Our Sexual Fantasies Tell Us Something Important About Who We Are
January 10, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller
Two people can have sex fantasies about the same activity, but the way that specific activity plays out isn’t necessarily going to be the same from one person to the next. In fact, it might be very, very different. For example, if two people who had sexual fantasies about threesomes described those fantasies to you in detail, it’s quite possible that they might bear little resemblance to one another beyond the number of participants involved. One individual, for example, might describe wanting to be the center of attention and engaging in sex with two people they know extremely well; by contrast, another individual might desire a threesome with two strangers in which everyone participates equally.
What accounts for such great variability in fantasy content? I think it’s a reflection of our tendency to construct sexual fantasies that meet our unique psychological needs. For example, in a study I published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (co-authored by Dr. David Ley and sex advice columnist Dan Savage), we found support for this idea.
The focus of this paper was specifically on cuckolding fantasies, or fantasies in which one derives arousal from the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. I have a lot to say about cuckolding fantasies, and I’ll do that in a series of future posts, but for now, I want to focus on what this study of cuckolding suggests about the way we construct our fantasies more broadly.
This study looked primarily at gay-identified men who reported having cuckolding fantasies before. Among other things, we asked participants to describe their typical cuckolding fantasy in narrative form. One of the things we observed was that there was substantial variability in the way these scenarios were described. For example, most people talked about wanting to watch their partner having sex; however, some preferred to listen or to hear about it after it had taken place. In addition, some—but not all—scenarios included BDSM elements, some emphasized condomless sex, some focused on who their partner was having sex with and/or his penis size, some focused on a very specific sexual position or activity, and some focused on how much pleasure their partner was receiving.
We had predicted that the specific elements of cuckolding fantasies that gay men emphasize and find most appealing would be linked to some of their personality traits. And, indeed, that’s precisely what we found. Specifically:
-Men who were higher in the Big-Five personality trait of agreeableness (a trait that involves showing great care and concern for others) emphasized the importance of seeing their partner receive sexual pleasure during cuckolding.
-Men who were higher in the trait of sexual sensation seeking (a trait that involves having a preference for thrilling and risky sexual activities) tended to emphasize the importance of condomless (also known as bareback) anal sex in their cuckolding fantasies. They also tended to fantasize about their partner having sex with someone who had a very large penis.
-Men with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (that is, those who have an easier time separating sex from emotion) didn’t care as much about who their partner was having sex with in a cuckolding scenario, whereas those with a restricted orientation (that is, those who see sex and emotion as going together) wanted to know who the other person was going to be. I suspect this is because restricted men didn’t want to introduce a potential element of threat into the relationship.
Links between personality and fantasy content aren’t unique to cuckolding fantasies, of course. In a study of 4,175 adults I conducted for my book Tell Me What You Want, I found a similar pattern of correlates when looking at a wide range of sexual fantasies. For example, the Big-Five trait of openness to experience was linked to more diversity and variability in fantasy content across the board, which makes sense because these folks tend to be more willing to try new things in general. Likewise, extraversion (being sociable and outgoing) was linked to more “social” sexual fantasies, such as group sex and non-monogamy.
The fact that so many associations exist between personality traits and preferred fantasy content suggests that what turns us on about our fantasies is at least partly a function of our unique psychological needs.
Our cuckolding research also tells us that two people’s fantasies about the same subject can be highly variable in the way they play out. We contextualize our sexual fantasies greatly. This means that if we want to understand the origins of a given fantasy, we’re missing a major part of the picture if we focus on broader factors (like evolutionary and cultural forces) to the exclusion of individual differences.
In sum, our sex fantasies tell us something important about who we are.
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To learn more about this research, see: Lehmiller, J. J., Ley, D., & Savage, D. (2018). The Psychology of Gay Men’s Cuckolding Fantasies. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >