantasy theme than passion/romance!

  • Voyeurism (60% had fantasized about it before) was the most popular taboo, followed by fetish

    fantasies (45%) and exhibitionism fantasies (42%)

• I distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual exhibitionism (the former is far more


• Controversial taboos:

  • Incest (defined specifically as “sex with a blood relative”)—20% had fantasized about it before,

    but only 3% fantasized about it often

  • Zoophilia—20% ever

  • Dogs (66%) and horses (22%) were the most fantasized-about animals

  • Adult babies—11% ever, 3% often

  • Dressing up as an animal to have sex (furry)—9% ever, 1% often

  • Pedophilia (defined as “sex with a prepubescent child”)—6% ever, 2% often

  • Necrophilia—3% ever, <1% often

    Where do taboo desires come from?

• Learning theory is one of the most popular explanations
• Classical conditioning (Rachman, 1966; Plaud & Martini, 1999; Pfaus et al., 2013)

• Operant conditioning
• The lessening of disgust responses that occurs during sexual arousal may play a role as well (Ariely &

Loewenstein, 2006; Borg & De Jong, 2012)

• Reduced disgust might open the door to trying something new• Do some taboos reflect orientations?

• Concept of “chronophilias”—sexual orientation for age (Seto, 2016)

  • We are attracted to several classes of sexual stimuli, of which gender is just one

    • Species orientation (human vs animal)

    • Living/dead orientation

    • Age orientation

  • Most people are teliophilies: preference for young, sexually mature adults

    • Dominant age orientation

    • Chronophilias: unusual or uncommon age orientations

  • Attractions aren’t really about age, but rather level of physical and psychological maturity

  • People can be multisexual and sexually fluid with respect to age orientations (just as with

    gender orientations)

  • Argues that these orientations are likely to be biologically based

  • Controversial: does calling something an “orientation” legitimize it in some way?

    5. Passion, romance, and intimacy

  • These fantasies are fundamentally about emotional fulfillment (e.g., feeling desired/wanted or validated, connecting with another person

  • Usually involve a specific other person (or persons)

  • Common across genders, orientations, and ages; most (70%) said they rarely or never fantasize about

    completely emotionless sex

  • There is often an emotional undertone to the fantasy themes previously discussed

• e.g., multipartner sex as a way of feeling desired
• Likely stem from the need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995)

6. Nonmonogamy and partner sharing

  • Different from group sex fantasies in that these fantasies aren’t necessarily about having multiple partners as a group in the same sexual encounter

  • Most people w/ these fantasies are in relationships

  • Fantasies about consensual nonmonogamy are far more common than fantasies about


  • Like novelty fantasies, may stem from Coolidge Effect and self-expansion drives

  • Take various forms

    • Open relationship (79% of men, 62% of women, 77% of non-binary)

    • Polyamory (70% of men, 51% of women, 76% of non-binary)

    • Swinging (66% of men, 45% of women, 49% of non-binary)

    • Cuckolding (58% of men, 33% of women, 45% of non-binary)

      • Men more likely to fantasize about watching partner have sex with someone else, women more likely to fantasize about being watched

      • Some overlap with BDSM

        7. Erotic flexibility and gender bending

  • Pushing the boundaries of one’s sexual orientation and/or gender role

  • A rejection of binary notions of gender and sexuality

• Overlaps with the novelty and taboo fantasy themes

Gender-Bending Fantasies

  • Fantasies about cross-dressing or changing genders, or fantasies about having sex with a cross-dressing or transgender partner

  • Common words used to describe: “feminization,” “genderplay,” “trans”

  • Some overlap with BDSM (e.g., men’s forced feminization fantasies)

  • Virtually all were more common fantasies among men than women

  • 1 in 4 men & women had fantasized about cross-dressing, nearly 1 in 3 had fantasized about trading

    bodies with the other sex. 1 in 4 men and 1 in 6 women had fantasized about sex with a cross-dresser,

    while 1 in 3 men and 1 in 4 women had fantasized about sex with a trans partner

  • All were more common among non-binary participants

    Sexual Flexibility Fantasies

  • Fantasies that are seemingly inconsistent with one’s sexual identity label

  • Common words used to describe: “gay,” ”lesbian,” “bisexual” (but note that some gays & lesbians have

    heterosexual fantasies)

