Lifestyle

‘Tell Me What You Want’ looks at sexual fantasies and the science of desire

Justin Lehmiller’s book is based on the results from the sex survey he created.
Don Coram
Justin Lehmiller’s book is based on the results from the sex survey he created.

In 2014, researcher Justin Lehmiller decided that we needed to know more about people’s sexual fantasies.

Lehmiller — who was teaching at Harvard at the time — had looked for papers on the subject while writing his 2013 textbook, “The Psychology of Human Sexuality,” but he didn’t find much. He said the dearth of information meant there was work to be done.

His response was to develop an extensive survey on the subject. He pushed it out to the public, primarily on social media, and it wound up being completed by more than 4,000 people. Participants — who anonymously disclosed the details of their real and imagined sex lives, from content to frequency — ranged from 18 to 87 years old. They had a wide range of jobs and incomes, and represented every state in the country. They disclosed information about their gender identity, political affiliation, and how their fantasies correlate to what they really do in the bedroom.

Advertisement

A disclosure: As an advice columnist who’s long followed Lehmiller’s work, I was eager to take his survey and did. It took about 30 minutes to complete. Questions included “What did you do during [your] first sexual experience?,” “How often do you fantasize about sex with celebrities?,” “How often is music playing in your sexual fantasies?,” and what I believed was the toughest one: “If you had to condense [your primary] sexual fantasy . . . into JUST ONE WORD that captures the main idea, what would that word be?”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Lehmiller has now released a book with Da Capo Press detailing the results of his study. “Tell me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You With Your Sex Life,” released in July, attempts to dispel stereotypes, shed light on why so many of us imagine similar scenarios, and serve as a guide to helping us talk about what we desire.

Lehmiller said it’s already having that effect. Now that the book is out, he’s been receiving messages from people who tell him they’re relieved to know that their fantasies are shared by others.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt and embarrassment tied up in our sexual desires,” he said. “In many cases, it’s given them the courage to talk about things with their partners that they’ve never talked about.”

While promoting the book, Lehmiller — who’s now a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute — answered questions about his work. He also shared some details about his next project, which is all about a certain kind of picture.

Advertisement

Q. You’re very careful in the book to be clear about the word “normal” as it applies to sexual fantasies. There’s “normal,” and then there’s “average” or “common,” and there’s a difference.

A. Because the word normal — it has a whole lot of baggage that people attach to it. The question of whether something is healthy or unhealthy, or moral or immoral, is totally separate from whether a sexual fantasy is common or uncommon. One of the things I found was that most people thought their own fantasies were rarer than they actually were, and when people think their fantasies are rare or uncommon, that’s where they start to feel all this shame, and guilt, and embarrassment.

Q. You were also careful to not make this too binary. Still, you saw trends that were tied to gender.

A. I did think it was important to look at how different demographic categories are connected to our fantasies, because there are lots of stereotypes about how, for example, fantasies might differ between men and women. But I tried to go beyond just looking at how are these two groups similar or different. Our fantasies say so much more than just something about our gender or our sexual orientation; they also say something about our relationship status and how we feel about our current relationship. It’s important not to get bogged down into looking at things in this very categorical view of male versus female, gay versus straight, but rather to look at the whole constellation of factors of the person, and how they are reflected in your fantasies.

Q. One trend that did seem to fall along gender lines — something that surprised me — was that many women said the identity of the other people in their sexual fantasies wasn’t very important. Sometimes the other people in their fantasies were blurry — or faceless. Meanwhile, you found that men were much more likely to be specific about the subject of their fantasies.

Advertisement

A. I think part of it stems from women [being] more likely to see themselves as the object of desire in a sexual fantasy, and men see themselves more as acting on an object of desire, and so for women, the other partners involved don’t seem to be quite as important, in terms of identifying who they are. But for men, having an identity for that other person or persons in their fantasy does seem to be much more important. I think that may be influenced, to some extent, by our culture and the messages that we give men and women about how they’re supposed to think about sex and see themselves sexually. We live in a culture where women are more objectified than men, and it’s possible that might carry over into our fantasies in a way that influences what we’re paying attention to there.

Q. I was heartened, as someone who writes an advice column, that most people said their fantasies were about their current partners. I wondered if that was a surprise to you, too.

A. It was. I think that’s another stereotype that we have — that we think people are fantasizing about the Hollywood celebrities with perfect bodies, and that everyone is lusting after what they can’t have. But by far, the person who is most likely to appear in your fantasies is the person you’re currently involved with. I think what that says is that we’re not necessarily unhappy in our relationships and trying to break free of them or replace our partners, rather we’re usually looking for ways to augment our current sex lives.

Q. How much do you think our fantasies are influenced by innate, biological desires, as opposed to what we’re socialized to want?

A. I think it’s a bit of both. There is some evidence that our fantasies seem to be influenced by our evolutionary history, and that it makes sense for us to be turned on by certain things that would’ve been adaptive for our ancestors in terms of helping them to reproduce and continue our species. But at the same time, there are important connections between our fantasies and our culture. Our fantasies are a reflection of where we come from, but also of our current culture and what our culture tells us is desirable, so there’s always a bit of both and it’s hard to tease apart which one came first or which one has more of an influence.

Q. Can you talk about your current work at the Kinsey Institute? Do you work in an office there?

A. I don’t have to physically be there to do my work, because a lot of it is online these days. Also, because it’s just notoriously hard to get funding to do sex research — you know, the kind where you’d have to pay for participants to come in, and hook them up to gadgets — it tends to be mostly online. I have a study I’m working on right now that looks at psychology behind men who send unsolicited pictures of their genitals to women.

Q. Oh my God. Thank you for looking into this.

A. What I am hypothesizing is that they’re sort of this typology of men, and you’ve got different men who are doing it for different reasons. Some because they genuinely think women are interested, and they’re overestimating women’s interest in receiving [these pictures], but others who are doing it because they’re turned on by the idea of shocking or offending the recipient, and others who just might have a social skills deficit and don’t understand what appropriate behavior is. So my goal is to help us better understand why men are doing this so that we can tailor interventions to figure out how to stop this behavior.

Meredith Goldstein writes the Love Letters advice column for The Boston Globe at boston.com/loveletters. Send letters to meredith.goldstein@globe.com.