There Are Very Few 'Uncommon' Sexual Fantasies

But there's a difference between imagining something and wanting to act on it, a new study says.

This February, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy passed the 100-million mark for number of copies sold, making the erotic S&M-themed novels just as bestselling as tamer blockbusters like Twilight and Harry Potter. If the books’ widespread popularity wasn’t enough to suggest that an interest in S&M is far from out of the ordinary, new research supports the idea that it isn’t uncommon for men and women to fantasize about being sexually dominated, as Christian Grey does to girlfriend Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades. In fact, according to the study, many more seemingly atypical sexual fantasies are actually not unusual at all.

The study, published last Friday in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, surveyed about 1,500 adults who rated, from a list of 55 sexual fantasies, which fantasies they were most and least interested in. The researchers found that only two sexual fantasies (bestiality and pedophilia) were statistically rare (where 2.3 percent or less of respondents included it as a fantasy) and nine were considered statistically unusual (15.9 percent or less). Urinating on one’s partner and wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex were among those considered unusual. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were five fantasies—wanting to feel romantic emotions during sex, oral sex, having sex in an unusual or romantic place, and having a special atmosphere—considered typical (more than 84 percent of the responses). The remaining 39 were common (more than 50 percent of the responses), meaning 44 out of the 55 sexual fantasies were experienced by at least half the people polled. These included dominance and submission, as well as bondage, group sex, and anal sex. The study authors noted that calling a sexual fantasy “unusual” might not be correct anymore given how common the majority of them were.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the past has defined certain sexual fantasies (like domination and submission) as paraphilic disorders. Many, like Jillian Keenan of Slate, feel that this classification has stigmatized those behaviors and desires, just as homosexuality was stigmatized by being listed as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1973. Christian Joyal, the lead study author and professor of psychology at The Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, says “Of course, the APA doesn’t say on which grounds it labels some sex fantasies as disorders and others not. So, for the sake of stopping stigmatization and judgment, we were looking for some norms.”

The study found that one of the most common sexual fantasies, after the five “typical” ones, is submission, with approximately 65 percent of women and 53 percent of men fantasizing about being submissive. More men than women fantasized about dominating their partners. Still, there remains a distinction between fantasy and reality.  Of the women who fantasized about being dominated, half said that they wouldn’t want to actually be dominated in real life. Reading 50 Shades of Grey, for example, could be an outlet to imagine these fantasies without acting on them.

The separation of fantasy and reality also comes into play with one of the most common fantasies in the study: having sex with someone other than a current spouse or partner. Fifty-six percent of women and 83 percent of men had this fantasy. Dr. David Schnarch, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and marital therapy, says that this is quite common and not something people will necessarily act on. “We humans are sexually gregarious animals that also value pair-bonding. Sexual fantasies provide mental variety without violating the boundaries of monogamy—at least to most mature adults,” he says.

And this survey shows that it’s common for people’s mental variety to encompass a wide range of scenarios and situations, whether they act on them or not.