Tell Me What You Want

The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life


By Justin J. Lehmiller

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A leading expert on human sexuality and author of the blog Sex and Psychology offers an unprecedented look at sexual fantasy based on the most comprehensive, scientific survey ever undertaken.

What do Americans really want when it comes to sex? And is it possible for us to get what we want? Justin J. Lehmiller, one of the country’s leading experts on human sexuality and author of the popular blog Sex and Psychology, has made it his career’s ambition to answer these questions. He recently concluded the largest and most comprehensive scientific survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies ever undertaken, a monumental two-year study involving more than 4,000 Americans from all walks of life, answering questions of unusual scope.

Based on this study, Tell Me What You Want offers an unprecedented look into our fantasy worlds and what they reveal about us. It helps readers to better understand their own sexual desires and how to attain them within their relationships, but also to appreciate why the desires of their partners may be so incredibly different.

If we only better understood the incredible diversity of human sexual desire and why this diversity exists in the first place, we would experience less distress, anxiety, and shame about our own sexual fantasies and better understand why our partners often have sexual proclivities that are so different from our own. Ultimately, this book will help readers to enhance their sex lives and to maintain more satisfying relationships and marriages in the future by breaking down barriers to discussing sexual fantasies and allowing them to become a part of readers’ sexual realities.



Fantasy, Fear, and Freud

“I’m scared people will find out what I masturbate to.”

So said television actor Donald Glover in an emotionally raw Instagram post.1 With a simple photograph of a handwritten note, Glover perfectly distilled the profound sense of dread so many of us feel about our own sexual desires. Instead of seeing them as something to be shared or possibly even acted upon, we tend to tuck them away in the deepest recesses of our minds because we view them as nothing more than a source of potential shame and embarrassment.

Social scientists have long known that sexual fantasies go hand in hand with feelings of guilt and anxiety, having published dozens of academic journal articles over the years supporting this conclusion.2 Anecdotally, I have also observed this among readers of my website, Sex and Psychology—a site I created to provide science-based sex ed for adults. Shortly after posting my first article, I began to receive emails from people all over the world who were worried about their own fantasies or, sometimes, the fantasies of their partners. Women whose most arousing fantasies involve themes of rape, heterosexual men who get off on transsexual porn, married women who have discovered that their husbands enjoy cross-dressing, and men who want to share their wives and girlfriends with other men—they all want to know where these fantasies came from and, more often than not, what’s wrong with them.

Their concern is hardly surprising. For centuries, political, religious, and medical authorities in the United States have argued that what’s acceptable to desire when it comes to sex is very narrow. They’ve pretty much told us that we shouldn’t do anything other than put penises in vaginas and even that, ideally, should only take place within the confines of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Desires for any other sexual activities have been deemed unnatural, immoral, and unhealthy—and we’ve been discouraged from acting on them with threats of criminal prosecution and divine retribution.

There are obviously many sources of blame in America’s legacy of sex shame, but I want to focus on one here that has a tendency to get overlooked: our mental health community. Psychologists and psychiatrists have contributed in a major way to the stigmatization of many perfectly normal sexual desires. They have done so by advancing the notion that our sexual fantasies are a source of danger. This can be traced back to Sigmund Freud, who famously wrote more than a century ago that “a happy person never fantasizes, only a dissatisfied one.”3 Freud believed fantasies were a window into our psychological health and that they were necessarily revealing of deeper troubles. According to his view, someone who has a lot of self-loathing, for instance, might develop fantasies about being used, humiliated, or punished.

Well, as you may know, Freud had a lot to say about sex—but much of it was just plain wrong. For example, he argued that the “mature” woman reaches orgasm through vaginal penetration, not clitoral stimulation. He also argued that male homosexuality results from growing up with a domineering mother and an absentee father. There was never much scientific evidence to support these claims, and the same is true of his views on sexual fantasy.

Although the American mental health community has increasingly moved away from most of Freud’s claims, it continues to instill a sense of fear and shame about sexual fantasy to this day by formally declaring numerous sexual desires to be unusual, or, in the psychological lexicon, paraphilic. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible that American psychologists and psychiatrists live by, a paraphilia is a preference for any kind of nonnormative sexual activity or target. The current version of the DSM mentions eight specific paraphilias, including sadism and masochism, which refer to sexual gratification achieved through giving and receiving pain, respectively; transvestism, which refers to obtaining sexual arousal through cross-dressing; and fetishism, which refers to sexual desire for a nonsexual object or body part.

