Research on sex is sparse, unless it deals with STDs or unwanted pregnancies. That's why social psychologist Justin Lehmiller's new book Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help You Improve your Sex Life is so revealing.
The book is based on his survey of more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies, the largest such survey ever conducted.
Some of the findings are predictable, but others are surprising. Consider the fact that 60 percent of survey respondents reported having fantasized about inflicting pain on someone else during sex and 65 percent reported having fantasized about having pain inflicted upon them during sex.
Lehmiller, a research fellow with the Kinsey Institute, also contends that that men and women are not from different planets, as it were. Rather than see sexual difference in black and white, per the bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray, Lehmiller sees many shades of gray.
And speaking of shades of gray, his research offers some reasons as to why the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is so hugely popular with women. His research also raises troubling questions about our fantasies in regard to the #MeToo movement as well as to race relations.
Lehmiller, 38, was born in Canton, Ohio. He received his Ph.D in Psychology from Purdue University in 2008 and conducted the survey in 2014. Since then he’s written articles for VICE, Playboy, New York Magazine, and Men’s Health, and he is the author of the popular blog Sex and Psychology.
We spoke to Lehmiller on Sept. 12, in his apartment overlooking Mass Ave, where he lives with his spouse.
NUVO: Were there some big surprises for you in the survey?
JUSTIN LEHMILLER: There were a lot of things that I found surprising. I think to me one of the most interesting things was how much overlap there was in the sexual fantasies of men and women. Men’s fantasies had a lot more emotional content than I was expecting. Men are often fantasizing about meeting emotional needs, like feeling desired, validated, or loved and women have a lot more adventurous fantasies than a lot of the previous research suggested with high levels of interest in group sex, BDSM, and non-monogamy. To me that was really interesting, that it didn’t necessarily align with some of the stereotypes that we have about men and women and sexual desire.
Another thing that I found really interesting were all the connections between our fantasies and our personalities. And our fantasies seem to say a lot about us. Our fantasies really seem to be constructed in a way that they meet our current sexual needs and non-sexual needs at the same time.
NUVO: What was the genesis of the survey? How did that happen?
LEHMILLER: My interest in sexual fantasies dates back to when I first started teaching human sexuality courses myself. And one of my favorite activities that I would do every semester is that I would anonymously submit their favorite sexual fantasy and then we would look for themes that emerged in the fantasies that were submitted. It was always a fascinating exercise. And I learned a lot and was sometimes surprised at the diversity in content that the students were generating. Then a few years later I wrote a textbook on human sexuality where I had to exhaustively review the literature of sexual fantasies as part of it. I just found that there were just a lot of questions that had never been addressed before such as how we see ourselves in our own fantasies and what does that mean and the connection between fantasy and personality so that’s where my interest in fantasies comes from and I wanted to do the survey to answer a lot of questions that had never really been looked at before.
NUVO: There must have been daunting logistics in getting the survey organized.
LEHMILLER: It was almost a two-year project, the data here. I didn’t have grant funding to do it. This was all people who were willing to volunteer their time to take a survey that consisted of 369 questions. So getting a large and diverse sample and in the end I had more than 4,000 people who completed it. It took a while. But that’s something that speaks to a broader issue in sex research, which is that it’s very hard to get funding to study anything other than STDs. If you want to study the positive side of sex, or anything that isn’t from this risk based or disease based model, it’s very hard to get funding to do that.
NUVO: You admitted that the survey respondents skewed towards more educated people who were willing to talk about their experiences, right?
LEHMILLER: Right. So I’ve never claimed, and I’m clear about this in the book, that it’s not a representative sample of all Americans. It’s a very large, very diverse sample but the sample skews a little more towards the average social media user than it does towards the average American, in that they’re a little younger, a little more highly educated, more likely to be white, and less likely to be Republican and so forth.
NUVO: What is the Coolidge Effect?
LEHMILLER: The Coolidge Effect is really fascinating and explains a lot about why we’re turned on by certain things. It is in a nutshell the idea that we tend to grow bored with sexual routines and we need novelty to reinvigorate our arousal and interest and desire. So there’s a lot of research supporting the idea that if men or women watch the same porn video over and over for a week or a month, they’ll become less aroused each time they watch it. But if you show them a new video with new performers, their arousal levels spike, so we see this happening in our long term romantic relationships. There’s a drop off in our sexual desire and sexual activity over time. It’s thought to be another manifestation of this Coolidge Effect, that we need to keep introducing novelty in our sex lives to keep our arousal and our passion high.
