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Our sexual fantasyland

Special to The Times

There’s something about reading nearly 500 pages of sexual fantasy that throws the doors of perception a bit off their hinges. Just knowing that 90% of humanity is out there running some kind of porn film in their heads, makes the lunch crowd at, say, a Fuddrucker’s more interesting to observe. Does that waitress serving chili fries dream of being wrapped in cellophane and spanked? Does the busboy want to be licked by Keanu Reeves? Does that businessman chipmunking on his Blackberry dream of being cavity searched by terrorists?

After reading Brett Kahr’s “Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?,” you wonder.

Kahr, a Freudian psychotherapist with more than 20 years in the field, sensed there was therapeutic gold in the undulating hills of our erotic imaginings. His interest is far from prurient; he suspects that fantasies don’t exist purely for recreational purposes, that they are in fact “psychological fingerprints” that can help us unravel the mystery of our deepest, darkest selves. "[O]ur sexual fantasies remain, by and large, an unprocessed, unsynthesized area of the mind, crying out for explanation,” he writes.

Inspired by the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud, the methodological rigor of Alfred Kinsey and the writings of Nancy Friday on female sexuality, Kahr launched a research project to “answer some basic questions,” chief among them, “Do our fantasies represent just a bit of private fun, or do they have more profound implications for how we lead our lives?”

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Thus began the British Sexual Fantasy Research Project, culling statistical data from a combined group of 20,153 British and American adults and conducting exhaustive, five-hour interviews with several hundred subjects beginning in 2003.

This monumental undertaking offers, for the first time, an anecdotal adjunct to help understand sexual activity itself. Discreet, methodical and clearly sensitive, Kahr approaches interviews less like a Sherlock Holmes and more of a Dr. Watson, asking questions and listening with his “third ear” (the one that hears not only what the subject is saying, but what he isn’t saying) and being careful not to jump to conclusions. The book provides a nice insight into the point of view of the therapist, who approaches “each fantasy rather like a giant jigsaw puzzle or mystery story. At the end of the analysis, every piece must fit in order that we may gain a clear picture of the contents of the mind of the fantasist.” Kahr notes that Freudian therapists believe that sexual fantasies “developed as both a means of gratifying wishes and of conquering intrusive memories of early traumatic experiences.” In other words, we use fantasy to turn that which haunts us into something we have psychic mastery over, or as Kahr calls it, “equilibration of the self.”

This is all very interesting and highly worthwhile, but for the, er, layperson, the best parts of this book are the sexy parts. Kahr has done a great job of culling and organizing his respondents’ fantasies, which are repeated verbatim, often to unintentional comedic effect. Grouped into such categories as “Bisexual Fantasies” and “Fantasies of Celebrities,” the narratives flow with blunt, artless logic. Some fantasies are related in coy shorthand; others are elaborate, describing antics in language that would make sex writer Susie Bright blush.

“On first reading,” Kahr warns, “many people become either sexually aroused by the private fantasies of others or embarrassed by them.” Indeed. The erotic reveries are also shocking, boring and, most surprisingly, hilarious.

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There’s the woman who wants to be squeezed between Serena Williams’ thighs, and the guy who fantasizes about watching an episode of “Lost” with a girl, then duct-taping her to a countertop so he can “change her views forever about how many orgasms are acceptable in an evening’s encounter.” Senior citizen “Isadora” has been fantasizing about Gregory Peck for decades: “Gregory is the mainstay of my fantasy. Yummy. I think he is dead now.” Then there’s “Berger,” who thinks Seth Green and Topher Grace “would be one hot man-on-man action.”

“Sancho” fantasizes about a week in Las Vegas with a harem: “All of the showgirls are tall and beautiful and their job is to be nice to me all week -- laugh at my jokes, tell me what a great guy I am, massage my neck, dance with me at nightclubs, etc. -- and, of course, have sex with me and with each other like crazed weasels in every possible position in the Kama Sutra.”

Many of the choicest fantasies are so laden with coprolalia (“dirty talk”), they cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper, but they amply illustrate the quirky spectrum of human sexuality, which appears also to include a large subset of people who are turned on by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Of course, there’s a dark side to all this. The book has many accounts of people who are so damaged that their fantasy lives drip with cruel sadism or heart-wrenching masochism. Most of their erotic reveries are what Kahr calls “the ordinary sadism of everyday life,” and for the most part these people are harmless. But he encountered enough disturbing material to ask himself: "[S]hould these individuals be tolerated, or should they be treated?” He admits to not having a clear answer, though he is sure that his interviews are not the appropriate basis for therapeutic intervention.

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For most of us, sexual fantasy is a pretty healthy indulgence, allowing us to find an outlet for desire, and turn past trauma into a source of pleasure, rather than pain. But there is a prescriptive element to “Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?”. Fantasy research may prove useful in a diagnostic-predictive manner to protect society from dangerous sexual predators.

Another practical application, Kahr suggests, is using fantasies to match up potential dating partners. As he points out, they “may prove to be much more pertinent to compatibility than whether one enjoys films, eating out, and country walks.” Now there’s something to fantasize about.

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Erika Schickel is the author of “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom.”

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