The DSM is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of sexual desires the mental health community has deemed unusual, though. For example, the technical handbook Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, by Dr. Anil Aggrawal, details a whopping 547 distinct paraphilias! Many of the entries on Aggrawal’s list would seemingly live up his book’s title, such as vomerophilia, which refers to being sexually aroused by vomit; eproctophilia, an intense sexual attraction to flatulence; and zoonecrophilia, the desire to have sex with dead animals. Others, however, don’t sound out of the ordinary at all, such as coprolalia, which refers to sexual arousal derived from the use of obscene language; sitophilia, which refers to arousal from the use of food during sexual activity; and neophilia, which refers to sexual arousal stemming from novelty or change. Wait—what? If we take this list at face values, it implies that anyone who is really into dirty talk, who loves using whipped cream or other edibles during foreplay, or who finds sexual routines to be dull is, well, kind of a pervert. Really?

The truth is that many of the entries on Aggrawal’s list—which also includes (gasp!) desires for oral and anal sex—are actually very commonly desired and practiced behaviors. Some of the paraphilias listed in the DSM are, too, such as the desire to mix pleasure and pain. Case in point: perhaps you’ve heard of the phenomenally popular book—and film—Fifty Shades of Grey? In other words, a lot of sexual desires have been deemed unusual despite being anything but. This raises an important question: What is “normal” when it comes to sex, and who gets to decide that?

Psychologists and psychiatrists have been telling us what’s normal and what isn’t for a very long time. Unfortunately, they haven’t necessarily approached this matter objectively. Basically, whenever they’ve encountered something that doesn’t appear normal to them, they have erred on the side of calling it a paraphilia, even in the absence of evidence that a given desire is rare or unusual. This freewheeling, arbitrary tendency to label desire after desire as paraphilic has had the problematic effect of stigmatizing far too many sexual interests because, for almost the entire time the DSM has been in existence, the term paraphilia has been synonymous with mental disorder.

Look no further than the 1950s and ’60s, when homosexuality was classified as a paraphilia in the DSM. This led the public to view being gay as a disorder. As long as homosexuality was considered a mental illness, what need was there for society to address gay rights? It’s not far off to say that, at that time, granting workplace protections and marriage equality to gays would have been seen as tantamount to indulging the delusions of paranoid schizophrenics through legislative action. The DSM provided cover for America to dismiss gays’ pursuit of equal rights and to instead argue that the only thing they really needed was therapy to “correct” their sexual orientation. In other words, it allowed the country as a whole to say, “The gays are the ones who need to change, not us.” Taking homosexuality out of the DSM was therefore a truly significant event. With the “disorder” title stripped away, people had no choice but to start taking the concerns of gays and lesbians seriously. For this reason, the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness (which formally occurred in 1973) was arguably the most significant milestone in the American gay rights movement.

The sexual desires that appeared alongside homosexuality in earlier versions of the DSM and that are still considered paraphilias today—things like foot fetishes, cross-dressing, sadism, and masochism—continue to be regarded by much of American society as perversions or mental illnesses. The same goes for the hundreds upon hundreds of other, less notorious desires that others have declared paraphilic. This widespread stigmatization of sexual desire perpetuated by the mental health community is not only arbitrary and unscientific—it is actively harmful to Americans’ sex lives and relationships. The more shame, embarrassment, and anxiety people feel about their sexual desires, the more likely they are to avoid talking about sex at all and to experience sexual performance difficulties, finding it challenging to become (or stay) aroused or to reach orgasm. Poor communication coupled with sexual performance issues can, in turn, snowball into major relationship problems and, in severe cases, even precipitate a breakup or divorce.

Psychology should be helping, not hurting, people’s sex lives and relationships. The field has certainly done a lot to help over the years—don’t get me wrong about that. But when it comes to how psychology has treated sexual desire and fantasy, there is still much that could stand to change. In particular, we need to fundamentally reevaluate what a “normal” sexual desire is and be far more cautious when it comes to throwing that paraphilia label around.

In order to do this, we must begin by coming to a better understanding of the nature of sexual desire. Which desires are common and which ones are truly rare? And how much does the prevalence of a given desire matter, anyway, when it comes to how we evaluate it? Just because a desire is rare, does that mean it’s necessarily unhealthy or inappropriate to act upon? Also, how do sexual desires differ for men and women? What about for persons of different ages and sexual orientations? Why do different people want different things in the first place? And is it a good idea to share and act on your sexual fantasies? If so, how the heck do you go about doing that in a safe way?

There are currently far too many gaps in the scientific literature for us to answer these questions, which is why I spent more than a year conducting the largest and most comprehensive survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies ever undertaken. The results of this survey will help to fill some of the holes in our knowledge. Not only will this give us a better understanding of what Americans really want when it comes to sex, including what’s normal and what isn’t, but—even better—we can potentially use this information to improve our sex lives and relationships.


