Shared fantasies: Justin Lehmiller on the science of sexual desire

  • by Race Bannon
  • Wednesday June 19, 2019
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Dr. Justin Lehmiller, author and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute.  photo: Esther Boston
Dr. Justin Lehmiller, author and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. photo: Esther Boston

On the Friday during the International Mr. Leather weekend in Chicago I was thankfully able to make time for a side trip to the Multiplicity of the Erotic Conference (MOTE) being held nearby.

MOTE is a new incarnation of the former Conference on Alternative Sexualities hosted for the past 10 years as a collaboration between Programs Advancing Sexual Diversity (PASD) and The Community Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS).

The MOTE Conference addresses cutting-edge research and the most current clinical approaches to sexuality, gender and relationships, focusing on the intersections of research, clinical work and professional practice by presenting the latest ideas and findings on polyamory, consensual non-monogamies, kink/BDSM sexualities and identities, transgender/genderqueer/nonbinary experiences, asexualities, sex worker studies, hierarchical (power-exchange) relationships, and so on.

Closing out the Conference was a stellar keynote address by Dr. Justin Lehmiller, an esteemed Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Lehmiller is also the brains behind the extremely popular blog site, 'Sex & Psychology' (

The data gathered and analyzed for his book served as the foundation for Lehmiller's keynote titled 'Which Sexual Fantasies Are Common, and Which Ones Are Truly Rare?: Insights From the Largest Survey of Sexual Fantasies in the United States.' The keynote was spectacular and made even this seasoned sexuality writer take notice of some fascinating research.

When gathering his data, Lehmiller surveyed 4175 adults in the United States across the entire range of genders, ages, sexual orientations, races, and relationship styles. They completed a 369-question survey inquiring about their fantasies, personalities, sexual histories and demographics.

Participants were asked to describe their "favorite" sexual fantasy of all time and sum up that fantasy in a single word of their choice.

Some of the more popular one-word answers? Threesome. Dominance. Bondage. Gangbang. Submission. Orgy. BDSM, and many more.

Tell Me What You Want by Dr. Justin Lehmiller.  

Lehmiller undertook a qualitative analysis of the information that ended up yielding seven major themes. I can't do justice to elaborating on these themes, which is why I recommend you read the book, but here they are in a nutshell.

1. Multi-partner sex, threesomes, orgies, and gangbangs.

2. Power, control and rough sex; BDSM, for example.

3. Novelty, adventure and variety. These are sexual activities that one has never done before or would like to attempt in some new way, such as different settings or public sex.

4. Taboo or forbidden sex, voyeurism and exhibitionism were among these.

5. Passion, romance and intimacy; this was common across genders, orientations and ages with most saying they rarely or never fantasize about completely emotionless sex, which I found heartening.

6. Non-monogamy and partner sharing; this is a separate category from group sex and included open relationships, polyamory, swinging and cuckolding.

7. Erotic flexibility and gender-bending; these push the boundaries of sexual orientation or gender roles. Cross-dressing, changing genders and sex outside of one's usual sexual orientation were among the fantasies.

These seven high-level fantasy categories represented about 96% of the participants' favorite fantasies and appear to be the fundamental building blocks of all fantasy content.

Sexuality survey says ...
The themes weren't mutually exclusive either. Most participants selected more than one theme, but the predominance of them is telling of how widespread some fantasies are. For example, 47% selected multiple partners, 46% selected BDSM, and 30% selected being in a non-monogamous relationship.

So, why is all this important?

Often people wrestle with coming to terms with their sexual fantasies because they sense they're rare. The less common we believe our fantasies might be the more likely we are to build up some shame and trepidations around them. By laying bare the reality that these wide-ranging sexual fantasies are rather common (in other words, quite normal), hopefully people will embrace those fantasies for what they are, a healthy manifestation of their sexuality.

By expanding what is seen as normal among sexual fantasies, perhaps sexual shame and stigma can be reduced while improving sexual communication between partners.

As for psychotherapeutic professionals who sometimes ignorantly assume many of these fantasies are unhealthy and pathological, perhaps the realization that they're so prevalent will guide professionals to not label them problematic unless they violate consent or cause harm or distress.

If this column and other such writings do but one thing, and that's to expose the world to the true diversity of our sexualities and the fantasies them fuel them, then I'll be happy. Solid research such as presented here backs up such diversity. It also further helps destigmatize the kinky and sexually adventurous among us, leading to a happier and healthier personal and collective erotic landscape.

As for Dr. Lehmiller's book, I've been reading it and it's incredibly accessible to everyone. I suggest my readers get it. I think you'll find it quite interesting.

As its subtitle suggests, I think it just might improve your sex life.

Race Bannon is a local author, blogger and activist.

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