In this political environment, it’s easy to look at Republicans and Democrats as having next to nothing in common. Regardless of the issue at hand, we see them as wanting completely different things—especially when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality.
From differences in the way they have approached the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to their views on abortion and same-sex marriage, Democrats and Republicans appear worlds apart.
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It’s not just their public policy positions that seem to differ wildly, though.
According to the largest and most comprehensive survey of sexual fantasies ever conducted in the United States, it would appear that there are also political differences in our private sexual fantasies.
I surveyed 4,175 adult Americans from all 50 states about what turns them on and published the findings in a book entitled Tell Me What You Want. As part of this survey, participants were given a list of hundreds of different people, places and things that might be a turn-on. For each one, they reported on how frequently they fantasized about it.
I learned a lot about the nature of sexual desire in modern America, but one of the more intriguing things I uncovered was the political divide in our fantasy worlds.
While self-identified Republicans and self-identified Democrats reported fantasizing with the same average frequency—several times per week—I found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to fantasize about a range of activities that involve sex outside of marriage. Think things like infidelity, orgies and partner swapping, from 70s-style “key parties” to modern-day forms of swinging. Republicans also reported more fantasies with voyeuristic themes, including visiting strip clubs and practicing something known as “cuckolding,” which involves watching one’s partner have sex with someone else.
Why do Republicans seem to be drawn to non-monogamy and Democrats to power play in their sexual fantasies?
By contrast, self-identified Democrats were more likely than Republicans to fantasize about almost the entire spectrum of BDSM activities, from bondage to spanking to dominance-submission play. The largest Democrat-Republican divide on the BDSM spectrum was in masochism, which involves deriving pleasure from the experience of pain.
Why is that? Why do Republicans seem to be drawn to non-monogamy and Democrats to power play in their sexual fantasies?
On the surface, it might be tempting to see this as revealing of a fundamental difference in their sexual psychology. However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that while some of the activities that turn Republicans and Democrats on appear vastly different, the underlying processes that drive our sexual fantasies may actually be the same. There’s far more that unites us than divides us when it comes to sexual desire.
What connects Republicans and Democrats, I believe, is that their fantasies are at least partly driven by what they can’t have. As I argue in Tell Me What You Want, the supersized sexual appeal that non-monogamous and voyeuristic acts hold for Republicans likely stems from the fact that sex outside of marriage and multi-partner sex are huge no-nos in a political party that continues to make “traditional marriage” one of the cornerstones of its official platform and regularly funnels federal funds toward abstinence-only sex education. Nothing makes us want to try something like being told you can’t do it. This is why taboos, no matter what they are, often become turn-ons.
This same instinct may also help to explain, in part, the appeal of BDSM to Democrats. Within the Democratic Party, much of what drives the political agenda is the view that inequality is the source of a wide range of social problems. This is regularly seen in the party platform, which recently made multiple mentions of the need to “level the playing field.” It’s not a stretch, then, to suggest that playing with power differentials—especially in BDSM settings, where women and men might not appear to be on equal footing and where the lines of sexual consent might not always be explicit—is taboo in many Democratic circles.
The appeal of the taboo stems from a long-standing principle of psychology known as reactance—which stipulates that when our freedom is threatened and we’re told we can’t do something, we want to do it even more. Many a parent has discovered this principle and used it to their benefit in shaping their children’s behavior through reverse psychology: Frame the desired act as something your child isn’t allowed to do and you just might get what you want.
To be sure, sexual fantasies have complex origins. They aren’t just a product of our political affiliation and what we’re told we can’t or shouldn’t do—there are myriad other factors that contribute to why we develop the turn-ons that we do. But my research suggests that politics certainly seems to play some role.
It’s also worth noting that, while the popularity of non-monogamy and BDSM fantasies differ by political orientation, the rest of what we want—including specific sexual activities, partners and settings—is strikingly similar.
Whether we identify as Republican, Democrat, Independent or something else, we’re not just turned on by taboos, but also by trying new and different things in general. For example, it’s human nature to be titillated by novelty, mixing up what we do, who we do and where we do it. Most of us seek to meet a range of psychological needs in our fantasies, too, such as feeling desired, validated and competent. And the vast majority of us are fantasizing about our current romantic partners far more than we’re fantasizing about Hollywood celebrities, porn stars and politicians.
Incidentally, just about 1 in 10 Republicans and 1 in 10 Democrats reported having ever fantasized about a politician before. Among those who did, it’s worth noting that these fantasies sometimes involved reaching across the aisle, if you catch my drift. When presented with a list of 25 politicians, made up of 11 prominent Democrats and 14 prominent Republicans (as well as a write-in option, in case one’s preferred politician wasn’t represented), 17 percent of Republicans reported fantasizing about Democrats, while 27 pecent of Democrats reported fantasizing about Republicans.
Interestingly, the single most commonly fantasized-about politician among both parties was the same: Sarah Palin (though Republicans were much more likely to have Palin fantasies than Democrats).
Following Palin, the next most frequently mentioned politicians in Republicans’ fantasies were John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Nikki Haley. While, after Palin, Democrats fantasized about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.
(Note that my data were collected in 2014 and 2015 before the Trump presidency began and only into the early days of his campaign. At that time, I only received one fantasy about Donald Trump in the entire dataset.)
So, in this increasingly polarized political season, we should all take a moment to remember there’s at least one area where we’re more alike than we are different. If only Congress could be as bipartisan as we are in our sexual fantasies.