Dr. Justin Lehmiller on Sexual Fantasies [Jack Murphy Live]

Read my paraphrased show notes below. Listen to the full episode for more nuance and context.

Key Takeaways

  • Not every thought that turns us on represents what we truly want to do. There’s a difference between fantasies and desires.
  • Shame leads to fear of expressing your desires and a lack of communication in long-term relationships.
  • The 3 fantasies almost everyone has: (1) group sex, (2) BDSM, (3) novelty.
  • Conservatives are likely to have a wide range of taboo fantasies. Liberals are likely to be into BDSM. We tend to crave most whatever biological urge our social construct prevents us from expressing.
  • “Analyze where you are in your current practice and up it one or two degrees. Progress is what’s fulfilling, not reaching the goal.”
  • “Just say no to sex” doesn’t work. Parents need to get better at talking about sex with their children.

Resources Mentioned


Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a sexuality expert and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. Lehmiller recently completed conducting the largest survey of sexual fantasies in America.

The survey included almost 4200 Americans from all 50 states. Participants ranged from ages 18 to 87 and covered the entire political spectrum, and all gender and sexual identities. The survey asked them about their favorite fantasy of all time, what they had fantasized about, as well as their personality traits and sexual history. This is the largest study ever done of its kind.

The Difficulty of Researching & Teaching Sex

Sex is a controversial subject so counselors are rarely trained in helping others with sexual problems. It’s also difficult to get funding for any sex-related research for anything other than STDs.

It’s only in the last half century or so that sex was even considered an appropriate topic for scientific study. Centuries of shame and guilt around the topic have made it taboo.

In spite of the universal appeal, Dr. Lehmiller says sex is one of the most difficult topics to teach. Anything you say is a potential minefield for offending people. And people have so much misinformation about sex or even no education at all.

Alfred Kinsey conducted the first attempts to scientifically study human sexuality back in the 1940s & ’50s. His book on women was particularly controversial because it showed that women “enjoyed sex too”, engaged in masturbation and same sex behavior.

William Masters did “live sex studies” and used emerging technology to find out what happened in the body when people were aroused or having orgasms.

In spite of being a politically conservative state, Indiana is the hotbed of sex research.

Sexual Shame

Jack talks to lots of men across the country who express they are confused about their sexuality. They find themselves having fantasies or desires that don’t align with what they’re told is okay. In fact, most of the time people aren’t even telling them what’s okay. The cultural attitude is “don’t talk about it; don’t think about it.”

Part of Jack’s mission is to help alleviate shame around sexuality. He doesn’t want people feeling bad for things that are “perfectly normal.”

“When you don’t know what normal is, it’s easy to fall into a shame spiral and think you’re bad or nasty.”

Shame leads to fear of expressing your desires and a lack of communication with long-term partners.

All of us have sexual fantasies but we worry whether they’re normal or not. Dr. Lehmiller says guilt, shame, and anxiety are the most common feelings people associate with their fantasies.

“Would educating people about sexual fantasies lead them to being acted out more?”

Lehmiller thinks we need to educate people about the difference between a fantasy and a desire. It’s okay to have a thought that turns you on, but the desire to actually do it might be something very different. So we need to talk about how to turn a fantasy into reality and when you shouldn’t do that.

A fantasy is a conscious thought you find arousing. A fantasy may or may not be a desire. A desire is something you actually want to do. Most of the time, people’s favorite fantasy is also a desire. But most people have many other fantasies that are not desires. Not every thought that turns us on represents something we truly want to do.

Jack notes how a lot of women have gang-bang fantasies, but they say “some things are better left as fantasies.”

Why do people fantasize?

People fantasize for a variety of reasons: maintaining arousal during sex, masturbation, spontaneous thoughts, etc.

Dr. Lehmiller says college students actually have the least interesting sexual fantasies because their perception is so narrow. Older adults have more variety in their fantasies.

Jack agrees. “As a teen, my fantasies consisted of two giant breasts or I’m just thrusting inside of a woman… My fantasies now involve complex situations, props… they get so much more complex.”