NUVO: You discovered that political affiliation played a role in sexual fantasies. Can you explain that?
LEHMILLER: To me it was really interesting that there was this connection between our political identities and our sexual fantasies. Specifically I found that Republican-identified individuals had more taboo sexual fantasies—more fantasies about infidelity and things that would be considered sexually immoral—and I found that Democrats had more fantasies about BDSM activities in particular. And I think in both cases what might be going on there is that what we come to see as being taboo comes to be a turn on for us. Because, when we’re told that we can’t do something, we come to want it even more. I think that with the fantasies Republicans are reporting, politically and morally, these are things that they are told they can’t do. Like infidelity. But with Democrats, playing with power is often a big taboo. The Democratic platform is all about equality. So I think that BDSM and those themes of dominance and submission, because they’re a taboo, might become a turn on for them.
NUVO: I reviewed Fifty Shades Freed and the predominance of women stood out to me. I might have been the only man in the audience.
LEHMILLER: It was amazing, the statistic, two thirds or more of the audience was female.
NUVO: You were talking in the book about how rather than fighting against pornography we should be fighting for better sex education, right? Have you had a chance to look at the Indiana state curriculum?
LEHMILLER: Sex education in Indiana isn’t what it could be or should be, but that’s true for most states around the country. Sex education is required in less than half the states in the US and the states that do teach it don’t necessarily require that it’s medically accurate, so students all around the nation including in Indiana are inaccurate and it might not be in their best interest in terms of setting them up for having healthy, lifelong sexual and romantic relationships and I think that there’s a lot of work to be done. Interestingly, this is one area that Republicans and Democrats really seem to be in agreement. We need more comprehensive sex education. The vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum don’t want the abstinence based approach. We know it doesn’t work. We’ve got the data to say it doesn’t work. So that’s one area where I think we could come together and work to improve sexual health for everyone.
NUVO: #MeToo doesn’t necessarily seem to apply in the realm of fantasies.
LEHMILLER: There’s an interesting conversation to be had about #MeToo and sexual fantasies, especially considering how forced sex is such a popular fantasy theme. Two-thirds of the women I surveyed and more than half of the men reported fantasies about having sex forced upon them. Many of these individuals described their fantasies as “rape,” but I don’t think that term is very accurate here. When someone is fantasizing about forced sex, they’re in complete control of the situation, including who their partner is and how the situation unfolds. Sex isn’t truly being forced on them, so it bears no resemblance to rape or sexual assault in the real world.
Even so, I suspect that a lot of people—women in particular—who have forced sex fantasies may feel uncomfortable with them in the #MeToo era, feeling like they might be traitors to the cause. However, this concern is unfounded because in these fantasies, everything is taking place on one’s own terms. It’s possible to enjoy this fantasy and support #MeToo at the same time because they don’t have anything to do with one another.
I should mention that there’s a flip side to this, which is that some people—mostly of whom are men—fantasize about forcing sex on others. In the vast majority of these cases, these people describe scenarios that are consensual, such as when a partner is providing token resistance. In other words, it’s really just a variant on consensual dominance-submission play. In the #MeToo era, I suspect some men worry about having these fantasies, and especially the potential consequences if they were to act them out. I think it’s important to recognize that just because you have a fantasy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to act it out. That said, anyone who is thinking about making the leap from fantasy to reality here would need to be extremely careful to ensure there is mutual consent and crystal clear communication because there are real risks here.
I should also mention that there is a small minority, almost exclusively men, who fantasize about truly non-consensual sex. These people are aroused by the idea of committing rape and actually forcing sex on someone. These fantasies are problematic and if they become someone’s preferred fantasy content or if there are concerns that one might act on these fantasies, that’s a sign that it’s time to seek professional help.
NUVO: Why aren’t men from Mars and women from Venus?
LEHMILLER: People like that idea; it helps them make sense of the world, that men and women are different and we have to come up with this common language to help them communicate [per the John Gray book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.] There’s a lot that’s been said and written about that, about how different we are when it comes to sex. But what I see in my own research is that we have a lot more in common than we do differences. I think that’s a very positive and encouraging thing. It suggests that we aren’t as different as we think. So maybe we are getting a little too hung up on the differences and not focusing on the similarities, these areas where we have common ground.