  • Again, some overlap with BDSM (e.g., forced submissive bisexuality fantasies—straight men’s same-sex

    fantasies often included a woman)

  • Sexual flexibility fantasies are more common among women and more common among heterosexual


  • 59% of exclusively straight women had a same-sex fantasy vs. 26% of exclusively straight men

    Explaining these gender differences

  • Are masculinity role violations seen as more taboo for men? Men are drawn to more taboos than women, so this provides one potential explanation

  • Women’s erotic flexibility with respect to target gender could stem from:

    • Heterosexual women’s nonspecific genital arousal (Chivers at al., 2004)

    • Women’s greater sexual fluidity and erotic plasticity (Baumeister, 2000; Diamond, 2008)

    • Multiple theories for why women may have evolved greater erotic flexibility (sociocultural and


      Demographics & Sexual Fantasies

      • Gender

• •

• •

Men and women have a LOT in common—most stereotypically masculine & feminine fantasies are pervasive across gender
But there are some important differences:

  • Group sex, taboos, gender bending: men > women

  • BDSM, emotion & romance, same-sex: women < men

  • One explanation for many of these differences stems from research suggesting that

    men’s sexuality is more “fixed” while women’s is more “flexible” (e.g., Baumeister, 2000; Chivers, Rieger, Latty, & Bailey, 2004; Diamond, 2008); “sperm competition” theory often used to explain men’s greater interest in group sex (Baker & Bellis, 1990)

    Women also place more emphasis on WHERE they’re having sex, men on WHO they’re having sex with
    May be due to women seeing themselves as object of desire vs. men as acting on object of desire (Ellis & Symons, 1990)

• Sexual orientation

  • Previous conclusion was that the primary difference was in the gender of the partners you’re

    fantasizing about (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995)

  • However, I found that non-heterosexually identified persons had more diverse fantasy content:

    more BDSM, nonmonogamy, taboo acts, & gender bending

• Does violating one sexual taboo (norm of heterosexuality) make it less costly to

violate others? Does having a taboo interest make acknowledging same-sex attractions more likely?

  • Age

    • Younger adults reported fewer fantasies about group sex, nonmonogamy, novelty, and taboo acts.

      Their fantasies were more “vanilla” overall (with the exception of more BDSM & passion/romance


    • Age effects for group sex, nonmonogamy, and novelty (e.g., role playing) were curvilinear, rising

      until about age 40 and starting to decline in the 50s

    • Suggests a developmental time course for sex fantasies; may be tied to feelings of

      insecurity/confidence and relationship circumstances

  • Religious and political affiliation

    • Persons with religious affiliations and those who self-identified as Republican reported more

      taboo sexual fantasies

    • Men who identified as heterosexual and who had a religious affiliation had more same-sex


    • Republicans reported more fantasies about infidelity, orgies, swinging, and cuckolding

    • Differences may stem from reactance (Brehm, 1966): threats to personal freedom lead people to


    • People with taboo fantasies/desires may also turn to religion because they are uncomfortable

      with them

  • What was your first sexual experience like?

• •

Participants who said a given activity (e.g., kissing, oral sex, etc.) took place during their first sexual experience had more frequent fantasies about that act
Participants who described their first sexual experience as “unusual” in some way reported more taboo sexual fantasies

Those whose favorite fantasy was a taboo act were more likely to say that their fantasy

stemmed from a childhood experience than those who had other kinds of fantasies Is this just recall bias?

  • We’re more likely to bring to mind consistent rather than inconsistent information

  • Are those with taboo fantasies more likely to search the past for potential meaning?

• History of sexual victimization
• Participants were asked if they had ever been the victim of a sexual crime (broadly defined)

  • 10.1% of men, 37% of women, and 45% of non-binary participants had

  • Those with a history of victimization were more likely to fantasize about:

    • BDSM (with the exception of dominance)

    • Both emotional (passion/romance/intimacy) and emotionless sex

    • Gender bending

    • Sexual flexibility

What might these victimization associations mean?