People with higher sex drives tend to have more frequent and more varied fantasies. Same goes for people who are sensation seekers or are high in the “openness” personality trait.

Healthy vs. unhealthy sexual desire

Sigmund Freud believed that happy people don’t fantasize, only people who were dissatisfied. This set the tone for psychologists & psychiatrists to think of sexual fantasies as pathological. Sexual fantasies are typically labeled in the DSM as “paraphilia” (an unusual sexual desire.)

“Where do you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy sexual fantasies?”

Lehmiller says the first thing to ask is “is there consent in the fantasy?”

In pedophilia, for example, a child cannot consent to sex… If you have a fantasy like that repeatedly, and its your favorite fantasy, that’s when it becomes cause for concern because you might potentially act on it.

Aside from consent, is there serious risk of harm to you or someone else if you engaged in that behavior?

Stick with safe, sane, consensual (& legal).

Jack recommends Braun-Harvey’s model for sexual health for staying safe and sane in your pursuit of sexual fantasies.

Jack says there is often a lack of objectivity in what we call “healthy” sexuality. Sexual views are shaped by the politics & religion of the day.

Main Findings of the Survey

There were themes almost everyone reported having fantasized about at one time or another.

1. Group sex (threesomes, orgies, gang-bangs). About 90% of both men and women have had these types of fantasies. And about 50% included it as part of their favorite fantasy.

2. BDSM. About 80% of men and women have fantasized about a dominant-submissive dynamic. Most are “switches” (imagining both) with more people leaning towards submission than dominance.

Most people tend to be on the mild end of the BDSM spectrum (e.g. spankings, tying a partner up, holding their hands behind their back.) It’s usually not the extreme stuff people associate with the term.

BDSM changes your mental state. Studies have found that those in the dominant role enter a state of “flow” where they have increased concentration. Those in a submissive role experience a state of spirituality where they are sort of “floating.”

3. Novelty, adventure & variety

The Coolidge Effect states that we become less aroused over time by the same activities.

The story goes President Coolidge and the First Lady visited a chicken farm on a tour event. The First Lady gets ahead of her husband and sees this rooster who has a lot of sexual prowess. He’s going from one hen to the next. She’s impressed by it. She tells the tour guide “be sure to point that rooster out to my husband when he gets here.” So when President Coolidge arrives, the tour guide says “Your wife wanted me to point this rooster out to you.” Mr. Coolidge looks and says, “Be sure to tell Mrs. Coolidge that there’s more than one hen.”

The desire for variety is built in us. Studies have found that when the man has multiple partners (or even perceives that the woman has had multiple partners), if there’s a new partner, or even just masturbating to a new porn star, he will have greater semen levels and ejaculations.

“How do you stay safe and sane in your pursuit of greater & greater novelty (e.g. in porn use)?”

Just because we’re turned on by variety doesn’t mean we need to keep ramping up the intensity. We just want something different. It could be a new person, a new location… there are all kinds of ways to add a new twist without going to “dangerous” levels.

The need for sexual novelty is often conflated with sexual addiction. But these are very different things.

Dr. Lehmiller reports that a study found that people who are turned by intense porn are also turned on by mild porn. The data is not consistent with the idea of an “escalation effect.”

Some fantasies are simply unattainable for us and our need for novelty can only be found through pornography.

“Is there any relationship between sexual performance anxiety and porn usage?”

Jack has observed that many “relationship therapists” tell women that if her husband is using porn, he is cheating on her. Is porn usage negatively affecting a man’s ability to perform sexually?

Dr. Lehmiller says there’s not much data on this. He believes it’s possible that people with sexual dysfunction tend to seek out pornography to masturbate rather than pornography causing sexual dysfunction.

Are all orgasms the same? Or does context matter?

Dr. Lehmiller says physiologically, an orgasm is an orgasm. But psychologically it might be a very different experience. We don’t know much about orgasms though. No studies have been until very recently since Masters & Johnson’s studies in the 1960s.

