Wellness

How the Science of Sexual Desire Can Improve Your Sex Life

Illustration Courtesy of Joe Webb

How the Science of Sexual Desire Can Improve Your Sex Life

Not only have we shied away from talking about sexual fantasy as a society, we’ve avoided seriously studying it. Our level of scientific knowledge on the subject is surprisingly limited, says social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. Lehmiller has spent his career researching casual sex, sexual health, and, most recently, sexual fantasy. His recent comprehensive two-year study involved more than 4,000 Americans, and it’s both fascinating and comforting. For one thing, more of us than you would think are fantasizing about the same thing.

Lehmiller’s findings are published in his new, illuminating book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Armed with research, he describes our collective fantasies and helps make sense of what they might mean, tackling everything from how they’re connected to personalities to how our sexual histories shape desires. And he concludes that one of the best things you can do for your sexual health is accept your desires—and talk about them.

A Q&A with Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D.

Q
Do our sexual fantasies reveal anything deeper about who we are?
A

Our fantasies have a very deep connection to both our sexual histories and our personalities. They reflect our learned experiences with sex to some extent; for instance, activities that took place during someone’s first sexual experience were disproportionately likely to appear in their sexual fantasies later on. This suggests that those early experiences “imprint” on us and that we may carry them with us throughout our lives.

Our fantasies also appear to be designed to meet our unique psychological needs. So if you’re an extroverted, outgoing person, your desire to meet and interact with new people is likely to appear in your fantasies through, say, group sex or nonmonogamy. If you’re someone with neurotic tendencies and you don’t handle stress well, your fantasies are likely to play it safe and avoid content that could potentially stress you out, like trying adventuresome things. Instead, your fantasies might include more calming emotional content, like romance.


Q
Why is there such a strong link between sexual fantasy and shame?
A

That connection stems largely from culture. For a long time, political and religious authorities have told us that what was “normal” and “appropriate” when it comes to sex was very limited. Most of us grew up with the message that “sex” means only penile-vaginal intercourse—and that it’s an act that should only occur within monogamous relationships. It’s not surprising that many of us feel ashamed and embarrassed when we desire something different than what we’ve been told we “should” want.


Q
Did you find significant differences in the sexual fantasies of men and women?
A

There was a lot of overlap in the things that men and women fantasized about. Most of the things that men fantasized about with great frequency—such as threesomes—were things most women fantasized about as well. Ninety-five percent of men and 87 percent of women reported having had group sex fantasies. Likewise, most of the things women fantasized about frequently, such as passion and romance, showed up in men’s fantasies, too. More than 80 percent of both men and women said they had fantasized about sex in a romantic setting, like during a candlelit dinner or in front of a fireplace.

There were some important differences, though. Men placed more emphasis on whom they were having sex with in their fantasies, while women placed more emphasis on the setting in which sex took place.

Also, women had more fantasies about BDSM, and men had more fantasies about engaging in taboo activities, like voyeurism (spying on other people having sex or undressing) and exhibitionism (exposing their genitals to others). Men also had more of what I call “gender-bending” fantasies, which includes activities like cross-dressing or imagining what it might be like to physically become the other sex.


Q
Do our fantasies change as we age?
A

People’s sexual fantasies do seem to change with age, which I find fascinating. I suspect this is because our psychological needs change as we age, and our fantasies adjust to meet them.

One of the biggest changes I observed with age involved interest in threesomes. People’s interest in threesomes increased up until around age forty, when it stayed high until the mid-fifties, at which point it started to decline again.

I think what’s going on here is that sex—any kind of sex—is a novelty for young adults because they don’t have much sexual experience. And as people get older and are more likely to enter long-term monogamous relationships, they come to crave sexual novelty, like threesomes, because their sex lives have become routine. Then, once people start to have health-status changes and sexual difficulties become more common, sexual novelty might be less crucial or less practical.


