• Kinsey sex researcher: What I learned in asking more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies

    By: USA Today

    Updated:

    INDIANAPOLIS — Kinsey Institute sex researcher Justin Lehmiller has heard it all.

    After two years of research, probably every sexual fantasy, no matter how wild or outlandish, has been shared with the author.

    In his new book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help Improve Your Sex Life, the “sexpert” at the Kinsey Institute, based in Bloomington, Indiana, interviewed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies. He wanted to know: What do Americans really want when it comes to sex, where do their desires come from and what do these longings reveal?

    It's now the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon in the human sexuality category.

    "People feel that their sexual fantasies are weird or abnormal," he said. "One of the big things the book does is that it’ll help people realize they’re not alone in having these fantasies.

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    He recruited Americans from all 50 states, mostly through social media, to fill out online surveys.This is what respondents ages 18 to 87 told him: 

    • Their No. 1 fantasy is a threesome.
    • Almost every one of them at some point has fantasized about group sex as well as bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism — better known as BDSM. 
    • Women are more likely than men to report same-sex fantasies.
    • Men are more likely to fantasize about cross-dressing and having sex with someone who is transgender.
    • Extroverts have more non-monogamous fantasies than introverts.

    Lehmiller, who’s been married for seven years, earned a doctorate in social psychology from Purdue University and taught human sexuality at Harvard University for three years.

    The American Psychological Association described the author of the popular Sex and Psychology blog as “somewhat of a male Dear Abby, albeit one grounded in rigorous science.” Men’s Health named him one of 5 “Sexperts” You Need to Follow on Twitter. He writes for Playboy magazine. 

    Now that he's literally written the book on sexual fantasies, we had a few other questions for him. 

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    The title of your book is Tell Me What You Want. As far as sex goes, what do people want?

    I found three fantasies that almost everyone has had at one time or another: Multi-partner sex, BDSM and what I call novelty, adventure and variety. The latter category refers to trying new things, whether it’s new positions or sex in new settings.

    Threesomes and group sex emerged as the most common fantasy. Why do you think that is?

    It stems from what sex researchers refer to as the Coolidge Effect, which is the idea that we tend to grow bored with sexual routines and need to introduce novelty in order to maintain arousal and excitement. Group sex is one of the ways people can easily interject the novelty they crave.

    Was there ever a moment that you were like, “Umm, I kind of need to report this person” as far as the more out-there sexual fantasies go? 

    Some people did report fantasies about nonconsensual sexual activities, but I collected my data anonymously, so there isn’t anything I can do about that.

    But if people have fantasies about something that is nonconsensual that might be harmful to them and they’re worried they might act on it or a fantasy is becoming an obsession or preoccupation, then it’s time to seek help.

    Which of your findings surprised you?

    The results challenge a lot of our stereotypes about sex and gender. Men’s fantasies contained a lot more emotional content than most people would expect.

    Men are often trying to meet emotional needs in their fantasies, whether it’s feeling desired or validated or competent. I also found that women’s fantasies were a lot more adventurous than most people would expect; most women reported having fantasies about group sex and BDSM.

    What do most people get wrong about sex?

    People think a long-term relationship should always be passionate and exciting, and that if it isn’t, there’s a problem with them, or a problem with the relationship. The truth is that passion tends to decline in most relationships, and if you want to keep passion alive, you have to work at it.

    It’s supposed to take work. It’s not just naturally easy.

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    How did your family react when you told them you were going to make studying human sexuality your life’s work?

    It happened very gradually. It wasn’t like I ever had to come out and say, “Hey, I”m going to be a sex researcher.”

    They knew I was studying to be a psychologist focusing on relationships at Purdue, and over time I drifted to doing more of the sexuality work. But my family has been very supportive.

    My mom reads my Sex & Psychology blog.

    What was the tipping point that made you say, “I’ve got to write this book?”

    My interest in fantasies has been there for a long time. But after I wrote an article on sexual fantasies for Playboy, I had literary agents contact me and say, “Hey, you should write a whole book.”

    And then I started a two-year study that could address lots of previously unanswered questions about sexual fantasies.

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    What question are you asked most frequently about sex?

    The single most common question takes different forms, but it all comes down to: Am I normal? Is this normal?

    People pull me aside at dinner parties, when I’m out at a bar, basically anywhere where they’ve had a drink or two and they feel like they can come and ask me their sex questions. 

    How have attitudes toward sex changed in the past decade?

    People have become more accepting of LGBT-related issues. They are also becoming more accepting of diverse relationship structures — not necessarily having to be completely monogamous with their partner or having some form of an open relationship.

    There is some liberalization of sexual attitudes, especially with millennials and younger adults, who seem to be increasingly open to and accepting of sexual diversity.

    Is there any research documenting what people’s fantasies used to be centuries ago that provides a standard for you to compare them with what they are now?

    That’s something I would love to be able to do. But we don’t have the data to look back and be able to draw any definitive conclusions.

    We do know that if you look back at older erotic writings, a lot of the things people find arousing today people found arousing centuries ago. For example, BDSM is not a new sexual interest.

    That’s something that goes way back. It’s just that we tend to think of it as being more common today because of things like Fifty Shades of Grey

    You surveyed Americans — do you think fantasies differ by country?

    I think the overall themes you’d find in the fantasies ... would largely be universal. But in terms of the specific features of people's fantasies, I think you’d see some differences.

    For example, in cultures where the standard of beauty is different, people might fantasize about partners with different body features.

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    What’s the most uncomfortable moment you’ve experienced in your work?

    There are two things that come to mind.

    The first is when my friends come to me for sex advice. Sometimes I just want to be able to shut off and relax and have fun and then other people are coming at me with their problems, but I’m out at a bar just trying to enjoy myself.

    The second is that sometimes I get attacked for the work I do because people don’t like my conclusions because they’re politically inconvenient. I’m doing this work in an environment that often is hostile to sex research and sex education.

    What are you still trying to parse out about sexual fantasies, even after spending two years writing this book?

    I’d like to explore how our fantasies might differ across cultures. I’d also like to ask people if they’re seeing their fantasies from a first-person perspective or a third-person perspective.

    That was something I didn’t include in the survey, but that I think is an important piece of the fantasy that we haven’t yet looked at. I expect to find that it's related to personality, self-esteem and the types of things that turn us on more generally.

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    Is there anything else you want people to know about your research?

    Getting better about communicating about sex isn’t just good for our romantic and sexual relationships, it’s also good for the relationships we have with our children because kids need to have resources in their lives where they can go to learn about sex.

    Most parents feel too uncomfortable to talk about sex with their kids, and kids aren’t learning what they need to in school. So (some are) going to porn as their default form of sex education. 

    Follow Sarah Bahr on Twitter: @smbahr14 

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