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Fantasies | Dr Justin Lehmiller #589

On the Regular version of today’s show …

An encore airing of a conversation with Dr Justin Lehmiller as we talk about his research surrounding fantasies and sex.

On the Xtended version …

Justin and I continue the conversation about fantasies and discuss more about where they come from and what to do with them.

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or email us at feedback@sexymarriageradio.com

Pam Allan: You are listening to the regular version of Sexy Marriage Radio, smrnation.com.

Corey Allan: Welcome to the show. I'm Dr. Corey Allan, and once again, each and every week, I'm joined alongside my wife, Pam.

Pam Allan: Happy to be here.

Corey Allan: Where we explore the wisdom and skills of the world's smartest relationship minds with in-depth conversations talking about their research, hearing their stories, and also us answering their questions.

Pam Allan: I love doing that.

Corey Allan: Yes, because we also have Feedback Wednesdays and topics that are set by the nation. So if you've got feedback for us or something that we've missed, or you want us to address something specifically, send us a message by calling the show at 214-702-9565 or email us at feedback@sexymarriageradio.com. Pam, each and every week, we also talk about these starter packs that we have.

Pam Allan: Mm-hmm.

Corey Allan: If you want an easy way to tell your friends about SMR or if you're new and you want to figure out what's going on here at SMR, we have these episode starter packs, and you can go to smrnation.com/starter or search for our show in the Spotify app. They're broken down by topic or best-ofs with downloads. So coming up on today's regular free version of Sexy Marriage Radio is an encore presentation of a conversation that I did with Dr. Justin Lehmiller on his world of fantasies and the research that he's done on the topic.

Pam Allan: Nice.

Corey Allan: Because we've been talking... Last week's episode was about trauma.

Pam Allan: Right.

Corey Allan: Fantasies can be an element that weaves into life, and so it seemed apropos to...

Pam Allan: Bring that a second...

Corey Allan: Let's revisit this as an encore presentation.

Pam Allan: Yeah.

Corey Allan: Now, the extended content today, which is deeper, longer, and there are no ads. You can subscribe as always at smrnation.com/smracademy. We go into a deeper conversation about fantasies. What should we do with them? What do they mean as far as what he's seen in his work and the messages he tries to get out there for everybody? So all that's coming up on today's show. So joining me for today on Sexy Marriage Radio is Dr. Justin Lehmiller who... You have a PhD in social psychology. Is that what I...

Justin Lehmiller: Correct.

Corey Allan: Am I remembering that correctly? Okay, and he has a new book out called Tell Me What You Want that dives straight into the world of fantasy. You also host, and write, and podcast. I mean, there's a lot that you got going on, I see. So you're pretty prominent around the inter-webs, if you will, but where I want to go with you, Justin, today is... man, because the whole book, Tell Me What You Want, is really just diving into fantasies, and the whole idea of talking, and the fear and the reluctance that we have on this subject, yes?

Justin Lehmiller: Yes. So most of us have sexual fantasies, and most of us have many different fantasies over the course of our lives. This is one of those areas where we're never really taught anything about fantasies. For example, what is a normal fantasy, and how do we communicate with our partners about them? Should we ever act on them? If so, how do we go about doing that in a safe way? So what I wanted to do was to write a book that really gives people the information that they need on this subject, and then also some practical tools and skills they can use to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality in a healthy way.

Corey Allan: Okay, because that's so interesting to me, Justin, because you know, you and I were talking right before we started the recording today, that a majority of the SMR Nation is going to be under a spiritual or Christian religious umbrella, which when you put religion and fantasy together, those two suckers don't ever align. Well, I mean, most of the experience that I get is, "No, we can't even talk about that. No, we can't even... No, no, no, no." You just got to shut all that down right away, but what I'm fascinated by is you're talking about... just because of the research you did was across the board of society. So it was a pretty good representation of people across all orientation, gender, age. A lot of different respondents involved. There's still the same kind of reluctance, and hesitancy, and uncertainty.

Justin Lehmiller: Yeah. So, for this book, I surveyed 4,175 Americans. They ranged in age from 18 to 87. They came from all 50 states. They are diverse in their gender and sexual identities. They come from a range of religious and political backgrounds, and so it really allowed me the opportunity to look at to what extent our fantasies vary across different demographic groups, and also how different groups feel about their fantasies and the extent to which they communicate about them, and also just how much commonality do we have in our sexual fantasies across these different groups and segments. One of the things I see is that there's a lot more that we have that binds us together than it separates us, and so...

