Sex: Our Sexuality, Our Selves

There are countless ways to do the deed, but not everyone likes having sex in every way. What shapes each person's preferences?

Your personality seems to play a role, according to a study of 607 college students led by Ashley Peterson, a psychologist at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The researchers examined how a battery of traits predicts preferences for masturbation, as well as vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

Some findings were expected: Openness correlated with a preference for variety, for example. But some of the links between carnal desire and inner character caught researchers by surprise.

Between the Sheets

Peterson originally thought that extraversion would correlate with a preference for variety. Since extraverts are generally more promiscuous, she expected that they would also be more likely to enjoy experimentation and many kinds of sex.

But the research uncovered no such link in men or women—most likely because Peterson's study looked at what people like to do when they have sex, not how often they like to have it. Outgoing folks might have a lot of sex, but they don't necessarily want to mix things up.

The reverse is also true. "You can be introverted and still like a range of sex acts, but you might do them with fewer people," says Peterson.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Certain traits were associated with an aversion to particular acts. Study participants ranking high in conscientiousness or agreeableness tended to dislike anal sex. Peterson speculates that since individuals with such traits have a greater regard for social norms, the taboos of anal sex might make it a turnoff.

The Gender Divide

Sometimes men and women with very different traits shared a preference for the same act. Neurotic men and extraverted women, for example, enjoyed performing oral sex—but extraverted men and neurotic women did not.

Some coital preferences are predicted by gender alone. "Men like every sex act more than women do," Peterson says. They are also—perhaps consequently—more likely to favor casual sex. (The study sample, however, was students; sexual predilections can ebb and flow across a lifetime.)

On one measure, Peterson found no difference between men and women: They are equally likely to enjoy vaginal sex. "Vaginal sex is the only sex act that is actually reproductive, and evolution favors traits that increase reproductive success," she says. But if there's one thing the study shows, it's that reproductive sex is not enough for everyone: "Many other forms of sexual behavior typify intimate relationships in our species."

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?