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Who's Been Sleeping in Your HeadReview - Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head
The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies
by Brett Kahr
Basic Books, 2008
Review by George Williamson, Ph.D.
Aug 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 32)

Between 2003 and 2006, Brett Kahr administered some 24,000 surveys (approx.) to British and American subjects, to collect and study their sexual fantasies.  Who's been sleeping in your head? reports on the results of these surveys and presents Kahr's psychological analysis.  The main data collection was done through computer and internet sites in successive stages, beginning with an initial pilot survey, followed by a primary survey of British subjects and then a smaller survey (approximately one sixth of total) of American subjects.  In addition, the computerized surveys were supplemented by in-depth interviews, each lasting five hours, with 132 British subjects.  This provided Kahr with a body of about 20,000 fantasies with which to work.  In addition to sexual fantasy content, considerable data on sexual history, family history and current living conditions were collected as well.  A large portion of the book is taken up with directly reporting a selection of the fantasies as recorded, by simply listing them with little analysis.  Some fantasies taken from the interviews, however, were subjected to close and detailed analysis. 

Kahr divides his material into four parts.  Following a description of the survey's methodology and a brief historical review of the psychology of sexuality in the first part, the second part provides a categorization of the various fantasies by their salient content.  This range of categories is more or less what you might expect: fantasies of threesomes, of sex with celebrities and persons other than one's current partner, of homosexual encounters (by heterosexuals) and heterosexual encounters (by homosexuals), of violent sex, of sex with minors, of incestuous sex, of exhibitionism, and of humiliation and degradation in a sexual context.  It is in this part that the lists of fantasies are mainly found.

The third part of the book is where Kahr presents his analysis of the phenomena of sexual fantasy and comes to some conclusions about the origins and psychological function of sexual fantasy.  Taking a lead from the sadistic and masochistic content of many fantasies, Kahr probes his interview subjects for details of their personal histories that might account for this content.  This leads him in virtually every case examined to some childhood trauma, often of a sexual nature but sometimes not.  This would have to be his overall conclusion, though he lists a number of other possibilities: sexual fantasies, he suggests, might serve as wish-fulfillment, rehearsal for action, defense against intimacy, avoidance of painful realities and several more.  But apart from a brief nod to wish-fulfillment, the focus of his analysis is almost exclusively on trauma.  Indeed, the final chapter of this part is sub-titled "Can fantasies be trauma-free?"

In the fourth part, Kahr addresses some questions about the 'real world' effects of sexual fantasy and gives his more general conclusions on the nature of sexual fantasy: what is normal, what purpose they serve, whether they are a prelude to action, what unusual or ordinary fantasies say about us as persons.  Based on his interviews, Kahr pays special attention to what one might conclude about the questions of whether fantasies might undermine our relationships and what should be regarded as perversion.

Neither too technical nor overly formal, Kahr's book makes an approachable read, open to virtually any audience.  Given the popular level at which it is pitched, it is unlikely to serve well as a text book, or more generally, in an academic context, but Kahr has no doubt published his results more formally elsewhere.  Overall, the lay-reader should find this an informative read.

That said, however, Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head? does not really distinguish itself beyond modest success as a work of popular psychology.  While it may be true that sexual fantasy is an under-studied subject in psychology, the present book does not break any new ground or reveal any original truths about fantasy, and indeed, seems somewhat dated in its theoretical approach.  Though neither of these concerns is particularly damning, the latter is of greater importance to the study's worth as a contribution to psychology, while the former limits the book's interest as a revelation of the nature of sexuality.

Despite occasionally implying that some of the content will shock the reader, Kahr does not present anything that has not already appeared in commonly available media, such as the television program "Kink" or a sex column like Dan Savage's "Savage Love".  Never mind furtive fantasists – in such places, one is introduced to people happily (and unhappily) acting out stronger content than found in Kahr's book.  Laura Kipnis's Against Love provides a much more probing examination of the problems sexuality causes in our relationships than Kahr's reflections in the fourth part of his book.  The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet, is a far more intense psychological study, albeit introspective and idiosyncratic, than any of Kahr's analyses.  Next to the sort of thing that is available to virtually everyone on the internet, the book is pretty bland fare.

Of course, this is a pretty trivial complaint.  (Perhaps I have simply got what I deserve for choosing review books by their titillation value.)  Fair enough, but Kahr is writing for a popular audience, and he should be aware what such an audience is likely to expect.

More significant is our second complaint.  Early in the book, Kahr professes an admiration for Freud, and proceeds to employ a psychoanalytic framework (augmented by later psychoanalysts) to analyze the fantasies of his interview subjects.  While briefly noting the recent misfortunes of Freudian psychology, he nevertheless plows on to apply the framework almost exclusively.  Hence the principal thing we learn here is that sexual fantasy is not about sex at all, but rather the working out of fundamental childhood conflicts, especially of a traumatic nature.  Otherwise, fantasy is a form of wish-fulfillment, though, strangely, the wishes being fulfilled seem to be only coincidently sexual.  Although he gives a list of fourteen functions sexual fantasy might fill, none but these two play any role in his analyses.  In case after case, he works out essentially the same logic and arrives at the same diagnosis.  Freud may be one of the most important contributors to the psychology of sexuality as Kahr says, but the predictable results leave one wondering if we couldn't just do something else now.

© 2008 George Williamson

George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan


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