CS: normalizing taboo sexual fantasies, poorly attempted trans allyship, fatphobic fantasies, racism, sex research
Have you ever wondered if your sexual fantasies are normal? Or common? Or have you ever wondered about the kinds of things other people are fantasizing about? Justin Lehmiller has conducted the largest study to date in America (over 4000 participants!) that captures what people are fantasizing about. The book I review here showcases his findings and offers some preliminary explanations for why people fantasize about what they fantasize about.
There are a number of things I like about Lehmiller’s book. First and foremost, he is quick to challenge our pathological understanding of fantasies, desires, and fetishes and does a great job of normalizing taboo topics like BDSM, nonmonogamous fantasies, etc. I also appreciate how the book is organized. It’s very easy to follow, it’s not full of academic jargon (making it super accessible), and he’s very transparent about when he’s pulling from other theories to try and explain his findings because there is limited or almost no research on many topics. As someone who works in sex & birth, I definitely appreciate being at a loss for explanation!
What was less than thrilling about reading Lehmiller’s book was his attempt at trans allyship. As a nonbinary person, I am hyper aware of when research or information is presented in a cisnormative or binary way. Right out of the gate, Lehmiller talks about how he included all gender identities (which to me reads he left gender as an open-ended question, because anything short of that is NOT including all genders). At first I was excited! A shift like this in sex research is huge, and wonderful to see. However, his writing on transgender populations is… awkward.
He doesn’t refer to transgender folks in detail except to talk about the findings in his study on autogynephilia or toandrophilia (erotic desire at the thought of being the opposite gender). At that point, he gives a nod to this contentious topic within the transgender community and asserts (preemptively defensive) that he is a trans ally and thinks transgender people should have full rights, but at the end of the day, he is a researcher first and must present the research as it is.
All that said, Lehmiller does cushion his findings with reminders to the reader about not misunderstanding the data. That most transgender people’s identities are not based in an erotic desire to be a particular gender, and that many people who are aroused by the idea of being a different gender are cisgender. There are many examples in his book of this kind of parsing apart of fantasies from realities of people’s lives and identities that I really appreciated. I think the author could have done a better job of explaining the findings compassionately, rather than defensively, so my experience of his writing did not feel like thoughtful allyship.
It’s also worth noting, when Lehmiller does talk about transgender folks, he generally uses the label transsexual. This may be fine with some people, but generally, our language has shifted away from the highly medicalized terminology for a number of good reasons and has fallen out of favour. I know for some people the term transsexual would be upsetting or difficult to read, which is why I mention it here. A brief and helpful article on terminology can be found here if you’re confused.
The data also outs America (which Canadians are typically not dissimilar to) on their preference for thinner bodies. The fatphobic culture is not addressed at all (if anything, it could be seen as justified by evolutionary psychology in this book), so if you are struggling with body image that is related to weight, I highly recommend skipping this section. Conversely, a preference for white bodies is contextualized in the current racist culture, which the author calls out. Ultimately, the book is very much so written by a researcher and not necessarily someone who is politically savvy or sensitive.
Generally, I think there is a lot of good that can come out of this book and his research. He also includes sections on how to bring up sexual fantasies with partners and when/how to engage with making fantasies a reality. This book is important in pointing out once again, that sexually speaking, we are way more normal than most of us realize. That sexual fantasies are good! Powerful! Healing! Revealing! Or just plain pleasurable.
Curious to learn more about fantasies? Curious about my interpretation of how he captured the data? Good news! I am doing a book giveaway so you can join in on the conversation and share your feedback on this milestone in sexuality research. Just post why you think sexual fantasies are important in the comments below and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of Justin Lehmiller’s Tell Me What You Want.