Q
How does porn play a role in fantasy?
A

Pornography both shapes and reflects our sexual fantasies. My data shows that more often than not, porn reflects our desires. Eighty-one percent of my participants said they had sought out porn depicting their fantasies as a way of vicariously living them out. But to some extent, porn does shape both whom and what we desire. For example, I found that the more porn straight men watched, the bigger the breasts they fantasized about; likewise, the more porn straight women watched, the bigger the penises they fantasized about. And about one in seven people said their biggest fantasy stemmed directly from something they saw in porn. So porn has the potential to help us develop new sexual interests. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily develop new interests every time you watch porn, but porn can potentially shape what we want when we branch out and start watching new and different things.


Q
What are the most common sexual fantasies? And some of the most unusual?
A

There were three kinds of fantasies that almost everyone who took my survey had: multipartner sex (threesomes and orgies), BDSM (ranging from light bondage and spankings to more intense activities), and novelty, adventure, and variety (new positions and settings or using sex toys).

Researchers have found that when men and women watch the same erotic material repeatedly, they show less arousal to it over time (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Coolidge Effect). In order to boost arousal again, we need a dose of something fresh, new, and exciting—and that’s precisely what all three of these fantasies do. Bringing in a new (or extra) partner, trying a new activity, or having sex in a new place can help to kick-start our libidos when we get into a bit of a sexual rut.

Less than 3 percent of participants said they fantasized frequently about being a furry (i.e., dressing up as an animal to have sex) or being an adult baby.


Q
Does it matter if your partner’s fantasies aren’t the same as your own?
A

It’s okay if you and your partner don’t share a certain fantasy because odds are, you have a lot of other fantasies in common. If my data tell us anything, it’s that we’re all pretty similar when it comes to the things that turn us on. So if you and your partner don’t match on one thing, look for other areas where your interests line up.

Also, remember that you don’t have to act on any and all sex fantasies that you (or your partner) have. Simply sharing your fantasies with each other (even if both of you are fantasizing about different things) can still be a positive experience that brings you closer. Discrepant desires are really only likely to become a problem when one of you really wants to act on a fantasy that doesn’t turn the other person on. That’s when you have to figure out whether a compromise is possible. If your partner wants a threesome but you don’t, you might consider whether there are other ways of adding novelty to your sex life that could spice things up (e.g., role playing) that don’t mean you need to bring another person into bed.


Q
Do most people act out their fantasies? What are the ramifications of suppressing our fantasies?
A

Fear and uncertainty are the biggest stumbling blocks. The biggest things that held my participants back involved not being sure of how to go about it and fear that a partner wouldn’t be willing.

More important than translating fantasy into reality is coming to terms with and accepting your desires. You need to get good with you first. Once you do that, you can think about potentially sharing your fantasies with a partner, which just might bring you closer.

We run into problems when we start suppressing and running away from our desires because that’s how we lose control of them and they start controlling us. Research has found that suppressing sexual thoughts can lead to an obsessive preoccupation with them that ultimately harms our mental health.


Q
Was there anything about the research that really surprised you?
A

A lot! One was that women’s sexual fantasies were more adventuresome than previous research had led me to expect: Most women surveyed were fantasizing about group sex and BDSM. At the same time, men’s sexual fantasies included more emotional content than expected. For men and women alike, it was rare for them to say they fantasized about emotionless sex. Most of the time, it seems that we’re fantasizing about having certain psychological needs met, such as feeling desired, validated, or sexually competent.


Q
Why is talking about our fantasies so challenging? How can we get better at it?
A

There’s so much emotional baggage tied up in your fantasies. So many of us feel guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed of our desires. We avoid sharing them because we’re afraid of being judged.

To get better at sharing fantasies, learn to accept your desires. Understanding the research will expand your view of what “normal” sexual desire is. It can be very powerful (and liberating) to learn that your desires aren’t the weird, strange, or unusual things you thought they were.

And when it comes to actually sharing your desires, don’t try to get everything out all at once. Start low and go slow. Begin with your less adventuresome desires and work up from there. This will help you get more comfortable talking about sex in general, while also increasing trust and intimacy in your relationship.


Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research focuses on casual sex, sexual fantasy, and consensually nonmonogamous relationships. Formerly a sex educator and researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, he has published more than forty pieces of academic writing and authored two textbooks. His latest book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, is available for preorder.

You may also like