As is often the case on road trips and long flights I was able to get some good reading and writing done… maybe I need to find a way to do this more. Anyway, I finished reading “Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?” by Brett Kahr. This 400-page book is the culmination of a multi-year study conducted primarily in the UK (though there are some US participants) about people’s sexual fantasies. These fantasies are what goes through a person’s head during masturbation and sex with a partner. The research was conducted through online surveys completed by over 23,000 people and 122 intensive face-to-face interviews with volunteers. It appears to be the most comprehensive attempt to catalog and interpret human sexual fantasies that anyone has ever done.
While I found the intentions of the study and premise of the book fascinating my feelings towards the book are bitter-sweet. As a Freudian psychotherapist Kahr spent much of his time focusing, analyzing, and, in my opinion, unjustifiably fishing or hoping for childhood trauma to explain sexual fantasies that people had. He mentions alternative approaches like evolutionary psychology only twice and only in passing. I understand that he is a Freudian but if his attempt was to objectively or comprehensively attempt to look into sexual fantasies and their foundation (if one exists) he should have brought in some alternative view points. To him humans seem to be born as a blank slate with no genetic predispositions or tendencies in place from evolution.
Kahr often at times come off as a bit judgemental and sex-negative, and even a bit LGBTphobic. He focuses several times on homosexuality possibly being linked to childhood trauma and child rearing but little acknowledgement of a biological aspect. He also seems to see all cross-dressers as “transvestites”. It also seemed like a negative judgement when he penned the term “intra-marital affair” to describe thinking about someone other than your spouse, as if thinking of another is a form of cheating. Some may agree that fantasies are cheating (but if they really are based in trauma or evolution it is cheating we have little to no control over) not everyone does and I think it weakens the betrayal of true affairs if we attach that phrase to a passing thought during masturbation.
Clearly, I have some problems with Kahr’s approach, but I want to give him some benefit of the doubt, it is possible that there is a generational gap and cultural one between he and I. He is British and a bit older than I, while Americans and our friends across the pond are similar in many ways I can’t help but wonder if the stereotypes about prudish non-sexual Brits might have some truth to it. It has also been almost a decade since this project started and a lot has changed in sexual research and views on fantasies in the last 10 years, particularly with the exponential growth of internet access and the pornography that comes with it.
There were also some wonderful things within the book though, and I actually very highly recommend it. Kahr’s analysis later in the book provides a lot of great information and provides some support to his hypothesis in some of the cases. There clearly can be a trauma at the foundation of sexual fantasies, and many of these trauma fantasies are causing great distress and harm to the individuals. In cases where people can’t live the lives they want or have the relationships they desire it is a problem, such as the case of “Julius” who has only been able to masturbate to mental images of a girl who tormented him in his adolescence and he has not had a long-term relationship in nearly 50 years.
I would have loved to see more research and questions about the ramifications of opening up about your fantasies to your significant others. Kahr mentions a few in one chapter but for the most part glosses over any potential benefits and instead focuses on trauma and harm. In my experience being open and honest with your partner about desires and what goes on in your head can have a bonding effect and open the door for new real life experiences. If we decide to enter into a partnership something as intimate and important as sex should not be a taboo subject. Much of the negative aspects seem to come from our social stigmas against sexuality as much as childhood events. As a culture if we can admit that sex is a healthy and enjoyable part of the human experience we can reduce the pain, suffering, and shame that seems to accompany so many fantasies.
Kahr does admit that this is just a beginning, and like a good scientist he hopes others will dive into the data, conduct their own studies, and come up with alternative hypothesis. I would love to see a larger sample size of humans from more diverse backgrounds. What is true for Brits (and in this case a few Americans) may not be true for Australians, Italians, Russians, Kenyans, Colombians, Thai, Egyptians, etc. The more information the better and it looks like this is a field ripe for research and exploration.
I definitely recommend this book for many different people. If you just have an interest in sexuality there is a lot to love about this book, as well if you are interested in seeing how a Freudian interprets things, though I would recommend skipping or skimming Section II if you get bored with it. You can only read poorly written erotica for pages and pages for so long before it becomes a blur. It is also a good resource for people who have anxiety about what goes on in their own heads. It will become quickly clear that “normal” fantasies don’t exist, and because of that there is really nothing that is “weird” or “abnormal”. Some people don’t fantasize at all, some think only about their spouse, some focus more on feelings while others have elaborate situations they play in their head, some people think of college professors, siblings, strangers, movie stars, and inanimate objects. Some people like to be raped, piss on people while they are shitting, or change genders. Some like to be whipped while others like to be bought a nice romantic dinner followed by a massage and some cunnilingus. The limits to human sexual fantasies are only restricted by the combined imagination of billions of people.