August 02, 2018


Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. By Justin J. Lehmiller, Ph.D. Da Capo. $27.

     A social psychologist based at the Kinsey Institute, Justin Lehmiller makes it quite clear that his 2018 study of sexual fantasizing lies in a direct line of descent from Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Lehmiller even opens his book with a quotation from Kinsey that reads, “We are the recorders and reporters of facts, not the judges of the behaviors we describe.” And this sets the stage for a, yes, nonjudgmental discussion – in plainer English than Kinsey or, later, Masters and Johnson used or, given the state of society when they wrote, could use – of sexual fantasies in the United States. “We need to stop judging whether sexual desires are healthy or unhealthy based only on how many people in the population have them,” writes Lehmiller, saying that the only things that matter are whether a fantasy is consensual and whether it poses “an unacceptable risk of harm to one or more people that goes well beyond the usual risks of having sex.”

     On this basis, pretty much everything that Lehmiller comes up with to discuss is just fine; but he tends to be rather glib in saying so. Take, for instance, “the desire to have sex while wearing a head-to-toe costume of an animal, mythical creature, maybe even a Pokémon character.” Lehmiller writes that “while the idea of dressing up in a fur costume and getting it on might sound strange to a lot of people, it’s really not something we need to be worried about because it checks the boxes of being consensual and not high-risk.” The conclusion is unexceptionable, but the way Lehmiller presents it is a trifle odd. He has already said that this particular fantasy is mentioned in his research only 1% of the time, so “might sound strange to a lot of people” is rather obvious. And who is the “we” in “we need to be worried”? Researchers? Mental-health professionals? Sexual fantasizers themselves? Adults in general? Readers of the book? Throughout Tell Me What You Want, Lehmiller tries so hard to be down-to-earth in his writing that he makes some of his points less clear than they might be if couched in somewhat drier language.

     Still, there is something to be said for being earthy, or at least forthright, in writing about sexual fantasies, since Lehmiller’s approach makes his book far more approachable and understandable than were those of Kinsey and of Masters and Johnson. Indeed, while prior research-based studies of sex went out of their way not to be accused of pandering to readers’ sexual desires, Lehmiller expects readers to have their own sexual responses to some of what he presents, although he emphasizes that such reactions are not his main interest: “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.” This hope is based on the foundation of Tell Me What You Want, which is a 350-question survey completed by more than 4,000 people, ages 18 to 87, from all 50 U.S. states and having a wide spectrum of professions, sexual identities, political and religious affiliations, and types of relationships. Basing the book on a survey is a problem: Lehmiller does note that the survey may not be representative of all Americans, but the bigger issue is that surveys obtain results only from people who are willing to fill out surveys – and, in this case, people willing to take the time to slog through 350 questions. By definition, that eliminates a great many people; whether it renders the survey results inaccurate is impossible to know. Of course, there are deficiencies in laboratory studies of human sexuality as well, since they involve only people willing to perform sexually in a laboratory setting; this is a criticism that prior sex researchers faced and tried to derail in various ways, none of them wholly satisfactory. So it is at least worth looking at Lehmiller’s survey-based findings for material that may be useful to readers of Tell Me What You Want.

     If Lehmiller’s survey is correct, Americans have seven particularly common sexual fantasies. The “big three” are sex with multiple partners; power-and-control fantasies, including rough sex; and novel sexual activities, or sex in unusual locations. The four others are taboo or forbidden sex, such as voyeurism and fetishes; swinging and partner sharing; intimacy and romance; and gender-bending, including homoeroticism. Lehmiller explains and explores each of these, discusses “normalizing” them (that is, understanding that they are so common as to be considered normal), and then embarks on a rather wide-ranging discussion of what determines individuals’ forms of sexual orientation and expression, how popular literature inaccurately reflects scientific findings about human sexuality, and how men’s and women’s sexual interests and desires differ (and do not differ). He then offers 15 questions “that reveal your secret sexual desires,” but here his analysis becomes a bit strained. He says, for example, that political affiliations matter, with Republicans more likely to fantasize about nonmonogamous sex and exhibitionism and Democrats more likely to fantasize about bondage/discipline and social bonding and intimacy. Piling shifting and ill-defined political loyalties on the only-people-who-like-to-answer-surveys foundation of Tell Me What You Want makes these conclusions suspect and rather, well, inconclusive. Another of the 15 questions, about religious affiliation, is equally questionable, since there are so many degrees of such affiliation – so many levels of commitment, practice and belief in rituals – that it is meaningless to say “heterosexual guys who were religiously affiliated were more likely to have gay fantasies than men who lacked a religious affiliation.” Nevertheless, this is exactly what Lehmiller says.

     It is best not to take Tell Me What You Want too seriously. Stepping back a bit from Lehmiller’s over-certainty and lack of interpretative nuance, ignoring the manifest absurdity of drawing representational conclusions from a nonrepresentative sample of survey respondents, makes it possible to extract some value from the material Lehmiller presents. It is, for instance, reassuring to know that one’s fantasies are most likely shared by many other people, meaning they are not clinically “abnormal” or to be feared. And it is good to realize that sexual fantasies are common among both men and women, so neither gender needs be ashamed of having them. Realizations like these may make it possible for readers of all sexual proclivities to discuss their fantasies with their partners and decide whether or not to act on them. But that decision, one way or the other, is not the ultimate benefit – it is the discussion itself that matters. For the purpose of strengthening a relationship, the “tell me” part of this book’s title – that is, the encouragement to communicate forthrightly with someone with whom you are intimate – is considerably more important than the specifics of “what you want.”

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