Erotic fantasies often provoke feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. That’s hardly surprising. Many people grow up harangued by religious leaders and self-styled guardians of morality that among the many sexual possibilities, only a small fraction are acceptable—sex that’s adult, married, heterosexual, monogamous, penis in vagina, for procreation or cementing holy wedlock, and with partners the same race/ethnicity and close in age. When people fantasize about anything else, many fear something must be wrong with them.
In addition, 120 years ago, Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, said, “Happy people don’t fantasize, just the unhappy.” And today, some psychologists look askance at “paraphilias,” any sex—or fantasies about sex—that’s unconventional.
Few fantasize about their regular partners. Many dream of unconventional sex.
Actually, substantial research literature shows that sexual fantasies, whatever they may involve, are just fine.
The Largest Study of Americans’ Sexual Fantasies
Justin J. Lemiller, Ph.D., is on staff at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, a major center of sex research. For his book, Tell Me What You Want, he conducted the largest survey ever of sexual fantasies.
Using social media, Lehmiller recruited a reasonably representative sample of 4,175 Americans—age range 18 to 87, from all 50 states, all incomes, races, political, and religious affiliations, and sexual and gender identities, who were involved in all imaginable relationships: single, dating, cohabitating, married, swingers, and polyamorous.
The Seven Top Fantasies
Lehmiller discovered that Americans’ top erotic reveries fall into seven broad categories—three very popular, and four less so but still quite prevalent. The top three included:
• Multiple partners. This is Americans’ top erotic daydream. Almost everyone reported having it—87 percent of the women, 95 percent of the men. The top multi-partner fantasy involved threesomes, with moresomes not far behind. Many people fantasized of many men and women playing together (swinging, orgies), while others focused on one person having sex with many others (gangbangs).
• Bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM). No wonder Fifty Shades of Grey has become the most popular novel of all time. Almost everyone in Lehmiller’s survey reported BDSM daydreams—96 percent of the women, 93 percent of the men. More than three-quarters reported bondage fantasies—being tied up or restraining another. One-third reported frequent bondage fantasies. Half fantasized about discipline, i.e, erotic domination or submission (D/s), with 20 percent saying they had D/s fantasies often. More people fantasized submission than domination. More than half of Lehmiller’s sample fantasied about receiving or administering intense sensation, the BDSM term for consensual pain, with most preferring to receive it. Fantasies of being forced into sex were also very popular—reported by almost two-thirds of the women and half the men.
• Sexual novelty and adventure. Top sexual novelty fantasies involved oral and anal play, particularly among those who rarely or never experienced them in real life. Sixty percent said they dreamed of giving or receiving fellatio or cunnilingus. More than one-third of men fantasized insertive anal intercourse, with 20 percent of both men and women reporting fantasies of receptive anal. And more than half of study participants fantasized about sex in unconventional settings: in public, particularly on beaches and at work, in bars, elevators, hot tubs, parks, and forests.
The following four fantasies were somewhat less popular but still quite prevalent:
• Taboo/forbidden sex. These fantasies involved voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishes, and incest. Voyeurism, watching people have sex without their knowledge, was the most prevalent, reported by 60 percent of study participants. Almost half of Lehmiller’s sample (45 percent) reported fetish fantasies, the sexualizing of nonsexual things, notably feet and women’s underwear. And almost half (42 percent) enjoyed reveries of exhibitionism, putting on a sexual show, for example, in cars with people watching.
• Non-monogamy, partner sharing. These fantasies involve consensual non-monogamy: mate swapping, watching one’s partner with someone else, and polyamory, emotional as well as sexual relationships with more than one partner. More than two-thirds of Lehmiller’s participants reported such fantasies at least occasionally.
• Passion and romance. Most sexual fantasies involve unrestrained sexual exuberance, but these focus on loving and feeling loved. Passion/romance fantasies tended to be tied to particular individuals, though often not the fantasizer’s regular partner, but former, distant, or deceased partners. More than half of study participants reported these fantasies.
• Flexibility, homoeroticism, gender-bending. These reveries replaced heterosexuality with every other possibility: lesbian/gay/bisexual liaisons, sex with transgendered individuals, or becoming transgendered. Flexibility fantasies were much more common among women (59 percent) than among men (26 percent).
What Do Sexual Fantasies Mean?
Many people who feel fine about their financial circumstances, daydream of winning the Lotto. Why not? It’s fun to fantasize about what you’d do if suddenly released from all financial constraints. It doesn’t mean you hate your life.
Similarly, almost everyone daydreams of being released from all sexual constraints. For those who feel generally fine about their relationships and sex lives, sexual fantasies allow expanded horizons. And for those who have serious complaints about their sex lives—no sex, too little sex, or boring sex—fantasies can, to some extent, substitute for what’s missing.
But many people fear their fantasies signal immorality, perversion, or mental illness. Here it’s vital to distinguish between sexual thoughts and actions. Some sexual actions are illegal, but all sexual thoughts—even if they’re disturbing—are normal, healthy, and fine. Your fantasies are no reflection on your morality, mental health, or ability to maintain loving relationships. Sexual fantasies simply exercise the erotic imagination—with all constraints removed.
“Am I Normal?”
Over the past four decades, I’ve answered more than 12,000 sex questions. Many people ask if they’re sexually normal. Now, “normal” has two meanings—prevalent and healthy. Sexual fantasies are both.
As Lehmiller’s study shows, even wild erotic reveries are very common. In fact, fantasies about multi-partner play, BDSM, and sexual adventure are so normal, i.e. common, one might argue that it’s “abnormal.” i.e. uncommon, NOT to have them.
In addition, no matter what their content, sexual fantasies are normal, i.e healthy and sex-enhancing. Solo or partnered, sexual pleasure depends on deep relaxation, which opens (dilates) the arteries in the central body, ushering extra blood into the genitals. This extra blood produces penile and clitoral erection, vaginal self-lubrication, sensitivity to erotic touch, and pleasure. But those who fear or revile sexual fantasies, don’t relax. Instead of dilating, their arteries constrict, which reduces blood to the genitals and impairs sexual function and pleasure.
If you want to be all you can be sexually, fantasize more often and more vividly. Instead of feeling guilt, shame, and self-loathing, understand that everyone has sexual fantasies, that many are wild and beyond anything people would do in real life, and that whatever your fantasies, they’re normal, healthy, and fine.