America’s Sexual Fantasies Laid Bare in New Book

Author Justin Lehmiller calls it the most comprehensive survey of America's sexual fantasies.

August 21, 2018 5:00 am

Ever fantasized about a politician naked? How about a threesome involving a coworker and your partner? Ever considered what it would be like to take a robot to bed?

There’s at least one man in America who wouldn’t bat an eye if you answered yes to every single question. His name is Dr. Justin Lehmiller.

A social psychologist with credentials from Villanova and Purdue University, Lehmiller spent time as a lecturer at some of the best universities in the country, including Harvard, before publishing his brand new book, Tell Me What You Want.

The tome delves into a comprehensive study he conducted several years ago into what exactly Americans are fantasizing about — and the results don’t just give insight into the secret desires of a person’s neighbors, friends and coworkers. They also reveal something about the individual.

“Tell Me What You Want” by Dr. Justin Lehmiller.

“I think the book is important for a couple of reasons,” Lehmiller told RealClearLife in a recent phone interview. “One is from a research perspective, because the last major review paper on sexual fantasies in scientific literature was published in 1995, and a lot has changed in our sex lives since then. I wanted to look at sexual fantasies today, how pornography use is connected to our sexual fantasies — given the increasingly availability of porn in our every day lives — [and I] also wanted to look at questions that had never been answered before, such as how we see ourselves in our sexual fantasies, and what that means.”

What does it mean?

For one, if you fantasize about something — no matter how seemingly obscure or “out there” it is — you likely aren’t alone, even if there aren’t a huge number of people who share your taste.

“A lot of people feel a lot of shame and guilt about their sexual fantasies, and I wanted people to better understand just how common most of their sexual fantasies are,” Lehmiller said. “So this was in some ways an attempt to normalize people’s fantasies, which would allow them to have an easier time talking about those fantasies with a partner, and maybe even acting on some of those fantasies.”

So what exact fantasies are we talking about here?

“I [asked] people whether they had ever fantasized about politicians, and what I found was that political fantasies were not very common,” Lehmiller said. “I don’t remember the exact number, but it was a relatively small number of people. People were much more likely to have fantasized about a celebrity or porn star. I don’t know exactly why that is, but one of the things that I thought was interesting was that heterosexual men — their biggest political fantasy was about Sarah Palin. For women, their biggest sexual fantasies about politicians were about Barack Obama and JFK, and Bill Clinton.”

Here’s another thing we learned from Lehmiller’s work: A person’s personality can have an impact on what they fantasize about. For example, if you’re generally an agreeable person — meaning you’re kind, considerate, and want to make other people happy — you’re less likely to fantasize about infidelity or emotionless sex, according to Lehmiller. You also care about the satisfaction your partner is receiving in bed — so messing around with, say, a robot, is less likely to rank high on your “to-do” list. On the other hand, if you have a high degree of intellectual curiosity and an active imagination, you might be more likely to seek out a machine with benefits.

“Fourteen percent of my participants said they’d fantasized about having sex with a robot before — that suggests that a fair number of people are probably open to that idea,” Lehmiller said. “The real question I think is whether, when they start creating these sex robots, what budget they’ll be made for — so whether that’s actually an attainable fantasy for people, that they could actually act on, I don’t know.”

So does all this normalization mean, one should immediately go and blab about all their fantasies to their partner?

“While there are potential benefits, there are ways that acting and sharing these fantasies can potentially harm us or our relationships, so we need to be very careful when approaching this subject,” Lehmiller said. “I try to lay out in the book a lot of suggestions and guidelines that people might want to take into account for sharing and acting on their fantasies in a safe, healthy and consensual way.

“The more comfortable we can all get communicating about sex, the more we all stand to benefit.”

Excerpts from Lehmiller’s book below, in which he reveals some of the most common sexual fantasies he came across in his research, shows that  many people’s imaginations overlap:

By far, the most common taboo activity Americans fantasize about is voyeurism. What we’re talking about here is the desire to watch other people undress or have sex without their knowledge or consent. Believe it or not, most of my participants (60 percent) reported having fantasized about this before! The point of voyeurism fantasies is to observe others without being seen. For example, one straight man in his fifties described his voyeurism fantasy as “being unnoticed and anonymously watching beautiful naked women masturbating.” “Spying” would therefore be another way to think about this.”

But there are also other impulses that are common:

“Fetishes are another popular taboo that appears in many Americans’ sexual fantasies. In fact, nearly half of the Americans I surveyed (45 percent) reported that they fantasize about fetish objects— objects that one relies on for feelings of sexual arousal. When this object is present during sex or masturbation, one typically has an easier time becoming and staying aroused and reaching orgasm. Some fetishes are very mild, meaning that the object isn’t absolutely necessary for one to enjoy sex. However, other fetishes are more intense, in the sense that one’s ability to become aroused and enjoy sex just isn’t the same in the absence of that fetish object. People can have fetishes for virtually anything. Among the more unusual ones I’ve read about are cars, dirt, and medical devices.

Following closely on the heels of fetishism in popularity was exhibitionism, which involves exposing one’s genitals or engaging in a sex act while others look on. There are really two types of exhibitionism that differ based on the desired reaction of others to what you’re, um, “exhibiting”: Do they want to see it, in which case they’ll enjoy the show? Or are you planning to take them by surprise, in which case they’ll likely be shocked or offended? The former—consensual exhibitionism—was about four times more common among my survey participants than the latter, nonconsensual type (42 percent and 10 percent, respectively).

“This suggests that, in most exhibitionism fantasies, the goal is not to violate or offend onlookers—rather, the hope is that others will like what they see.”

Excerpted from Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life by Justin Lehmiller, PhD. Copyright ©2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.