  • Previous studies have found that no link between victimization experiences and BDSM (Richters

    et al., 2008)—but most of those studies focused on the practice of BDSM, not fantasies about it

  • The association was small, but could reflect an adaptive function given the aforementioned

    changes in mental state associated with BDSM (i.e., escape, distraction)

  • Emotional and emotionless sex

    • Might seem paradoxical, but...

    • This may reflect differences in the way people cope with trauma

    • Affirming self-worth vs. stripping emotion out of sex

  • Gender bending

    • Experiences with sexual victimization sometimes lead to self-hatred or disgust with own body;

      may stimulate attempts to escape or dissociate from one’s own body (Devor, 1994; Dulcan &

      Lee, 1984)

    • To be clear, this is not to suggest that being trans is rooted in sexual abuse

    • Interestingly, the correlation between victimization experiences and BDSM fantasies was

      highest among non-binary participants, who also had the highest rates of victimization

  • Sexual flexibility

    • Women who identified as exclusively lesbian had more fantasies about men to the extent that

      they had been sexually victimized

    • Could potentially reflect a way of distancing the self from past trauma (similar to the non-binary

      gender findings)

    • Caution is warranted in interpreting all of the victimization associations because many were

      quite small; however, this is also to be expected given that victimization was defined very broadly

      How are our sexual fantasies connected to our personalities?

  • Data from Study 2 (the follow-up)

  • Online study advertised as a “survey of sexual fantasies”

  • N=1969

    • Mean Age = 33.55 (SD = 12.81; Range 18-87)

    • 40.2% female-identified, 55.6% male-identified, 4.2% other genders

    • 68% heterosexual, 14% bisexual, 9% gay/lesbian 4% pansexual

    • 79% White, 21% racial minority

    • 53% monogamous romance, 14% open relationship, 27% single

  • Participants were asked to describe their favorite sex fantasy of all time in their own words (note that a definition of “sexual fantasy” was provided)

  • Participants were also asked how they see themselves in their fantasies—how often do they change their bodies, genitals, and/or personalities?

  • They were also asked how frequently they fantasize about hundreds of specific people, places, and things

  • Individual difference measures:

• Romantic and sexual satisfaction (Rusbult et al., 1998)

  • Experiences in Close Relationships short form (Wei et al., 2007) – attachment anxiety and avoidance

  • Big Five Inventory short form (Rammstedt & John, 2007)

  • Sociosexual orientation (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008)

• Big Five
• Openness to experience

• Positively correlated with more fantasies of almost every kind• Conscientiousness

• Positively correlated with novelty fantasies, especially those featuring novel settings; negatively correlated with BDSM, taboo, and gender-bending fantasies

• Extraversion
• Positively correlated with group sex, novelty, and nonmonogamy fantasies (both consensual

and nonconsensual), as well as fantasies about being validated; negatively correlated with

taboo fantasies• Agreeableness

• Negatively corelated with fantasies about BDSM, taboo sex acts (esp. nonconsensual acts), emotionless sex; positively correlated with novelty fantasies

• Neuroticism
• Negatively correlated with fantasies about group sex, nonmonogamy, and novelty;

positively correlated with BDSM and romance fantasies

• Attachment
• Anxiety

• Negatively correlated with group sex & nonmonogamy fantasies; positively correlated with BDSM, novelty, and romance fantasies

• Avoidance
• Negatively correlated with fantasies about intimacy and feeling desired; positively

correlated with fantasies of BDSM, taboo acts, and nonmonogamy (consensual and nonconsensual)

• Unrestricted sociosexual orientation
• Similar to openness; positively correlated with more fantasies of almost every type, but

especially nonmonogamy and group sex fantasies

How was personality associated with the way people saw themselves in their fantasies?

  • Most people (98%) appear in their fantasies; 73% say they appear often

  • Most people change themselves in some way, but some more/less than others

    • Introverts: more fantasies about changing personality & being dominant

    • Neurotics: more fantasies about changing body & personality

    • Anxious & avoidant attachment: more fantasies about ALL changes

    • Conscientious: less fantasies about ALL changes

      WHO do we fantasize about?