The Largest Survey of Sexual Fantasies in America

In the pages that follow, I will offer an analysis of the largest-ever survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies, which will show how psychology, evolution, and culture shape not just what we fantasize about but who we want to be with and how we see ourselves. I have identified seven major themes that characterize the nature of sexual desire in America today, each of which I’ll explore in detail, carefully describing their primary features (with details drawn from the actual fantasy narratives submitted by survey participants) and their underlying psychology. I’ll use my survey results to help you better understand why some things are a turn-on to some but a turn-off to others.

This book is built around a massive survey of more than 350 questions taken by more than four thousand Americans, including persons from all fifty states. Although the sample is not necessarily representative of the US population, it does consist of an incredibly diverse group of individuals. Participants ranged in age from eighteen to eighty-seven and had occupations spanning everything from cashiers at McDonald’s to homemakers to physicians to lawyers. The group included all sexual and gender identities, political and religious affiliations, and relationship types, from singles to swingers.

This study is unique not just for the size and diversity of the sample but also for the scope of the survey itself and what it can tell us. In addition to being queried in great detail about their biggest sexual fantasy of all time, participants were asked how frequently they fantasize about hundreds of different people, places, and things. Included in this were a wide range of sexual acts and settings, body parts and objects, as well as specific persons, from porn stars to celebrities to politicians. In addition, participants were asked to carefully describe what the typical men and women in their fantasies look like, from their height, weight, race, and hair color to the presence or absence of pubic hair to the size of their breasts and genitals. Detailed sexual histories, psychological profiles, and demographic characteristics were also collected. All in all, this survey offers an unprecedented look into our fantasy worlds and what they reveal about us. Below are just a few of the many key insights:

• Almost all Americans who took this survey (97 percent) reported having sexual fantasies—and most reported having them frequently. The vast majority said they fantasize somewhere between several times per week and several times per day. To fantasize—and to fantasize often—is therefore to be human.

• Sex with multiple partners is a staple of Americans’ fantasies. When asked to describe their favorite sexual fantasy of all time, group sex was by far the most common theme to emerge. In addition, when asked whether they had ever fantasized about different forms of group sex, 89 percent reported fantasizing about threesomes, 74 percent about orgies, and 61 percent about gangbangs. Although men were more likely to have all of these multipartner fantasies than women, it will surprise many to learn that the majority of women reported having each of these sex fantasies as well.

• Sadomasochism, or the desire to link pleasure and pain during sex, is another extremely popular American fantasy. In fact, 60 percent of participants reported having fantasized about inflicting physical pain on someone else during sex, while 65 percent reported having fantasized about receiving physical pain during sex. Believe it or not, women were more likely than men to have fantasized about both giving and receiving pain, though the gender difference was larger for the latter. With numbers like these, it should come as no surprise that Fifty Shades of Grey had such cultural resonance.

• Hollywood might give you the impression that Americans are fantasizing about celebrities more than anyone else, but that could not be further from the truth. Just 7 percent of participants said that they fantasize about celebrities often, whereas 51 percent said that they fantasize about their current partner often. That’s right—we fantasize about real-life, everyday people far more frequently than we fantasize about the Zac Efrons and Scarlett Johanssons of the world. This suggests that our fantasies may be more grounded in reality than you think, at least with respect to whom we want to be with.

• Our porn-viewing habits influence who and what we fantasize about. In fact, one in seven participants said that their biggest sexual fantasy of all time directly stems from something they saw in porn. Pornography consumption is related to the size and shape of the bodies and genitals that appear in our fantasies, too. For instance, the more porn that heterosexual men watch, the bigger women’s breasts are in their fantasies. Likewise, the more porn that heterosexual women watch, the bigger men’s penises are in their fantasies.

• We often become different people in our sexual fantasies. Most of my participants reported that, when they appear in their own fantasies, they change themselves in some way, whether it’s having a different body shape, genital appearance, or personality. As you will see shortly, this tendency to fantasize about changing one’s physical or psychological characteristics sometimes reflects deep-seated insecurities.

• Americans’ political leanings speak volumes about the nature of their sexual fantasies. For example, compared to Democrats, Republicans were more likely to fantasize about sexual activities that are typically considered immoral—like infidelity and orgies—or taboo—like voyeurism. My research suggests that the more political and moral restrictions we have placed on our sexuality, the more intensely we fantasize about breaking free of them.

