Fantasy vs. Desire—You Know the Difference, Right?

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There’s a new book out about sexual fantasy and it’s half wonderful.

Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller has recently completed the largest American study of people’s sexual fantasies, interviewing over 4,000 respondents. He discusses the results in his lively new book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You.

To summarize (drum roll, please): humans are a sexually diverse group, with an enormously wide range of sexual fantasies. And those fantasies are generally not polite, or wholesome, or respectful of boundaries. Quite the contrary. That’s actually the point of sexual fantasy.

The data reveal seven major themes in respondents’ thousands of fantasies. The most common is multi-partner sex, followed by power, control, and rough sex; novelty and adventure; taboo and forbidden sex; partner sharing and non-monogamy; passion; and gender bending.

This information could reassure lay people, and educate therapists. For example, knowing that many devoted spouses fantasize about being with someone else, or watching their mate with someone else, can help professionals be non-judgmental and comforting when confronted by a patient wracked with guilt. Similarly, it would improve so many lives if people didn’t get so upset about their partner’s fantasies—which are generally pretty harmless.

Confirming all the previous work done in this area, fantasies of being forced to have sex were extremely common in Lehmiller’s large sample—enjoyed by nearly two-thirds of women and over half of men.

The data Lehmiller presents validates decades-old qualitative studies by Nancy Friday, Lonnie Barbach, Shere Hite, Jack Morin, and others. In fact, everyone who has ever studied sexual fantasy has come to similar conclusions about the prevalence and range of sexual fantasy. Power, variety, adventure, taboo-breaking—they are the core of our longing and curiosity. We experiment with them vicariously—and harmlessly—through fantasy, saving ourselves from the unwanted consequences of exploring them in real life.

For years, social scientists have documented the connection between sexual fantasies and guilt, shame, and anxiety. Therefore, accepting our fantasies is a key to mental health and relationship participation. Reducing the inhibitions driven by guilt, shame, and anxiety can actually increase couples communication, whether the subject is fantasy or not.

Another benefit of the book is how it can help calm people about the use or effects of pornography. Internet porn is a visual library of human sexual fantasy. The enormous range of fantasies, and their recurring themes among both men and women (power, taboo-breaking, novelty, etc.), shows that pornography is not alien to human consciousness, but an expression of it. Porn is what it is because human sexual fantasy is what it is.

So why do I say this book is half wonderful? Two reasons—both foreshadowed by the dreadful subtitle.

The first is how it equates fantasy with desire. In my clinical experience (along with thousands of questions and comments to my website and blogs), most people do not want to enact their sexual fantasies. Sex with several people? Sex in public? Being raped? While these are extremely common fantasies, most people aroused by them would not actually behave that way if given the chance.

When straight patients tell us they fear their same-gender fantasy means they’re gay, or female patients tell us they’re confused by their violent fantasies, we can simply ask “do you want to do those things?” When patients say “no,” we can encourage them to trust what they know about themselves, making it easier to accept the fantasy as entertainment.

Similarly, the book speculates about the meaning of various fantasies. I think this is a mistake for both lay and professional readers. You might as well try to divine the “meaning” of someone preferring one kind of music, or one flavor of ice cream, over another. People are self-conscious enough about their eroticism: why they prefer short men over tall, why they prefer cunnilingus over intercourse. It’s far more important for people to accept that their fantasies don’t indicate that they’re perverse or dangerous than it is to engage in the parlor game of “what kind of person gets aroused thinking of being spanked?”

Fortunately, a reader can ignore both of these weaknesses and still find the book valuable and enjoyable. The writing is clear, informal, and describes human sexuality in a recognizable fashion.

Anything (when ethical) that helps therapists be less judgmental, and helps people be more sexually self-accepting, is a good thing. Human imagination is unique among all creatures. The same neurological capacity that allows us to dream of being cruel allows us to create music where none exists. The brain that can imagine and design the Golden Gate Bridge will inevitably imagine sexual feelings and behaviors that violate every value a person holds dear.

Such an imagination is not to be feared—it’s to be celebrated.

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