In the canon of sex research, far more energy and attention has been devoted to the act of having sex—how, when, and with whom—than to how people think about it when they are on their own. Which is one reason why Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction and the author of the blog Sex and Psychology, decided to conduct the largest-ever research project on sexual fantasy and desire, and write a book about it—Tell Me What You Want, published earlier this month.
“If you look back to, say, Alfred Kinsey, he was focused much more on people’s behaviors rather than their desires. Same with [William] Masters and [Virginia] Johnson. They were focused more on studying the physiological side of sex,” Lehmiller told me in an interview. The last significant scientific publication on the topic dates to 1995, before the popularization of the internet, which has made pornography, sexual information, and sexual misinformation all much more widely available.
So Lehmiller created an online survey of more than 350 questions about the specifics of participants’ favorite fantasies, published the link on social media, and got responses from 4,175 Americans from all 50 states, ranging in age from 18 to 87, with virtually all sexual and gender identities, political and religious affiliations, and relationship types and statuses represented. The sample is not representative; Lehmiller is careful—Tell Me What You Want is nothing if not a careful, frequently hedged interpretation of his research findings—to point out that most participants in his study heard about it through a major social-media channel like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, meaning his sample skewed more toward the average social-media user than the average American. That means they’re slightly younger, for one thing, than the average American (by six years, to be exact). Additionally, Lehmiller writes, because the survey called for frank discussion of private desires, “the people who chose to take part tended to have positive views about sex in general and were willing to openly report on their sex lives.” (This, he adds, is and has always been a complicating factor in sex research.) But Lehmiller says the sample is substantial enough to discern certain big-picture trends. What he found was that, even in a time of changing cultural values and plentiful pornography, most Americans’ fantasies aren’t all that outlandish or elaborate; rather, most Americans fantasize about what you might just call “spicing things up.”