Americans have come a long way in terms of sexual liberation. (I'm talking recently, too: Sodomy laws were struck down in the US in 2003!) But when it comes to fantasies, kinks, and letting go of the shame that surrounds our sexual desires, most of us still have a ways to go.
Luckily, social psychologist and Kinsey Institute researcher Justin Lehmiller is eager to help Americans unpack their sexual baggage. For his new book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, Lehmiller interviewed 4,175 Americans of all ages (18-87), genders, and sexual orientations about their sex lives—the research he collected constitutes the largest and most comprehensive survey of sexual fantasies to date.
In addition to probing Americans about their most secret fantasies, how often they occur, and in what contexts, the book also seeks to address the cultural, historical, and institutional stigmas surrounding desire.
One of the book’s biggest takeaways: People’s sexual fantasies don’t necessarily translate to sexual behaviors. According to Lehmiller, fewer than a third of participants said they had actually acted on their biggest sexual fantasy. Even with data from Lehmiller’s survey, and previous scientific research on the nature of desire, we can’t truly know what kinks are most commonly played out in the bedroom. But we can explore which kinks are most fantasized about—and we shall! But first:
What is a normal sexual fantasy?
Lehmiller notes that when researchers say something is “normal,” that means it’s “statistically common,” so, a normal fantasy is one that lot of people have. And just because a fantasy is statistically common doesn’t mean you should act on it—indeed, some of the fantasies listed below are non-consensual and/or illegal.
What is a kink?
A kink is any kind of sexual activity or desire that falls outside the realm of culturally sanctioned norms, which, in our rigid, puritanical society, is basically everything that’s not penis-in-vagina, monogamous, hetero, married, missionary sex with the end goal of making babies. If you have sex that doesn’t fit that narrow definition, then we’ll be joining you in Hell, perverts! Just kidding. (But we will.)
Centuries of sexual policing by religious, medical, and political establishments—not to mention entrenched racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism—have really done a number on our collective sexual subconscious, as well as our beliefs about the kind of sex we are “supposed” to have. Remember when fellatio was considered a felony? It wasn’t that long ago! And a fun fact: In 1778, Thomas Jefferson wrote a law in Virginia stating that men who commit polygamy and sodomy should be castrated, and women should be punished “by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least” for either act.
It’s no wonder a great many Americans feel guilt, shame, and anxiety about what they desire. Yet, as Jack Morin taught us in his seminal book The Erotic Mind, sometimes it is precisely that very guilt, shame, and anxiety that fuel our desires—because nothing is hotter than wanting what we’ve been told we should not want.
Disclaimers and history aside, here are the top five kinks that Americans fantasize about, in order of popularity, according to Lehmiller’s survey.
1. Group sex
Sex with multiple partners is apparently America’s favorite fantasy; in particular, threesomes (89 percent of Lehmiller’s survey respondents reported fantasizing about this), followed by orgies (74 percent), and gang-bangs (61 percent). Though men were more likely to have all of these fantasies, a majority of women reported having these fantasies as well.
It’s not surprising that this ever-popular “holy grail” of sex acts is at the top of our list of fantasies, especially when we consider the ego-boosting effects of being desired, validated, and stimulated by two or more people at once.
Group sex likely also appeals because of its sensory overload—visually and tactilely (and possibly emotionally!)—a lot is going on, and all that stimulation ramps up arousal levels.
Would Fifty Shades of Grey have sold a bajillion copies if Americans were not interested in BDSM? Doubtful. It should come as no surprise that BDSM—aka the desire to play with power, pleasure, and pain during sex—is extremely popular. Sixty percent of survey participants reported fantasizing about inflicting physical pain on someone else during sex.
On the whole, submission was more popular than dominance as a fantasy (65 percent) across the board. “More Americans want to give up control rather than take control during sex,” Lehmiller writes. This makes sense on a number of levels: Being a functioning adult requires making a thousand different decisions a day. Submission gives people the rare chance to place control in another’s (trusted) hands and let them do the decision-making for once. But subs also don’t entirely relinquish control—and that’s key. Most bottoms make known how they want to be pleased and in what contexts, so the submissive is ultimately the one most in charge of the scenario.
One surprising tidbit from the survey was that women have more BDSM fantasies “of almost every type” than men. Women also report more frequent sadism fantasies, which flies in the face of the stereotype that giving pain is a predominantly male interest. But, don’t feel left out, fellas, because men are more likely than women to fantasize about taboo acts, such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, incest, and fetishism. (Men are also more likely to act on these taboos.)
The most commonly mentioned acts within BDSM fantasies were: spanking, biting, and whipping. Though when it comes to the level of pain, most people reported wanting “relatively mild pain that … [was] consensual and [had] very controlled limits.”
One of the most common BDSM scenarios to fantasize about was forced sex—nearly 66 percent of women reported having these fantasies, and more than half of the men did, too. This is yet another scenario in which women can “top from the bottom,” that is, enact submissiveness in a controlled way.