NUVO: Speaking of common ground, you seem to be saying that, at least for white people, sex fantasies are almost as segregated as their churches.
LEHMILLER: That was something that was really interesting to me, and I don’t know if any researchers have looked at before. What’s the role of race in our sexual fantasies? And what we see, or what I see in my data, is that systematic forms of racism and discrimination in our culture seem to be creeping into our fantasies in ways that we don’t realize. A lot of people like to think that their attractions based on race are preferences that they can’t control and they don’t know where they come from. But I think in a lot of ways they’re tied in with prevailing views on race in our culture and it’s an uncomfortable thought to be sure.
NUVO: How did you decide on the field of social psychology?
LEHMILLER: So when I went to graduate school for social psychology it wasn’t to be a sex researcher. I went to study the psychology of romantic relationships, look at what makes for a healthy relationship in the long term, the fact that promotes commitment. And along the way I got assigned to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate level human sexuality course. And that was my first time ever being involved in a course like that. Because they just weren’t offered where I did my undergraduate training. And it was interesting because it just opened my eyes to this whole world of sex research and I found that it was totally disconnected from the world of relationship research. So I was in graduate school studying relationships, but they weren’t talking about sex. And I thought that was a really kind of a missed opportunity so I started to become a relationship researcher who focuses on sexuality issues because there’s not enough research that looks at the intersection of those areas.
NUVO: Is this your first book?
LEHMILLER: It’s my first book that’s not a textbook. I’ve written a couple of textbooks. That’s one style of writing. This is obviously very different, where you’re speaking to a mass audience but I found it’s something that I’ve found that I have a lot of experience with because I’ve written for Playboy and Vice. And that’s actually how the book got started. I wasn’t planning on writing a book but in 2014 I wrote an article for Playboy on men who fantasize about watching their partners have sex with someone else and that captured the attention of some literary agents who contacted me and said, you might want to think about writing a book. So I got set up with an agent and started thinking about ideas. So I got set up with an agent and started thinking [and got the idea that] I needed to do this big survey about fantasies and then write a whole book centered on that.
NUVO: What has been the reception of Tell me What you Want? Where have you been, signings and such?
LEHMILLER: So far the reception has been almost universally positive which has been great to see. I was concerned because there are certainly some aspects of the book, certain findings in the survey that I thought were going to be very controversial but I’ve gotten emails from people who’ve read it, and read a lot of reviews of it and the vast majority of them are very positive and people talk about lessons applied from the book and how that has enhanced their own relationships.
NUVO: We’ve probably talked about some of the reasons why it might be considered controversial, right? The race thing and the power thing?
LEHMILLER: And political differences in fantasies, I expected to be very controversial. Especially because I’ve had some of my previous research studies become very controversial. I published a paper earlier this year on cuckolding fantasies, and people who fantasize about watching their partners have sex with someone else. CNN wrote an article along the lines of “Cuckolding can be good for some couples,’ [trips over the tongue twister] It's hard to say... So that was picked up by a number of right wing media outlets, Breitbart, Daily Caller, and so forth went and said that CNN and me and my research collaborators were destroying western civilization by promoting nontraditional sexual values. That was an interesting experience and based on that. That set me up to be concerned about what the reception would be to this book. But so far it hasn’t really materialized.
NUVO: Are you single or married?
LEHMILLER: I’m married.
NUVO: How do you apply the lessons of your book in your own life?
LEHMILLER: [Laughs] That’s an interesting question. Certainly being a sex and relationship researcher, you can’t help but think about your own life through the lens of the work that you do. I did not get into this line of work because I wanted to better understand myself or my relationship but in the process of doing the research there are things that I’ve learned and things that I’ve taken away from it that have benefits in my own personal life and I think understanding that role and importance of communication is one of them. And not having all the shame attached to talk about just sex in general, makes it a lot easier to maintain a happy and harmonious relationship in the long run.
NUVO: To paraphrase Delmore Schwartz, maybe a nutshell of your book would be to say; in fantasies begin responsibilities, right?
LEHMILLER: Right. Especially when it comes to sharing them and acting upon them in the real world. With great sex comes great responsibility to care for the well-being of yourself and your partners to make sure that your activities are safe and consensual for everyone involved.