Corey Allan: Isn't that a common occurrence in almost any topic, it seems?

Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and so this is one of these things with fantasies where most people think that they're weird or unusual, and it turns out that they're not. The things that you're fantasizing about, odds are, are the same kinds of things your partners, or friends, or other people in your life are fantasizing about as well, and so you don't need to feel so weird about having those thoughts. It doesn't mean that you need to go act on every single one of those thoughts. That's a totally different thing.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: But just in terms of the way we feel about our fantasies, I think there's a lot we can do to reduce a lot of that shame and guilt that we have because that's what really gets in the way of healthy sex lives and relationships is all of that inner turmoil and anxiety we have that holds us back.

Corey Allan: Right, that starts squashing us or making us feel the shame component or the guilt component when in reality, it's the whole other world going on in our head that should I feel shame about that or not because aren't we way too judgemental a lot of times, it seems, on our own thought life?

Justin Lehmiller: We're way too judgemental of ourselves, and we're also very judgemental of our partners. This is one of those things that gets in the way of maintaining a happy and healthy relationship is that a lot of us are afraid to talk to our partners about what we want or what turns us on because we're worried about being judged by them. When we've got that hanging over our heads, it makes it really difficult to talk about anything when it comes to sex.

Corey Allan: Well, absolutely. I mean, that's part of the reason why SMR exists is largely just trying to start conversations and help frame conversations for couples to take place in their own home. That then makes sense and aligns with their values and their morals of what they want in their life. That's where I think the stuff that you do and a lot of the other things that are just out there because there is... I mean, it's interesting because if you talk about the world of sex therapists or sex researchers, that's not a really big group of people.

Justin Lehmiller: It's not. The sex research therapy and education community is really small because I go to these conferences all the time, and it's funny in a way because sexual issues are really the biggest reason that people go seek any type of relationship counseling or therapy.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: There's very few people who have the certifications and have had the education to be able to help people adequately address those problems.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: I actually worked in a counseling course in our entire curriculum on sexuality and relationships, and it's like, "How do you expect somebody who is training to do this for their career to get everything they need to know in the context of a single course in one semester?

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So it seems like one of the things we may need to do, Justin, is just as you define the idea of fantasy, let's give a... From what you've come across, when someone says, "So what's a fantasy, and how do you know a fantasy from reality?" what do you do with that?

Justin Lehmiller: So a fantasy very simply defined is a mental thought or image that turns you on. Well, something that crosses your mind where there's some experience of sexual arousal that accompanies it.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Justin Lehmiller: What I find in my work is that 97% to 98% of people report having sexual fantasies when they're defined this way, and so they're... I should say that they're different from sexual dreams, which occur while you're sleeping.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: Those are driven by a non-conscious process. So fantasies occur while we're awake and active, and we can bring them to mind on command if we want. So people can draw upon their fantasies while they're engaged in self-pleasure or during a partnered activity. Sometimes people fantasize because they're bored, right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: Fantasies serve a lot of different functions in our lives.

Corey Allan: Right, and then is fantasy always something that's going to lend itself into the sexual side of it? I mean, with what the research it is you did, I would say yes, but would you say if we go out another layer?

Justin Lehmiller: Sure. You can have fantasies about anything, right?

Corey Allan: Yeah.

Justin Lehmiller: But my focus is really on those fantasies that lead to some feeling of sexual arousal.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Justin Lehmiller: One of the things that I look at in my work is what's the overlap between fantasy and desire? So when you have one of those thoughts that turns you on, do people actually want to act on it? What I find is that for people's favorite fantasy of all time, the one that they think about most often, for most of them, about 80%, it is something that they would like to incorporate into their sex life at some point, but I find that only about one in five people have ever actually acted on it before. So there's this big gap between what they want and then what they're actually doing.

Corey Allan: Interesting. Why do you suppose that is? That's a pretty big gap.

Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and so I asked people a lot of questions about what's preventing them from acting on their fantasies, and people are kind of all over the board in what they say, but the most common factors are, one, that they don't think their partner would be willing, or they're worried about their partner judging them for them sharing a fantasy that's different.

Corey Allan: Sure.

Justin Lehmiller: Another is just uncertainty about how to go about doing it. They lack the knowledge and skills to actually do this, and then there's also this kind of fear of, "What would happen if I act on this fantasy?"

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: Some people have safety concerns. Some people are worried about potential risks to their health, or their partner's health, or the wellbeing of their relationship. So it's really a lot of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear of disapproval.

