For the past year — or perhaps it’s closer to two — I’ve been a fan and follower of Psychology of Sex, a website run by PhD Justin Lehmiller. Dr. Lehmiller updates his website with news about recent sexuality research, provides insights into why humans have sex the way we do, and sheds light on older studies, too. If you’re interested in the science of sex but don’t want to read the studies yourself, Dr. Lehmiller does a fantastic job of getting to the point and presenting it in an accessible way.
His work is right up my alley if you couldn’t already tell. When I found out he was releasing a book this summer, I knew I had to read it. I was excited for him and just as excited when I realized I’d have a chance to review it, despite 2018 being a busy year for book reviews.
Dr. Lehmiller’s recently released book is Tell Me What You Want (subtitle: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life). The book is based largely on a 4,000-person survey administered by Lehmiller to Americans about their sexual fantasies. Lehmiller uses his book as a vehicle to explain how common some sexual fantasies are — not to mention fantasizing in general — and to help the reader better fulfill their own desires.
Right from the beginning of the book, Lehmiller reveals results from his survey. The most popular American fantasies include BDSM and group sex scenarios but fewer celebrities than you might have imagined. The introduction whets the reader’s appetite for the numbers while reminding them that this research can be beneficial to their own sex lives. This is followed by a chapter that briefly defines a sexual fantasy and outlines the seven most common themes that Justin found in his survey.
The next chapter takes an in-depth look at those categories with multipartner sex, BDSM (including consensual nonconsent) and novelty/adventure being so common that he describes them as the three fantasies nearly everyone has. This long chapter continues with the four next-most common sexual fantasy themes: taboos (include voyeurism and exhibitionism), swinging/polyamory/partner sharing, intimacy, and homoeroticism and gender-bending.
Dr. Lehmiller relies on specific comments from people who took his survey to detail the scenarios that played out in their heads. For example, Dr. Lehmiller found that the people who had BDSM fantasies imagined scenarios in which care and consent were significant, not nonconsensual play (which would be abuse). This insight into how common these fantasies are as well as the details that are crucial for enjoyment is fascinating. He explains the different fetishes in a clear way so that readers can follow. I personally think it’s rather calming (although no one would describe me as sheltered or a prude). I think that readers who are not as well-versed in the topic of sexuality would take something out of this book.
I know that I followed intently as Dr. Lehmiller moved into a chapter that explained differences in fantasies between the genders. He touches on the greater range of sexual flexibility that most women exhibit as well as some biological differences between the sexes. Justin also makes a point to explain how societal influences can play out in our fantasies. Some of the sex differences were typical. Yes, women tend to have more passionate and romantic fantasies, but they also fantasize more often about BDSM while men more often fantasize about group sex. Women more often view themselves as a submissive in fantasies than men.
I found Dr. Lehmiller’s conclusions were interesting, too, pointing out that women may be more flexible in their fantasies than men and that women often view themselves as an object rather than a subject when fantasizing. He also explains how taboo fantasies may be more common in men because if their greater propensity toward compulsive sexual behavior. Finally, He’s quick to point out that while one sex may have certain fantasies more frequently, the opposite will frequently share those same fantasies.
Throughout the book, I found the results of this survey intriguing, but Lehmiller includes plenty of information from other sources and previous surveys to support his conclusions and sometimes to contrast the differing survey results. I have nearly 50 bookmarks added, many of which highlight his sources that I wish to examine in the future myself.
The next chapter provides the reader with 15 questions, each of which provides insight into their probably sexual fantasies. The list includes age, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religiosity, sexual dysfunction, sexual assault victimhood, sexual compulsivity, relationship satisfaction, attachment style, “Type A” personalities, extroversion, compassion, stress coping, and self-esteem can also reveal a person’s likely fantasies. You get the feeling that if you revealed just a bit of yourself to Dr. Lehmiller, he could fill in the blanks and make some accurate assumptions about your fantasy proclivities.
I do think that this chapter seemed a bit out of place because the next two focus on who we fantasize about (frequently current or past lovers and celebrities such as Channing Tatum and ScarJo) and the settings of our fantasies (usually less common than activities and participants but still telling). I did find the analysis of how exposure to porn alters our desired fantasy partners (and own bodies) to be quite compelling; although, Lehmiller does not have an anti-porn stance. He simply highlights how it affects the way we view and engage in sex. The results and commentary about how people of different sexual orientations and races approach partners in their fantasies is also telling. It’s really the conclusions that Dr. Lehmiller was able to draw that painted a picture of our larger sexual conscious.
The last few chapters in the book focus on the personal, however, with Lehmiller providing guidance for the reader to express rather than repress their sexual fantasies. He provides advice for communicating fantasies to sexual partners as well as for when acting on those fantasies would not be advised. Dr. Lehmiller emphasizes that the some sexual fantasies are so common that partners may be share them… if they’re just able to talk about them.
In the following chapter, Lehmiller explains how those people who have been able to live out discuss fantasies were by and large able to act them out and enjoyed doing so; although, a few people were met with rejection outright and some did not attain the satisfaction that they expected from engaging in their fantasies. This chapter reads as a pragmatic guide to getting what you really want in bed.
As Lehmiller ends his book, he makes arguments for more comprehensive sex education in America (inspired partly by his trip earlier this year to the Netherlands), open communication about sex, and experimentation as a way to improve relationship satisfaction. Although Tell Me What You Want is about sexuality, the book includes many pieces of advice that would strengthen relationships. He reminds us that porn is not the problem (although it may be a symptom of one), that there is no perfect partner for any of us, and that sometimes our problems are difficult but can still be resolved.
The final chapter in this book reiterates Lehmiller’s calm and logical approach to understanding sexuality and improving sexual satisfaction, which is exemplified on nearly every page of Tell Me What You Want. It’s difficult to disagree with this.
Not only did I find the information in this book to be interesting and useful, but I found Dr. Lehmiller’s casual tone to be approachable and entertaining. Tell Me What You Want was enjoyable to read, never dry or judgmental. He navigates potentially controversial topics thoughtfully. Although I can imagine there are those who would bristle at the results of the fantasy survey — as well as the conclusions that could be drawn from them — Lehmiller takes care to avoid that as much as possible.
If I have one complaint about Tell Me What You Are, it’s that this survey isn’t a representative sample. However, Lehmiller makes it clear that these percentages refer to his sample and not the country or world at large. If he was interested in what I want, I would say that I would love to see the statistical breakdown for at least some of the data. Otherwise, Tell Me What You Want really sated my desire to look inside American’s bedrooms and brains.
And, yes, Dr. Lehmiller does make a reference to the Spice Girl’s song.
If you want to read Tell Me What You Want, you can buy the hardcover, softcover, or Kindle version on Amazon.