Jack notes that many guy’s in the men’s self-improvement space will say an orgasm achieved through porn use and masturbation will impact your body & mind differently than an orgasm with a woman. They say “quit jerking off,” “quit looking at porn”, etc.

Jack (jokingly?) decides he should volunteer himself for a study on this to put this issue to rest once and for all.

Using Fantasies to Cure Performance Anxiety

Jack says one of the most erotic things you can do with your sexual partner is to be fully mentally, physically and spiritually present.

Fantasies are a way of increasing sexual mindfulness. Many people have insecurities about their bodies or performance anxiety. When they can find a way to increase their mindfulness and get in the “here and now” they have fewer sexual problems.

So many men are racing towards the orgasm because they’re focused on an event that is outside the the thing they are doing right now.

Jack says tantra is like “sex yoga.” It enhances your ability to be present during sex.

The dominant is both a leader and a servant. He serves his partner’s fantasies.

“How do political leanings influence people’s fantasies?”

Republicans are more likely to fantasize about a wide range of taboo fantasies as well as infidelity, orgies, cuckolding, & swinging.

Democrats are more likely to be into BDSM.

Jack guesses that the differences are due to the fact that Republicans are more likely to be in a traditional marriage, which is inherently dominant and submissive, but they have a desire for a wider range of sexual experiences. Democrats, on the other hand, are constantly seeking equality so the seek unequal power exchanges in sex.

Ultimately, we are turned on by taboos and things we’re told we shouldn’t do.

Jack speculates that our biology doesn’t change, but our social constructs allow part of our biology to be expressed while suppressing other parts. Our strongest urges will be where we can’t express it.

Sexual Orientation vs. Sexual Flexibility

Sexual orientation is your orientation partners of a certain gender.

Sexual flexibility is your willingness to deviate from what it is you’ve been told you should do and try new experiences.

“Is there a gender-related difference to one’s sexual flexibility?”

Women tend to be more flexible in regard to both gender and sexual behaviors. They are also more susceptible to social-cultural influences (trends) than men. They’re sexual fantasies are also more varied than they’re given credit for.

Men are more likely to feel shame and guilt over their sexual fantasies than women.

Jack encourages men to not be afraid to bring up their sexual fantasies with their women. Women are just as sexual, if not more sexual, than men. So don’t hold back your fantasies out of fear that you will be rejected.

“How do we bridge the chasm when both genders are terrified to express their fantasies to their partner?”

Start with self-acceptance. Both partners have to accept that their fantasies are normal.

Jack says that leadership requires vulnerability. You have to take the risk and communicate. You have to establish some kind of sexual communication with your partner.

Dr. Lehmiller says sexual games like “Would You Rather?” or “Truth or Dare” can be a good way to open communication.

If you want to introduce a fantasy to your partner, start by picking the right time and place. Try doing it when your partner is already aroused.

Start small. Start with something she’s likely to be into and progressively build up to your more intense fantasies.

Jack says “Analyze where you are in your current practice and up it one or two degrees. Progress is what’s fulfilling, not reaching the goal.”

Lehmiller also recommends planning ahead and doing your research. The book The Ethical Slut is a good resource for that.

And it’s okay if things don’t go according to plan when you try out the fantasy. Communicate afterwards.

Jack also says you don’t have to act out the fantasies. Many women fantasize about being gang-banged, but that doesn’t mean she actually wants to get fucked by ten guys. Sometimes, you can just explore your fantasies together for the purpose of arousal, or pretend that it’s happening.

Dr. Lehmiller’s hopes for American sexuality

Dr. Lehmiller would like to move past the debate of abstinence-only sex education. The data shows it doesn’t work when we only teach people to “say no to sex.” States with more abstinece education have higher rates of teen pregnancies, teen STIs, and teen abortions.

Parents need to get better about talking to their kids about sex.

Thank you Jack Murphy and Dr. Lehmiller for this fascinating look at human sexuality.

Sexuality is at the root of so many of our culture’s problems. I’m glad to see it’s finally being discussed openly.

If any of you would like to read my take on sexual problems in the church, you can read my article below:


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