Corey Allan: Oh, like normal every day existence.

Justin Lehmiller: More or less. Yep.

Corey Allan: All right, because this is also what's interesting, Justin, because I was at a conference just this last year, and we went in. It was the whole world of brain science and neurobiology, and just understanding the wiring of things. So there was a little segment talking about fantasy, and the presenter asked the question of, just with a quick poll of the audience, "How many fantasize, or how many are really good at fantasizing, or how many don't?" Right? Because this is the one thing I come across quite a bit is, "Well, I don't have any fantasies." Right?
So, he then proceeded to just show pictures of people that are just from magazines, nothing inappropriate, not even close to suggestive, but just good headshots of people, and he was like, "Okay. So, this person, are they confident? Are they not?" Just started asking a bunch of... "Do you think they like sex? What do you think is their favorite kind of sex?" It just lit up the room with everybody, "Oh, no, they don't," and it's all these kinds of things, and he's like after... We did this for four or five minutes with a bunch of different photos, and then he stopped and goes, "And you say you guys don't have fantasies? Isn't that exactly what you're talking about here where it's something that's... It's the imagination. It's the correlation of something that I take from me." I mean, the psychobabble side of that is projection, but that's all this is, ain't it? You're talking about, "How do I have that aspect of my life and honor it to steer it towards the reality of my life too?"

Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and a lot of people just aren't comfortable talking about their fantasies at all or even admitting that they have them, and it's ultimately really tied down in these feelings of shame and embarrassment, and feeling like your fantasies aren't normal and there's something wrong with you for having them. So when you've got all that reluctance, it makes sense that you're going to have a lot of people who don't admit they have fantasies.

Corey Allan: Yeah.

Justin Lehmiller: Now, one thing that is interesting is that there are some people who legitimately can't have sexual fantasies in the form of mental images because they have this condition called aphantasia where they can just literally not pull to mind a mental image of anything, whether it's sex-related or not.

Corey Allan: Okay. Sure.

Justin Lehmiller: So there are some people who can't fantasize.

Corey Allan: Sure.

Justin Lehmiller: But the vast majority of people can and do. It's just whether we're open in talking about them varies a lot.

Corey Allan: Yeah. That's the bigger gap then we're talking about is, "What do I do with that? Do I share it with someone else?" because you're also talking about the ability to bring up a fantasy with someone in the context that I believe in with Sexy Marriage Radio and marriage that a lot of times... I mean, in a couple weeks, Pam, my wife, and I are celebrating 27 years. So if I bring to her, "You know what? I finally want to share this fantasy I've had." That's loaded, right? That's this whole, "Okay. Awesome, but what took you so long to share that?" Well, there's a lot of other things associated with it because you're talking about a real vulnerable move.

Justin Lehmiller: Absolutely, and this is where fantasy discussions sometimes can go off the rails is when somebody has a longstanding fantasy that they don't share with their partner for potentially decades, and the partner who is receiving that information might feel like they were betrayed in a way because their partner didn't ever share that side of themselves. We see this often in the world of sex therapy where people come in who have been in these very long-term relationships, and suddenly, they're having a conflict over sex because one partner never revealed their fantasies or desire.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: So I think that speaks to the importance of having these conversations early on in your relationship, and then also, having regular check-ins with your partner about what it is that turns you on because one of the things I see in my work is that people sexual fantasies seem to change as they age, and so...

Corey Allan: That was going to be my follow-up question was, is it pretty common that there's a transition of my fantasy or a morphing of it?

Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and so this is one thing where almost all of the research that's out there on sexual fantasies is based on college students. That's because college students are the most readily accessible population for research.

Corey Allan: Absolutely.

Justin Lehmiller: What I've said in a lot of my talks on this topic is that college students are actually the least interesting group of people you could study if you want to learn about sexual fantasies because they have a much narrower range of content.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: Sex is something that is very new to them.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: So their fantasies are, I guess you could say, a little bit more basic in some ways.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: It's really when you look at people in their 40s and 50s where their fantasies seem to be much more adventuresome. I think a big part of the reason for that is because most people in that age bracket have been in long-term monogamous relationships for a long time and human beings have this inherent need for sexual novelty. It's easy to fall into a sexual routine with a long-term partner.

Corey Allan: Mm-hmm. Sure.

Justin Lehmiller: So I think in our fantasies, we're often trying to break free of that and find other ways to meet that need for novelty.

