Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies. By Brett Kahr. Basic Books. $28.
Despite its sensationalized title, this is a serious, even scholarly book containing some important information – although it is infected by an inevitable bias. British psychotherapist Brett Kahr’s nearly 500-page work is about the many and varied sexual fantasies that men and women have, the ways in which those fantasies reflect their inner lives and reflect on their outer ones, and the extent to which fantasies – even ones that are well outside what most people consider the normal bounds of human sexuality – may help people maintain a satisfying sex life and/or cope with traumatic events buried deeply in their pasts.
Every in-depth study of human sexuality faces significant barriers to believability, dating back to Freud’s pioneering work with disturbed and distressed people of a particular social class – from whose treatment he extrapolated a system in whose universality he firmly believed, thinking it as solid as such hard sciences as physics and chemistry. Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and other sex researchers have all based their work, of necessity, on a small subset of people willing to talk with them or act in front of them; whether these people are truly representative of a population that would not dream of discussing such matters with strangers, much less behaving sexually in a laboratory setting, is an ever-present question. So too is the question about Kahr’s methodology: this book is based on extensive interviews with people who were willing to discuss themselves and their sexual history and fantasies for many hours, in return only for contributing to this research and receiving a small fee. Therefore, by definition, the book excludes people lacking the time, interest or monetary inclination to speak with a stranger extensively about highly intimate matters. Are Kahr’s subjects nevertheless representative of the population as a whole? If so, of which population?
Kahr does not, cannot, answer this question, although he is honest enough to face it. What he can do is present, in as straightforward a manner as possible, a large number of fantasies that his subjects discussed with him – so he can search for patterns and readers can perhaps find parallels in their own fantasy lives. Kahr groups the fantasies by subject: “Ordinary Explicitness,” “Threesomes, Foursomes, and Moresomes,” celebrity and same-sex fantasies (the latter as experienced by both heterosexuals and homosexuals), exhibitionist and incestuous fantasies, and more. Much of each chapter in the earlier part of the book is taken up with frequently mundane, usually brief descriptions of a fantasy: “My other half is a fire-fighter and that always gets me going.” “Having sex with another woman/women.” “Watching another man have sex with my woman partner.” “Being caught having sex in a hotel room and the maid joining in.” “Having someone famous begging me.” There are also pointed comments by some people who ended up refusing to discuss certain subjects with Kahr after all: “I couldn’t care less about celebrities.” “Not applicable. You lot are really sad.” “I prefer real people.”
Interspersed with the one-or-a-few-liners are more elaborate fantasies that Kahr quotes at some length, sometimes to analyze them and sometimes just to show how extensively certain people answered his questions (whose quality readers can judge for themselves: Kahr’s written questionnaire is offered as an appendix). Most of Kahr’s analysis is in the latter part of the book, where he discusses the traumatic roots of sexual fantasy and the question of whether, psychologically speaking, fantasies can ever be trauma-free. He also discusses whether fantasies enhance or harm relationships – and if so, how. All this is quite a lot to absorb, and much of it is anything but sexy – although readers who share particular fantasies with participants in Kahr’s project will certainly discover some kindred spirits here. Kahr, to his credit, does not try to create an entire new theory of sexuality or a generalized idea about human sexual behavior on the basis of the fantasies revealed to him. He does, however, show quite clearly that sexual fantasies of many types are extremely widespread; that they frequently explore personality areas that people do not express in their real-world sexual relationships; and that many, if not all, constitute positive, arousing reinterpretations of traumatic events of which people may be only dimly aware. “The data I have collected suggest that we may have less conscious control over our fantasies and sexual predilections than we would wish to believe,” Kahr writes. But he is, of course, a trained analyst, who expects to see conscious expressions of unconscious wishes in all aspects of human behavior. Does this make his analysis unacceptably biased – or does it give him far more insight than is possessed by other researchers into aspects of human sexuality? There is no “right” answer to that question, nor is there any obviously “right” way to interpret the many fantasies in which we as sexual beings indulge. Kahr deserves a great deal of credit for venturing so deeply into this field, even if what he has found out about the fantasizing of his subjects is, in the end, more exhaustive than definitive.