3. Novelty and adventure
Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and it’s no less true in the bedroom. The third most common sexual fantasy involves sexual activities one has never done before (we could technically include BDSM and group sex in this category as well), unique settings (an airplane, the beach), and a “surprising or thrilling” encounter (such as doin’ it in public, incorporating food, or trying out a new toy).
The concept of “novelty” varies widely from person to person, and where, exactly, these fantasies come from is hard to discern. Was it a past experience? Something you saw in porn or in the media? An inexplicable urge? According to Lehmiller, the three most common sources of people’s (self-reported) fantasies are their own imaginations, followed by porn, then a previous sexual encounter they’d had as adults.
It’s easy to say our fantasies spring from our own wily minds, but our minds are sponges, soaking up information wherever we go. For instance, 32.4 percent of men and 33.3 percent of women all said they fantasize about doing it doggy-style. Perhaps the position is popular because we collectively consider it a little raunchier—in Latin, doggy style is coitus more ferarum, or “sex in the manner of beasts”—but not too far “out there.”
The use of sex toys is also a common fantasy, and the most common of all are BDSM props such as blindfolds and handcuffs, followed by strap-on dildos.
The desire to incorporate dildos into one’s fantasy life is unsurprising when we take into account that nearly two thirds of survey respondents (both men and women) had fantasies about receiving anal sex. Since Lehmiller’s sample was 72 percent hetero, that means a lot more straight guys fantasize about taking it up the ass than openly admit it.
4. Taboo sex—voyeurism, fetish objects, and exhibitionism
As mentioned above, we crave what is forbidden, so it should be no surprise that sexual fantasies that are considered taboo are common among Americans. They are, in fact, far more widespread than love and romance–focused fantasies.
The three most common taboo fantasies are, in order of most popular, voyeurism, or the desire to watch other people undress or have sex without their knowledge or consent, fetish objects, aka “objects that one relies on for feelings of sexual arousal," and exhibitionism: having sex while others watch, and/or exposing one’s genitals without the consent of the onlookers. It should be noted that two of those three (voyeurism and non-consensual exhibitionism) are illegal, which makes them even more taboo.
The most common fetish objects included articles of clothing: stockings, shoes, boots, panties, and bras. Body parts, however, can also be considered a fetish “object,” as long they fall outside the “typical” sexualized parts like genitals, butts, and chests.
You may not be surprised to learn that feet were the most common body part Americans fantasize about. One in seven people reported a fantasy where feet or toes were prominent. According to Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia, many cultures have eroticized feet, and particularly women’s feet, for centuries. Why feet, specifically? Some historians believe the rise of foot fetishism was partly in response to STI epidemics—in other words, foot play became popular because it was a form of safe sex. There was a marked uptick in poetry and literature about women's feet during the syphilis and gonorrhea outbreaks in Medieval Europe, and a similar boom during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s, according to the book.
Though men were more likely to have (and act on) taboo sex fantasies, the one taboo women are substantially more likely to fantasize about is role-playing an adult baby—dressing, behaving, and being treated like an infant. Though this may seem initially shocking, if we think of an adult baby fetish as an extension of submission and masochism, it’s not so out of left field. Spanking, wanting to be told what to do, giving up control, etc.—these can all fit within the BDSM themes of helplessness and powerlessness.
5. Partner sharing and non-monogamy
Lehmiller separates non-monogamy—aka swinging, partner sharing, and polyamory—from the broader group-sex category because non-monogamy fantasies, he writes, “don’t necessarily involve several people having sex as a group; rather, they’re about having a relationship in which the partners agree that certain forms of outside sexual activity are acceptable.”
Being in an open relationship—which he classifies as having a primary partner and pursuing other relationships on the side—was the most popular fantasy, as reported by 79 percent of men and 62 percent of women. Polyamory—maintaining multiple sexual and emotional relationships at the same time—was the next–most popular fantasy—70 percent of men and 51 percent of women fantasize about it. Swinging—temporary spouse-swapping, often in a party setting—came in third, with 66 percent of men and 45 percent of women reporting related fantasies.
Among the most common partner-sharing fantasies in men (58 percent) is cuckolding—that is, being turned on by the idea of their partner fucking other men. It’s less common for women to fantasize about this (33 percent). Cuckolding could also be folded into both the group-sex fantasy and the BDSM sphere, since it’s a form of psychological submission/humiliation.
Curiously, people in monogamous relationships were the most likely to have non-monogamous fantasies. Since monogamy is the cultural norm, it would make sense to fantasize about deviating from that norm, but what’s really interesting is that non-consensual non-monogamy—aka cheating—is NOT something that Americans typically fantasize about, despite it also being a deviant desire. Less than one half of 1 percent of respondents said “cheating,” “infidelity,” or “adultery” was their favorite fantasy. Although Americans are into getting off in all kinds of different ways, they're not into lying about it—at least in their fantasies. Being open with partners about what they really want, however, can be quite a different story.