  • There’s one person who’s more likely to appear in your fantasies than anyone else: your current romantic partner (90% have fantasized about a current partner, 51% do it often)

  • Among singles, exes are the most likely person to appear in one’s fantasies

  • Most have fantasized about a celebrity before; less than half have fantasized about porn stars and


• <7% say they fantasize often about the rich and famous

  • This pattern holds across genders & sexual orientations, and it’s further evidence that fantasies often

    include an emotional element

  • When famous figures do appear, they tend to have body characteristics consistent with what

    evolutionary psychologists would predict (i.e., indicators of good health and fertility)

    • Heterosexual men: Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Lawrence

    • Heterosexual women: Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, and Adam Levine

    • Gay and bisexual persons fantasized about similar celebrities, although they had more fantasies

      about persons who are less sex-typed (e.g., Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp)

    • The specific celebrities mentioned are revealing of racial attitudes in US culture

  • Frequent celebrity fantasies may signify something else entirely

    • Linked to avoidant attachment, lower sexual and relationship satisfaction

    • But also overactive imagination, sensation seeking, unrestricted sociosexuality (so sometimes a

      cigar is just a cigar...)

  • Whites were the only group to show a strong ingroup preference in their fantasy partners (just 1 in 4 said they usually fantasized about someone of another race)

  • Asian Americans showed a strong outgroup preference for Whites; African Americans and Hispanic/Latino(a) participants showed a less pronounced outgroup preference

  • Reflects racial hierarchy of sex appeal in the United States

• Whites have the most social & political power and therefore the most ability to shape standards

of beauty

How fantasies are connected to porn

  • Among straight women, porn consumption is linked to fantasies about male partners w/ larger penises & less pubic hair; for lesbian and bisexual women, porn use is linked to fantasies about women w/ larger breasts (same goes for straight men)

  • The body features of the partners in gay men’s fantasies were not linked to porn consumption

  • In terms of sex acts, porn seems to reflect our fantasies more than it shapes them

    • 16% said their favorite fantasy stems from porn exposure

    • 81% have sought porn that reflects favorite fantasy

  • How porn consumption can shape the content of our sexual fantasies (and desires), both with respect to partners and activities

    • Mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 1968) – familiarity breeds liking

    • Classical and operant conditioning

    • Disgust-lowering effect of sexual arousal

      Reconceptualizing paraphilias

  • Paraphilia: a preference for any kind of nonnormative sexual activity

  • DSM-5 currently mentions 8 specific paraphilias: sadism, masochism, transvestism, fetishism,

    exhibitionism, frotteurism, pedophilia, voyeurism

• “Not otherwise specified” is a catch-all for everything else

• An alternative proposal (Fedoroff, 2011):
• Recommended Diagnostic Criteria for Paraphilic Disorders

• A persistent or recurrent sexual interest that involves nonconsent or interferes with sexual function.

• Specify

  • Type of paraphilic activity

  • Target of paraphilic activity

  • Age range of target(s)

  • Degree of dependence on the paraphilia for normal sexual function

• Subspecify

  • a. Has acted on the paraphilic interest

  • b. Intermittent, continuous, in remission (no evidence of disease)

• Joyal (2014) has proposed “Disorders of Sexual Interests”

  • Some sources describe 500+ paraphilias (Aggrawal, 2008)

    • Includes listings for oral and anal sex, “coprolalia” (arousal from obscene language), “neophilia”

      (arousal from novelty or change”), etc.

    • If almost everything is a paraphilia, has the term lost all meaning? Who gets to decide what


  • Psychologists and psychiatrists have labeled many sexual fantasies and desires as paraphilic, even in

    the absence of evidence that a given interest/behavior is rare or unusual

  • Research suggests that some “paraphilic” interests may actually be normative

    Joyal, Cossette, & Lapierre (2014)

  • Surveyed 1,516 adults in Quebec, Canada—a diverse, general population sample

  • Participants given an extended version of the Wilson Sex Fantasy Questionnaire (Wilson & Lang, 1981)

    involving 55 fantasies

  • Fantasies rated as statistically rare (<2.3%; 2 SD below mean), unusual (<15.9%; 1 SD below mean),

    common (>50%; mean), or typical (>84.1%; 1 SD above mean)