• Less than one-third of participants said they had previously acted out their biggest sexual fantasy. The remainder reported holding back for a range of reasons, but especially due to uncertainty about how to act on it and fears that one’s partner would disapprove of and/or be unwilling to participate in the activity.

The bulk of this book focuses on participants’ biggest sexual fantasies of all time. Believe it or not, one in five women and one in ten men said that just thinking about their biggest fantasy has brought them to orgasm before, independent of any genital stimulation. Talk about a major turn-on! But it’s not just that—these fantasies represent most people’s plans and yearnings for their future sex lives. More than three-quarters of the men and women I surveyed hope to eventually act on their favorite sexual fantasies. If we want to understand what Americans truly desire, their biggest fantasies therefore provide an excellent vantage point. As we explore them in detail, I will ask questions such as: What is the psychology behind this fantasy? If you have this fantasy, what does that say about your personality and sexual history? Are we evolutionarily programmed for this desire?

The book will also look at what happens when people share their fantasies with others and, further, what happens when people go as far as to act upon their deepest desires. In many cases, this can be beneficial for you, your partner, and your relationship. To that end, I will offer practical considerations for those who want to share their fantasies, as well as advice for those who want to act them out in a safe way. Although there are certainly benefits to be had in sharing and/or acting upon your fantasies, there are risks involved, too, and I’ll be sure to discuss those. I’ll also make it clear which fantasies should never be acted upon and when someone should consider professional help managing their sexual desires. Finally, I’ll take a broader look at what we as individuals and as a society can do to bring our fantasies closer to reality while maximizing personal happiness and public health. Keep in mind that with great sex comes great responsibility—we must balance our pursuit of sexual gratification with concern for the health and well-being of both ourselves and our partners.

How the Science of Sexual Desire Can Improve Your Sex Life and Relationship

My goal in sharing these survey results is not simply to titillate readers with people’s deepest—and sometimes darkest—sexual secrets. You may certainly be titillated at times, but my bigger hope is that you will walk away with a greater understanding of the nature of sexual desire and, potentially, use that information to enhance your own sexual and romantic life.

Too many Americans have distorted perceptions about which sexual desires are “normal” and the types of things that “should” turn them on, leading them to censor the vast majority of their urges and wants. This stems from the fact that accurate information about sex and sexual desire is hard to come by in the United States these days, owing in large part to an embarrassingly poor school-based sex-education system. Many students receive no sex education at all, and those who do are often subject to a curriculum riddled with scientific inaccuracies and falsehoods that focuses more on teaching students how to avoid sex than how sex happens. As I write this, just twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and even fewer require the information given to be medically accurate.1 That’s right—some states require sex education but don’t care whether the information provided is even correct!

Obviously, there are numerous problems with these courses, but one of the biggest is that they neglect the issue of sexual desire almost entirely. We are taught only what people are supposed to want, not what people actually want when it comes to sex. The end result is that when most Americans start having sex, their knowledge about it, and about which sexual feelings and practices are “normal,” tends to be very low. Our reluctance to teach students any sexual communication skills other than “just say no” has also led to an odd state of affairs in which Americans find it more challenging to talk about sex (even with their own spouse or partner) than to actually have it.

This lack of sexual knowledge and communication ability has profound consequences for our health and happiness. For instance, when we approach sex by acting without really talking or communicating first, it’s inevitable that lines and boundaries will be crossed from time to time—and this may lead to disagreements over whether a given experience was mutually pleasurable and perhaps whether it was even consensual. A poor understanding of sex can also lead to relationship dissatisfaction and conflict. In addition, a restricted view of what is sexually normal can contribute to a lot of sexual hang-ups and insecurities by leading people to perceive their own sexual interests as being outside the mainstream or deviant. These sexual anxieties can, in turn, play a major role in producing difficulties with sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm. Indeed, sex therapists have found that a lack of knowledge, false beliefs, and a fear that one’s sexual desires are abnormal are at the root of many sex problems. Believe it or not, treating such difficulties is often as simple as giving clients permission to act on their desires (assuming they involve consensual sexual activities, of course) and providing them with proper sex education.2

And yet, unfortunately, most adults who believe their sexual interests are unusual never seek sex therapy. Instead, they typically repress those desires and try to carry on a “normal” sex life. This tends to become unsatisfying very quickly, leading to a steep drop-off in desire for sex with one’s partner. Rather than viewing this problem for what it really is—internalized shame about one’s sexuality and a lack of sexual communication—people can readily find doctors who will determine it’s a matter of “low sex drive,” an issue that needs a medical fix rather than a psychological one. Pharmaceutical companies are chomping at the bit to provide a solution, investing heavily in medications such as Addyi (flibanserin) and hormonal therapies expressly designed to stimulate desire for the sex that people stopped having. Big Pharma isn’t alone here—the less regulated world of supplements is trying to cash in on this, too. Unfortunately, all of these pills, patches, and potions fail to address the psychological issues that underlie most sexual problems. The end result is that we wind up taking medications that, at best, might spur us into having mediocre sex more often.

