From The Economist print edition
ASKING strangers to recount their most private thoughts about sex is unlikely to make a dull book, and Brett Kahr's compendious research into the psychology of sexual fantasy is gripping. It is also somewhat alarming.
Leave it open on your desk at work, and prudish colleagues or bosses may think your reading matter highly unsuitable. If you have children, it is not the sort of thing (unless you are very modern-minded) that you would leave around at home. In particular, the middle section is unsparingly explicit about every possible sort of erotic daydream. It includes sentences such as “let us immerse ourselves in some representative incest fantasies”. (Let's not, some readers may feel.)
Not that it is all so hair-raising. Some people, not unexpectedly perhaps, fantasise about celebrities. A handful imagine romantic tenderness with their real-life partners. But many of those surveyed say they like thinking about doing disgusting things with, to, or in front of, total strangers, or (perhaps more unsettlingly) the people they love.
The case studies are not dirty stories, however. They are part of a big, solemnly academic, five-year research project. Mr Kahr, a London-based academic and therapist, surveyed (anonymously) 18,000 people in Britain and America in conjunction with YouGov, an internet pollster, and conducted 132 five-hour interviews. The upshot is that nine out of ten people have sexual fantasies, mostly pretty lurid ones—and Mr Kahr thinks the remaining tenth are crippled by shame, guilt or repression.
Any sense of prurience is relieved by Mr Kahr's prose, which is sympathetic, witty and erudite. He quotes Latin tags and Italian opera confidently, and wears his psychoanalytical learning fairly lightly. Blessed with what he calls “a strong psychological digestive tract”, he is not the sort of person to run shrieking from the room in horror, or to phone the police, when he finds out that someone confesses to relaxing by thinking about extreme sexual violence towards unsuspecting strangers. Instead, he tries to work out why so many people find sexual fantasy so important.
A lay person might count boredom and natural weirdness as the most likely fuel for fantasies. But Mr Kahr focuses on nasty experiences in the past. Fantasies are a way of rewriting childhood history, sometimes to wreak revenge on abusive or absent adults, sometimes to sanitise memories of them. A woman was attacked from behind as a small girl by her mother, who smashed her head into a glass table. As an adult, her fantasy is about having her breasts caressed by a faceless stranger who reaches over her head.
The guts of the book are to be found in the final chapter, where Mr Kahr answers the 21 questions he poses at the outset. These include the empirical, such as the definition, purpose and prevalence of sexual fantasy, and more ticklish dilemmas. Should one confess fantasies to a partner? (Probably not.) Are fantasies a sign of a relationship in trouble? (Not necessarily; they may be a safety valve.) And do we control our fantasies, or vice versa? (For most people, it's a bit of both.) Best think twice, though, before suggesting this for your book club.Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head?: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies.
By Brett Kahr.
Basic Books; 304 pages; $28