  • Fantasies shared by >50% of men and women include sex in public and being sexually dominated

  • The only fantasies rated as statistically rare were zoophilia and pedophilia

    Joyal & Carpentier (2017)

  • Surveyed 1,040 adults in Quebec, Canada—sample designed to be close to demographically representative of the population

  • Participants were asked about desires and behaviors for the 8 paraphilias listed in the DSM-5

  • 45.6% acknowledged desire for at least one paraphilia; 33.9% had engaged in at least one paraphilic


  • Research by Joyal and colleagues dovetails with my own work in suggesting that many “unusual” fantasies aren’t so unusual after all (e.g., sadomasochism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism)

  • A relatively small number of fantasies are truly uncommon

  • But how much does being unusual/uncommon really matter anyway? In defining sexual disorders,

    should population prevalence even be part of the equation?

  • Just because an interest is uncommon (e.g., being a furry) doesn’t mean it would be harmful to act out; Just became an interest is common (e.g., voyeurism) doesn’t mean it would be harmless

  • Compulsive sexual behaviors can exist for normative activities

  • Key considerations should be (1) issue of consent, and (2) harm/distress

• When preferred fantasy content involves lack of consent or harm to one or more persons, there is cause for concern (e.g., voyeurism, necrophilia, pedophilia, “bug chasing,” etc.)


Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller
The Kinsey Institute
Blog: Sex & Psychology ( Twitter: @JustinLehmiller

So what happens when fantasies go beyond being a solitary sexual experience?

As I discuss in Tell Me What You Want...

  • People’s experiences sharing and acting on their fantasies are generally positive

  • But is this true across the board?

  • Do certain types of people tend to have better experiences? Does it depend on the nature of the


  • Let’s dive into data from the follow-up study to find out

    Methods for the follow-up study

  • Online study advertised as a “survey of sexual fantasies”

  • N=1969

    • Mean Age = 33.55 (SD = 12.81; Range 18-87)

    • 40.2% female-identified, 55.6% male-identified, 4.2% other genders

    • 68% heterosexual, 14% bisexual, 9% gay/lesbian 4% pansexual

    • 79% White, 21% racial minority

    • 53% monogamous romance, 14% open relationship, 27% single

  • Participants were asked to describe their favorite sex fantasy of all time in their own words (note that a definition of “sexual fantasy” was provided)

  • They were asked whether they wanted to act on this fantasy, if they had shared & acted on it with a romantic partner, what their partners’ reactions were like & how it impacted their relationship

  • Other measures:

    • Romantic and sexual satisfaction (Rusbult et al., 1998)

    • Experiences in Close Relationships short form (Wei et al., 2007) – a measure of attachment

      anxiety and avoidance

    • Big Five Inventory short form (Rammstedt & John, 2007)

    • Sociosexual orientation (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008)


  • 77.5% said they want to act on their favorite fantasy in the future

• Participants were less likely to want to act on certain types of fantasies (e.g., forced sex)

  • 53.7% had shared their favorite fantasy before

    • 71% received a positive partner response; 14% neutral; 15% negative

    • Sharing fantasies correlated with higher sexual (r=.28**) and relationship satisfaction (r=.15**)

  • 21.8% had acted on their favorite fantasy

    • 51% improved relationship; 26% no impact; 22% negative

    • Acting on fantasies correlated with higher sexual (r=.11**) and relationship satisfaction (r=.09*)

      Why are so many people not sharing their fantasies?

• Among those who have never shared their favorite fantasy with a romantic partner, just 27.8% expect

that their partner would respond favorably

• Those who have never shared their fantasies also report less positive emotions (e.g., happiness, excitement) and more negative emotions about their fantasies (e.g., guilt, embarrassment, fear, disgust)

On average, people report positive experiences sharing and acting on their fantasies, but there’s clearly a lot of individual variabilitySo how do you increase the odds of a positive experience?

Before starting a conversation...

