Researchers in Montreal are trying to establish the first scientific definition for sexual deviancy by analyzing the sexual fantasies of men and women. Their work, detailed in a new study, offers some clarity on the subject, but not necessarily certainty.
Current definitions of what constitutes a deviant sexual fantasy, or paraphilia, are frustratingly vague. The so-called bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), simply offers up a synonym in lieu of a workable definition, defining paraphilia as having "anomalous" fantasies -- without offering any specifics. The World Health Organization calls them "unusual" fantasies.
But a team of sex psychologists in Canada already had a thesaurus. They didn't want a new name for the same thing; they wanted to know what's deviant and what's not. Or what's typical and what's not.
"Clinically, we know what pathological sexual fantasies are: They involve non-consenting partners, they induce pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction," lead author Christian Joyal said in a press release. "But apart from that, what exactly are abnormal or atypical fantasies?"
Joyal and his colleagues at two psychiatric institutions affiliated with University of Montreal -- Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montréal -- set out to find out in the simplest way possible, by asking people.
"Our main objective was to specify norms in sexual fantasies, an essential step in defining pathologies," he noted. "And as we suspected, there are a lot more common fantasies than atypical fantasies. So there is a certain amount of value judgment in the DSM-5."
They were right; which is to say they can't exactly draw a line between deviant and non-deviant. Though the researchers say they located a number of trends, the results suggest few fantasies are (statistically speaking) truly rare, and few are overwhelming ubiquitous -- as recalled fantasies varied so greatly across the general population.
Rare fantasies included those that involved sex with an animal or child. Less rare, but still unusual fantasies, included those that involved abuse or a prostitute, for example, while the most typical fantasies included common desires like a threesome or sex in an unusual location.
Despite the inconclusiveness of deviancy, Joyal and his fellow researchers did find some interesting differences between the fantasies of men and women. Men were more likely to fantasize about sex with multiple partners at the same time, while women's fantasies were more likely to include their significant other.
Women were also more likely to distinguish between fantasy and desire; in other words, women were more likely not to wish for their fantasies to come true. Men, on the other hand, mostly considered their fantasies and desires one and the same.
"The subject is fascinating," Joyal said. "We are currently conducting statistical analyses with the same data to demonstrate the existence of homogeneous subgroups of individuals based on combinations of fantasies. For example, people who have submission fantasies also often report domination fantasies. These two themes are therefore not exclusive, quite the contrary. They also seem associated with a higher level of satisfaction."
The research was published this week in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.