The Narcissus in All of Us

Reflections on the self, personality, and what makes you, "you."

Narcissists Don't Make Love

What do narcissists think of when they think of sex?

Take a few moments to think about what sex means to you (sexual intercourse that is). 

 

…and…STOP.

 

Now go ahead and rate each of the 14 words below in terms of how important they are to your concept of sex, that is, what sex means to you. A rating of 1 means it's not important at all and a 9 means it's extremely important. Of course, you can also use any number between 1 and 9. Don't worry if some of the words seem a little strange. Just go with your gut instinct.

 

1. Loyalty

2. Power

3. Love

4. Domination

5. Trust

6. Ego

7. Closeness

8. Influence

9. Honesty

10. Leading

11. Respect

12. Manipulation

13. Happiness

14. Daring

 

Now add up your scores. You should get two scores. One will be for the odd numbered words and one will be for the even numbered words. Let's call your score for the odd numbered words Communal Sexuality and your score for the even words Agentic Sexuality.

People who score high relative to other people in communal sexuality tend to view sex as an act that is mutually rewarding (i.e., both partners receive something positive from it) and relationship-enhancing. People who score high in agentic sexuality tend to view sex as personally rewarding and self-enhancing. To some degree, sex is more about "we" to people high in communal sexuality and more about "me" to people high in agentic sexuality.

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A few years ago we (i.e., Joshua Foster, Ilan Shrira, & Keith Campbell, 2006) gave this test to 272 University of Georgia students. So you can get some idea about where you fall, students in this study scored an average of 57 for communal sexuality and 23 for agentic sexuality. Women scored a little higher than men in terms of communal sexuality (59 vs. 53) and men scored a little higher than women on agentic sexuality (27 vs. 21).

What we were most interested in, however, was how these conceptualizations of sex related to the personality construct of narcissism. Consistent with what we predicted, and probably what you’d expect as well, narcissists (i.e., people who scored high on a measure of narcissism) tended to score higher on agentic sexuality and lower on communal sexuality compared to less narcissistic folks. What this suggests is that, much like everything else in their lives, narcissists view sex as being “all about me.”

To some degree, we suspect that narcissists view their sexual partners as objects that satisfy their needs for pleasure, status, and power. As you might imagine, this kind of attitude probably doesn’t bode well for long-term relationships. In fact, one thing we suspect, but have not tested, is that more frequent sexual activity might actually harm relationships involving narcissists.

Here's why. Sex generally acts to bring partners closer together (both physically and psychologically). In other words, sex can be thought of as a mechanism for enhancing relationships, For narcissists, however, who view sex more in terms of personal gratification, sex might actually cause increased separation. Think of it like this. It’s hard to imagine that a marital therapist would suggest that a couple engage in more frequent isolated activities in the hopes that they will grow closer to one another. Certainly, this would instead lead to further separation. Likewise, if sex is essentially an isolated activity (albeit in the presence of another person), then one can imagine how more frequent sexual activity might actually cause relationship partners to feel more separated from each other.

Granted, we are taking the perspective of the narcissist in terms of our speculation. It’s certainly possible that the (less narcissistic) partners of narcissists grow more and more attached with each sexual act. This would be particularly cruel because while sex works to make one partner more attached, it pushes the other partner away. It’s possible that to some degree this might even account for findings from our labs showing that ex-romantic partners of narcissists report being particularly unsettled by their relationships. Again, we haven’t tested this idea directly, but it certainly seems like a logical possibility.

If one accepts the idea that sexual activity might undermine relationships involving narcissists, then we might ask: Can anything be done to change this? The short answer is nobody really knows. One might try to withhold sex from narcissistic romantic partners, but other research we’ve done leads us to believe that narcissists would simply look elsewhere to get their sexual needs met. See, narcissists tend to take a "what have you done for me lately" approach to their relationships and are quicker than most to abandon relationships that don’t satisfy their needs (Foster, 2008). Another option would be to somehow make narcissists adopt a more communal view of sexuality. Neither of us are exactly sure how to go about doing this, or whether it’s even possible, but if one could encourage narcissistic romantic partners to view sexual behavior in terms of the “we" then perhaps their long-term term relationships would function a little better.

(This post was coauthored by Ilan Shrira)

 

Further Reading (both of these articles can be retrieved here.)

 

Foster, J. D. (2008). Incorporating personality into the investment model: Probing commitment processes across individual differences in narcissism. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 211-223.

Foster, J. D., Shrira, I., & Campbell, W. K. (2006). Theoretical models of narcissism, sexuality, and relationship commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 367-386.

 

Joshua D. Foster is Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

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