• Start by coming to terms with your own fantasies/desires first

  • Embracing the “shadow self”

  • Avoiding thought suppression (Efrati, 2018)

  • Following the PLISSIT Model (Annon, 1976)

• Begin by providing permission to discuss concerns, change their lifestyle, seek medical help— many practitioners skip the first step, but it’s crucial. Then move to limited information

  • Recognize the potential rewards and risks of communicating about fantasies and desires

  • Remember that you have time—no need to disclose everything right away

• Self-disclosure is a gradual process (Laurenceau et al., 1998); start low and go slow, let intimacy build

• Start with fantasies you think your partner is most likely to be into based on your knowledge of your partner

• What are their personality traits? What is their attachment style?
• Think about how you will present your fantasies in a way that will validate your partner

• e.g., talk about how your partner plays an integral role in your fantasy• Choose your time and place carefully

• e.g., private, no distractions, relaxed, perhaps sexually aroused...

Icebreaker ideas

  • Watching a steamy movie together and discussing afterwards

  • Going to a sex shop or website; joining a “sex toy of the month” club

  • Playing an erotic game (e.g., truth or dare, would you rather?)

  • “I had a dream about XXX last night...” or “I was daydreaming about you today...”

  • Instead of asking “what do you want?” ask “how do you want to feel?”

  • Use a modified version of Aron et al. (1997)’s 36 questions technique with a sexual twist (add fantasy questions in rounds 2-3)

    • “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” – Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vallone, & Bator (1997)

    • They developed 3 sets of questions that escalate the degree of self-disclosure required as time progresses

      • Set 1 example: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

      • Set 2 example: Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

      • Set 3 example: If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

Going from fantasy to realityWhen and how? What do you need to know?

  • Is your fantasy truly a desire?

  • It’s OK if you don’t want to act on your fantasies, and you don’t have to do so in order to be happy

  • What are the potential rewards? What are the potential risks? Is your fantasy safe, sane, legal, and

    consensual? Make sure it checks all of the boxes; otherwise, it’s not a candidate for acting on

  • Don’t jump into more adventuresome fantasies right away

• Beginning with “vanilla” fantasies can help to build up trust, intimacy, and communication, which may facilitate acting on other fantasies later

• Know thyself: What do your personality traits suggest about you and your partner’s odds of having a good experience?
• e.g., I found that people high in neuroticism had worse experiences acting on certain types of

fantasies (multipartner, novelty, nonmonogamy)

  • Are you and your partner high in sexual communal strength?

    • Muise et al. (2013): the motivation to be responsive to a partner's sexual needs

    • Linked to sustained sexual desire, greater sexual & relationship satisfaction

  • Are you (and your partner) higher in sexual excitation or sexual inhibition?

    • Bancroft et al. (2009): “individuals vary in their propensity for both sexual excitation and sexual

      inhibition, and...such variations help us to understand much of the variability in human sexuality”

    • Supported by Prause et al. (2015): some people have an equally strong neurological response to

      mild & potent sexual cues, while others have a proportional response

    • Level of excitation/inhibition might have implications for how a fantasy experiences turns out &

      how best to manage it—clinical implications

  • Make sure your relationship is in a good place to start with-–approach from strength. Acting on fantasies isn’t likely to cure a troubled relationship & could make it worse

  • Do some research and plan ahead

    • Consider guidebooks (e.g., Opening UpThe Ethical Slut, The Jealousy Workbook, SM 101, The New

      Bottoming Book), but avoid fictionalized accounts (e.g., Fifty Shades)

    • Reduce STI risk (condoms, dental dams, PrEP, HPV vaccine, etc.)

    • Consider a safeword

    • Be aware that things may not go according to plan (affective forecasting errors) and that fantasy

      and reality may be very different

      Sharing and acting on fantasies and desires in a relationship: What do you need to know?

      Potential Rewards

  • Building sexual communication skills

  • Establishing and enhancing trust

  • Sexual arousal, enjoyment, and pleasure

  • Fending off the Coolidge Effect (habituation of arousal) and meeting self-expansion needs in a long- term relationship

  • Enhanced relationship and sexual satisfaction

    • Couples who act on their fantasies are more satisfied (Frederick et al., 2017)

    • More frequent orgasms

• Women who talked about and/or acted on their fantasies had higher rates of orgasm (Frederick et al., 2018)

  • Resolving and preventing sexual problems—acting on our fantasies just might be therapeutic by taking us out of our heads

