Paraphilia is the term psychiatrists and psychologists use to refer to any type of unusual or “non-normative” sexual interest. The number of sexual fantasies that have been deemed paraphilic has grown substantially over the years to the point where hundreds of things have now been labeled as unusual turn-ons. As it turns out, however, a lot of these fantasies aren’t so uncommon after all.
Here are three specific sexual fantasies that are typically considered to be paraphilic, but that are actually quite common in terms of the number of people who have fantasized about them before.
First, far from being rare, BDSM (which stands for bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism) is something that most people appear to have had sexual fantasies about, although certain aspects of BDSM seem to be a bit more popular than others.
I collected data from more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want and found that most women (93%) and men (81%) had fantasized about being sexually dominated before; likewise, a majority of men (85%) and women (76%) had fantasized about sexually dominating someone else. In addition, most women (85%) and men (73%) had fantasized about being tied up during sex, or tying someone else up.
The desire to mix pleasure and pain was common, too, with 56% of men and 60% of women reporting fantasies about sadism (such as spanking or whipping a partner during sex), and 79% of women and 49% of men reporting fantasies about masochism (such as being spanked or whipped).
As you can see, BDSM is a pretty common activity to find sexually arousing, especially the dominance-submission and bondage aspects of it.
Having sex in public is another fantasy most men and women have had before, too. According to my survey, 81% of men and 84% of women have been turned on by the thought of public sex. This interest in “putting on a show” is something that many refer to as exhibitionism; however, this is different from the strict clinical definition of exhibitionism, which involves using nudity or sexual activity to offend or harass others. That is far less common (about 7% of women and 13% of men reported having fantasies about non-consensual nudity). Instead, what’s common is the desire to perform in front of a willing audience.
One other fantasy that is quite popular, particularly among men, is voyeurism, or the act of watching an unknowing person undress or have sex. My survey revealed that 72% of men and 48% of women have previously fantasized about voyeurism.
Together, what these numbers tell us is that psychologists and other mental health care professionals should take care when classifying a given sexual fantasy as unusual because many so-called paraphilic desires actually appear to represent very common fantasy themes.
I should be clear that just because someone has fantasized about something doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to do it. In other words, not all fantasies are desires. Also, keep in mind that the numbers above only reflect whether people have ever had a given fantasy, not whether it’s their favorite fantasy or something they think about often (e.g., it could have been a one-time thing).
That said, whether a given fantasy is classified as common or uncommon has no bearing on whether that fantasy should be considered healthy or unhealthy, though—that’s a completely different question. Just because a fantasy is common—like voyeurism—doesn’t mean that it’s something people should be encouraged to act out. Likewise, just because a fantasy is rare doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harmful to anyone if they decide to make it a sexual reality . Whether a sexual interest is healthy or unhealthy therefore has little to do with how many people are turned on by it and far more to do with its effects, especially whether the behavior is consensual or non-consensual.
To learn more about the science of sexual fantasies, including where our fantasies come from and what they say about us, check out Tell Me What You Want.
Exclusive offer for readers of the blog: If you order Tell Me What You Want, you will receive a bonus package that includes an extra chapter (which focuses on the psychology behind some of the less common sex fantasies), some fun fantasy-related infographics, and more. Click here for complete details on this offer.
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