The science behind fantasies – Defining ‘normal’

The science behind fantasies – Defining ‘normal’

When does a penchant become a peccadillo? When does a fantasy become a fetish? While the language surrounding sexual scenarios may be peppered with terminology more suited to studies of pathological disorders, the truth is that most of us like one or more things that happen in the bedroom (or on the kitchen bench, or the back of the bus) that we may have been taught are “kinky” or even deviant behaviours. We all have preferences when it comes to sexual activity, and a new study from the University of Montreal has revealed that a lot of those preferences are more widespread and common than we have been led to believe. So how many of us share the same predilection? Is it common to like what you like?

Am I normal? How do you know?

Who decides what is within the range of “normal” behaviour anyway? The diagnostic term for sexual attraction to strange objects, people or situations is “paraphilia” which literally means “beside love”, which is more preferable to more old-fashioned terms like sexual deviance, a highly judgemental way to describe behaviour. The bible of psychiatric pathology, the DSM, defines paraphilia as unusual, atypical or anomalous sexual fantasies, urges or behaviours – but doesn’t actually define what is usual or typical.

Prompted by this conundrum, Dr. Christian Joyal from the Psychology department at the University of Montreal in Canada surveyed over 1500 adults using an online anonymous questionnaire to find out just how many kinks were a normal number to have. The questionnaire listed 55 sexual fantasies for participants to respond to, and an open question allowing them to fill in their own.

So what is kinky?

The results were grouped as rare, unusual, common or typical. The really surprising part is, only two fantasies out of the 55 were found to be rare (including sexual attraction to minors), and only nine were classed as unusual. The remaining 44 fantasies were either “common”, meaning over half the respondents had such a fantasy, or “typical”, which meant over 84% of responses were positive – so, if the research is to be believed, the likelihood that you’re dating someone who shares or at least can identify with what you like in the bedroom is really high!

Most of the fantasies that proved common are sexual tropes that are widely acknowledged as common, for example that almost 85% of men fantasised about having sex with two women. Anyone who has ever browsed any pornography – or knows that it exists – would not be shocked to learn that a similar percentage of men wanted to watch two women have sex with each other. But some of the other findings were slightly more surprising; for instance, over 80% of both sexes had fantasies about sex in public places, such as in the office, or in a public toilet cubicle. Possibly cubicles have more appeal than previously recognised. 

The difference in the sexes

A lot of the fantasies were more often attributed to male or female participants. For example, while only 1 in 8 women fantasised about having sex with a prostitute or stripper, about 2 in 5 men consider it a sexual fantasy. Men also responded in greater numbers in all questions relating to having sexual contact with strangers, including masturbation and other sexual activity.

Interestingly, more women who didn’t identify as homosexual had fantasies about sex with other women, while self-identified straight men were much less likely to have fantasies about other men. Women were more likely to wish to be submissive (and it would be interesting to know whether or not this percentage was influenced by a certain bestselling novel). However, notably – and touchingly – the majority of both men and women reported that they wanted and desired to feel romantic feelings towards their sexual partners. 

Revealing data

The study itself was limited to residents of Quebec, but the authors believe it’s a good starting point for a more expansive study of human sexual behaviour. The great thing about this study and research like it is that it promotes the idea that most sexual quirks should not be pathologised in psychology terms, but examined as part of a continuum of human sexual behaviour. Seeing sexuality in this way – on a continuum, and as something that we’re more likely than not to have in common with one another – could encourage people to be more open about their sexual fantasies with their partners: which surely could only lead to more fulfilling sexual relationships and ultimately happier lives.


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