    • BDSM practitioners report fewer sexual difficulties during BDSM sex than non-BDSM sex (Monterio

      Pascoal et al., 2015)

    • In my own data, acting on fantasies is associated with reports of fewer sexual difficulties

  • Increased self-understanding

• Acting on fantasies offers a means of exploring different aspects of the self (e.g., gender and sexual

identity) & redefining your limits
• Enhanced physical and mental health through increased sexual activity

  • Sharing and acting on fantasies may boost libido

  • Frequent sex is linked to numerous health benefits

• A form of exercise (Frappier et al., 2013), stress relief (Ein-Dor & Hirschberger, 2012), lower risk of heart attack (Hall et al., 2010), better memory performance (Allen, 2018), positive mood and meaning in life (Kashdan et al., 2017), etc.

Potential Risks

  • Negative response—e.g., partner finds fantasy to be disgusting or disturbing

  • Sharing certain fantasies (e.g., multipartner, non-monogamy) might feed feelings of jealousy and/or

    insecurity; could erode trust

  • Loss of controlled secret—sexual interests could be held against you in divorce or child custody


• National Coalition for Sexual Freedom: hundreds of cases in which BDSM & polyamory

desires/practices are held against clients
• Affective forecasting errors (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005)

• We aren’t very good at predicting future emotional states—we overestimate both positive and negative reactions

• Exposure to relationship alternatives
• In monogamous relationships, perceiving desirable alternatives to a current partner is linked to

lower commitment (Rusbult et al., 1998)
• Risk of STIs and/or physical harm for certain fantasies (e.g., nonmonogamy, BDSM)

• Risk of arrest for illegal activities (e.g., public sex)
• If experience goes poorly, the relationship could suffer

• When something goes wrong in a BDSM experience, partners feel less close afterwards (Sagarin et al., 2009)

• To the extent that communication is poor to begin with or the relationship is rocky, a poor fantasy experience could exacerbate troubles

Monogamy vs. Consensual Non-monogamyWhat are the unique benefits and challenges of each, and how do you figure out which approach is right for you?

Most people are in monogamous romantic relationships and say that’s what they want. But many people are consensually nonmonogamous

  • 5% currently practicing (Rubin et al., 2014)

  • 21% have ever experienced (Haupert et al., 2016)

    Interest in consensual nonmonogamy is rising, too

  • Google searches for polyamory and open relationships increased over the past decade (Moors, 2016)

  • Growth in popular media depictions of consensually nonmonogamous relationships (CNMRs)

• Public opinion polls suggest interest (not just curiosity)—2016 YouGov poll of 1,000 Americans: 48% of men & 31% of women said their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous

How do you know if a CNMR is right for you?

  • Some people may be better suited to CNMRs than others

  • We may predisposed to a mating orientation due to our brain chemistry

• Vasopressin research on prairie voles (Young & Alexander, 2014)

  • Prairie voles are monogamous for life; thought to be due to vasopressin hormone promoting


  • Pair bonds deteriorate when vasopressin blockers administered

  • Meadow voles (naturally non-monogamous) become monogamous when administered


  • Prairie voles’ vasopressin receptor levels vary

  • Those with fewer receptors are more likely to be “wanderers” (i.e., nonmonogamous)

  • Receptor levels vary in humans, too, so could this explain why some people seem more inclined to


    Personality Research and CNMRs

  • The idea that some people may be better suited to CNMRs than others is also supported by personality research

  • I explored personality and individual difference factors linked to relationship satisfaction in monogamous and CNM relationships

  • Specifically, I considered monogamy status within two types of relationships: “friends with benefits” (FWBs) and romantic partners

    Method: Data presented at IARR 2016

  • Online survey

    • N=1473

    • Mean age of 28.85 (SD = 10.96; Range = 18-83)

    • 70% female, 27% male, 3% non-binary

    • 75% heterosexual, 5.4% gay/lesbian, 12% bisexual, 4.5% pansexual, 3.1% other sexualities

    • 81.5% White, 5.0% Hispanic, 3.6% Multiracial, 3.2.% Asian, 3.1% Black, 3.5% other races

    • 26.8% had FWBs, 73.2% had romantic relationships

    • Participants recruited through websites (e.g., SPN) and social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter)

    • Inclusion criteria: over age 18 and involved in a FWB or romantic relationship

  • Relationship satisfaction (adapted from Lehmiller, VanderDrift, & Kelly, 2014)

    • “Overall, I am satisfied in this relationship.”