Corey Allan: Okay, because that's just introducing something new, something titillating, an experience because I think in there also a component of this, Justin, that while there might be something that... In the context of what we're discussing, you're talking about fantasy as something that produces a sexual desire or a spark, but isn't there closely tied to it an emotional component, a mental component that we've sexualized it, and yes, it's appropriate, but there's also this whole, "I can have some fantasies that are really emotionally-driven more than sexually driven."

Justin Lehmiller: Absolutely, and I would actually say that most fantasies, no matter what they're about, usually have some emotional component to them. I actually find it's pretty uncommon for people to say that they fantasize about completely emotionless sex. When you start looking at the specific types of things people are fantasizing about and you start analyzing them, you can see the different types of emotional needs that people are trying to meet. So it's very easy to look at a fantasy and think that it's just about the sex, but it's usually not. For example, there's often this deeper need to feel wanted or desired that comes out of those fantasies, or they want to feel like they're sexually competent or good at sex. Right? So there's a lot of validation that we're trying to get through our fantasies, and so it's often not really about the sex as much as it is about bolstering the way that we feel about ourselves.

Corey Allan: Yeah, and I like that framework because I think that that's our whole goal anyway of... I believe fully that relationships are designed to help us grow up, and be better, and challenge ourselves, that a marriage done right is a people-growing machine, right, because you're challenging each other to just become better. It's not just your spouse's responsibility to be better for you. It's your responsibility to be better for them. If I can look at that concept of what is it because that's the stuff that... I think you can put this in the category of... You never solve this thing, right? It's like all the problems we've got in marriage, or sex, or fantasy, or whatever, is there ever just this all, "Oh, okay," and now, all of a sudden, I can rest? No, it's just a better understanding, and then I still figure out how to use it better.

Justin Lehmiller: Absolutely. Relationships are a process, and they're always changing over time. I think a lot of people fall into this trap where they think early on, you've established your compatibility, and then everything will just work out easily from there. I don't really advocate for that type of approach.

Corey Allan: Right.

Justin Lehmiller: I try to encourage people to take a growth mindset for relationships and to recognize that problems can and will emerge, but that they can be overcome, and you just have to work on it. We see that people who take this approach in the research that their relationships last longer, they're more satisfying, and so that willingness to work with your partner on issues and also work on yourself is so important for the relationship's success.

Corey Allan: It absolutely is, and Justin, I applaud you for the work that you do and the willingness to be part of a small crowd that's diving into where everyone exists in some way, shape, or form, it seems. So for those of you, those of the people in the SMR Nation that want to check out more of your work, how do they find you?

Justin Lehmiller: My website is Sex and Psychology at sexandpsychology.com, and you can find links to my books and my social media. I'm blogging and writing about the science of sex on a very regular basis, and my goal is to provide adult sex education that is based in research, and data, and science because I think that when we're trying to improve our sex lives, that's really going to be the best guide point that we can use to get to where we want to be. So that's what makes me different from a lot of the other folks throughout there who are just advocating based on their personal experiences. My blog, my writings, my work are not about me. They're about you. They're about what the data say.

Corey Allan: Gotcha. Well, Justin, thanks so much for the time, and I look forward to continuing the conversation on the other side in the extended.

Justin Lehmiller: Thanks for having me.

Corey Allan: So only seems apropos to wrap up the show, Pam, by putting you on the spot and tell me your deepest fantasy.

Pam Allan: Well, here we go. How much time do I have?

Corey Allan: About a minute?

Pam Allan: I'm thinking "Calgon, take me away." A big bathtub.

Corey Allan: Oh, that kind of fantasy we're talking.

Pam Allan: Right?

Corey Allan: We just dated ourselves, by the way.

Pam Allan: Yeah, yeah.

Corey Allan: Anybody that's younger... I remember I was speaking one time to a bunch of moms, new moms at a church, and I made the comment of, "Calgon, take me away." The only people that laughed were the mentor moms.

Pam Allan: Right. Exactly.

Corey Allan: Because everybody else was like, "I don't know what he's talking about."

Pam Allan: So, for you, young people, go out there and google "Calgon, take me away," and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Corey Allan: Well, transcripts are available in the show notes for each of the episodes' pages that we have, and all of our advertisers' deals and discount codes are also available on each of the episodes' pages at smrnation.com. Please consider supporting those who help support the show. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show to those that you care about. As we say every week, remember that we improve those around us when we improve ourselves. So take on yourself first and apply what you hear on our show each and every week. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.