That’s messed up—and it’s probably why the research so far has shown that most medications do little more to increase sexual desire than sugar pills.3 This isn’t surprising when you consider that the real problem for a lot of us isn’t that we lack desire per se; it’s that we lack desire for what we’ve been told we should want when it comes to sex. All too often, we incorrectly label things like sexual confusion and anxiety as low libido. For instance, straight women who have highly arousing lesbian fantasies or straight men who fantasize about sex with a male-to-female transsexual might find themselves distraught over their “real” sexual identity. That anxiety can, in turn, interfere with desire for sex with a partner or spouse and the ability to enjoy it. Individuals facing such situations frequently lack the confidence to explore or even talk about their true sexual desires because they do not know the “right” way to go about it or are worried about being rejected. In such cases, it is easier and less embarrassing to simply complain to a partner or doctor about low sex drive than own up to one’s true desires. But science tells us that these fantasies—your fantasies—are, in all likelihood, perfectly normal and healthy—and once you understand how common your sexual fantasies are, where they come from, and their deeper meaning, you will gain the ability to express your sexual desires to others so that you and your partner (or partners) might ultimately achieve greater sexual fulfillment and develop more emotional intimacy than ever before. To bring back our flagging libidos, then, what we really need to do is stop suppressing our deeper desires. We do not need a pill or even a psychotherapist to do this. We just need permission to share what it is that really turns us on—to tell each other what we want.

Of course, while gaining the confidence to share our desires is important, knowing how to respond appropriately when others share their fantasies with you is just as vital. Many people have approached me over the years, distressed at the discovery of their partners’ seemingly unusual sexual fantasies. Many readers of my work have conveyed their concerns in anonymous emails, but I’ve also been pulled aside at dinner parties and at bars by folks who, upon discovering what I do for a living, consume some liquid courage and ask their questions in person. Why were their partners aroused by the thought of watching them having sex with a stranger, they asked, when they found the same scenario threatening? Or why would anyone think it was hot to dress up like an animal during sex, or get off on fondling or sniffing feet or shoes? To them, the desires their partners had shared were a major turn-off, silly at best, and maybe even disturbing. Many had laughed at or shamed their partners, and more than a few were even contemplating breakup or divorce simply because they did not know how to deal with their partners’ “abnormal” urges. With just a little more understanding of the incredible diversity of human sexual desire and why this diversity exists in the first place, though, they might never have experienced any distress at all and, quite possibly, may have come to see their partners’ disclosure as a valuable opportunity to strengthen mutual trust and intimacy, not to mention a chance to reinvigorate their sex lives.

Ultimately, all of us stand to benefit from having a better understanding of each other’s desires, not just because it can potentially improve our sex lives and relationships but also because the more that we can grow what we as a society think of as “normal” when it comes to sex, the less likely it is that our own sexual desires can be used as weapons against us. One of the many things preventing us from sharing our sexual fantasies in the first place is the fear of what others could potentially do with that information. If we think our own desires are weird—and other people do, too—that gives those who know our secrets the ability to use them as ammunition against us. For instance, they could spread rumors or gossip in an attempt to publicly embarrass us. Even worse, they could do things like engage in blackmail or try to use those desires as grounds for denying parental rights in a child custody case (something that, sadly, happens far more often than you might think).4 By expanding our understanding of “normal” sexual desires, we can limit the degree to which sharing our sexual wants with our partners makes us vulnerable to harm.


On Sale
Jul 10, 2018
Page Count
288 pages


Justin J. Lehmiller

About the Author

Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller is a social psychologist and one of the country’s leading experts on human sexuality. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Program at Ball State University and a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute. Formerly, he served on the faculty at Harvard University.

In addition to being an award-winning educator, Dr. Lehmiller is a prolific scholar who conducts research on sexual fantasy, casual sex, secret relationships, and safer-sex practices. He has authored dozens of scientific publications and is the author of the sexuality textbook The Psychology of Human Sexuality. Dr. Lehmiller is on the editorial boards of several prominent academic journals in the fields of relationships and sexuality, including the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, and he is an elected full member of the International Academy of Sex Research.

Dr. Lehmiller holds advanced degrees in psychology, including a Master of Science from Villanova University and a Ph.D. from Purdue University.

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