    • “I am sexually satisfied in this relationship.”

    • “I am emotionally satisfied in this relationship.”

  • Participants also completed several personality and individual difference scales:

    • Big 5 personality traits (Rammstedt & John, 2007)

    • Erotophilia-erotophobia (Fisher et al., 1988)

    • Sexual sensation seeking (Kalichman et al., 1994)

    • Sociosexual orientation (Penke & Asendorph, 2008)

    • Attachment style (Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt, & Vogel, 2007)

  • Most participants in FWB relationships reported having no monogamy agreement (68%), whereas most participants in romantic relationships reported such an agreement (88%)

  • Among persons in FWB relationships, relationship satisfaction did not differ depending upon whether a monogamy agreement had been made, F(1,392)=0.65, p=.420

• On average, both were satisfied (M=4.91 for monogamous; M=5.04 for CNM on a 7-point scale)• Among persons in romantic relationships, those who agreed to be monogamous reported being

happier than those who did not, F(1074)=13.02, p<.001
• On average, both were satisfied (M=5.97 for monogamous; M=5.55 for CNM on a 7-point scale)

  • Those who did not have monogamy agreements had higher scores on all of the “sex-seeking” personality scales, regardless of whether they were in FWBs or romances

  • Those higher in the traits of openness to experience and attachment avoidance were less likely to have monogamy agreements, but only in romances

  • Those high in attachment anxiety were more likely to have a monogamy agreement, but only in FWBs



  • Some people (i.e., those high in attachment insecurity and neuroticism) appear to have more a more difficult time establishing a satisfying relationship, regardless of monogamy status & relationship type

  • “Sex-seeking” personality traits are differentially linked to satisfaction based on both monogamy status and relationship type

• High sex-seekers appear happiest in non-romantic CNM relationships & least happy in monogamous romantic relationships

• Better understanding one’s own personality and attachment patterns may help in navigating relationships

CNMR Benefits

  • Some may assume that there aren’t any benefits...

  • Conley et al. (2011): CNMR stigma is pervasive

    • Monogamous relationships seen as superior in almost all regards (promoting commitment/stability and health)

    • ”Halo effect” surrounding monogamy—extends to arbitrary traits

    • Monogamous relationships overwhelmingly seen in more favorable terms than CNMRs

    • Therapists/clinicians are not immune from these monogamy biases

  • Moors, Matsick, & Schechinger (2017)

  • Asked people in CNMRs: “What are the benefits of consensual nonmonogamy?”

  • Three unique benefits emerged that did not appear when people in monogamous relationships were

    asked about the benefits of monogamy

    • Diversified need fulfillment: ability to meet needs that might overwise go unfulfilled

    • Variety in non-sexual activities: more flexibility in terms of who you can spend time with and

      what activities you might engage in

    • Personal growth and development: ability to have personal freedom and autonomy

      CNMR Challenges

  • Jealousy can emerge, just as it does in many monogamous relationships

  • Infidelity—rules are sometimes broken (Hoff et al., 2010)

  • Managing sexual health

• Interestingly, persons in CNMRs aren’t any more likely to report having had an STI than people in monogamous relationships (Lehmiller, 2015)

• Why? Infidelity in monogamous relationships is a high-risk behavior. Persons in CNMRs take more sexual precautions

How do CNMRs fare?

  • Relationship quality and stability similar to monogamists (Rubel & Bogaert, 2015)

  • Persons in CNMRs may be happier in certain ways

• e.g., Swingers & polyamorists report higher sexual satisfaction (Conley et al., 2018)

Why might persons in CNMRs be more satisfied in some respects?

  • Sexual variety may fend off the Coolidge Effect

  • Reduced pressure on one partner to meet all needs

    • Balzarini et al. (2017): in polyamorous relationships, higher satisfaction with a secondary partner predicts higher commitment to a primary partner

    • Crossover effects from one relationship to another may bolster all relationships

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