Unique—Like Everybody Else

Personality, intelligence, and the differences that matter

The Personalities of Porn Stars

What recent research might suggest about porn stars’ personality traits
This post is a response to Porn Stars and Evolutionary Psychology by Scott A. McGreal, MSc.

As noted in a previous post, a number of recent studies have provided a glimpse into the usually secretive world of pornography actors and actresses. Compared to matched community control groups, both male and female performers reported higher self-esteem, earlier age of first sexual experience, greater enjoyment of sex, and a far greater number of sex partners. Note that this latter finding referred only to sex partners outside their work in pornography. Additionally, the study on females reported that actresses described themselves as more “spiritual” than women in the control group. None of these studies reported directly on the personality traits of porn performers, but it is possible to speculate about this based on what is known about how personality is related to the factors mentioned.

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Notable porn stars: Riley Steele, Stoya, BiBi Jones, Kayden Kross, and Jesse Jane © Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com

In my previous article, I argued that porn stars are probably high in a characteristic known as sociosexuality. Sociosexuality refers to a person’s willingness to engage in sexual relations outside of a committed relationship and their interest in having a variety of sexual partners. This argument was based on the fact that both male (Griffith, Mitchell, Hammond, Gu, & Hart, 2012) and female performers (Griffith, Mitchell, Hart, Adams, & Gu, 2012) reported very high numbers of sex partners in their private lives, separately from their film work, as well as very high ratings of enjoyment of sex itself. A number of research studies have looked at how sociosexuality and sexual promiscuity are related to personality traits.

People of both sexes who are high in interpersonal dominance, that is, those who are socially bold and assertive, tend to have many sexual partners compared to those who are more submissive (Markey & Markey, 2007). Dominant individuals do not seem to be shy about seeking out sexual partners, whereas submissive people may wait for others to seek them out. A number of studies have also linked high sociosexuality and having a large number of sexual partners to certain antisocial traits in both men and women. For example, people high in sociosexuality tend to rate themselves lower in the traits of honesty, humility, and agreeableness (Bourdage, Lee, Ashton, & Perry, 2007). Additionally, sociosexuality has also been linked to a group of traits known collectively as the “dark triad”, namely psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism (Jonason, Li, Webster, & Schmitt, 2009). Briefly, psychopathy refers to willingness to violate the rights of others, Machiavellianism to willingness to manipulate and use others, and narcissism to an inflated sense of one’s own importance and superiority. These antisocial traits might be linked to sociosexuality because people high in these traits might have a selfish attitude towards sex combined with a willingness to deceive, flatter, and cajole others into having sexual relations.

The findings discussed so far, if applicable to porn stars would seem to imply a rather unflattering portrait of these individuals as cold and antisocial in nature. However, other research suggests that there may be another, more pleasant face that could also apply. A study on interpersonal styles suggests that individuals who are either very high or very low in the trait of interpersonal warmth tend have more sexual partners than people of average warmth (Markey & Markey, 2007). That is, sexually promiscuous people tend to be either very warm or very cold in the way they relate to other people. The authors of this study argued that sexual promiscuity could have different personal meanings depending on how warm or cold a person is. Cold individuals may see sex as a selfish act in which they have little regard for their partners’ feelings. They may have multiple sexual partners as a way of avoiding commitment, perhaps out of fear of mistreatment or rejection. Warm individuals may have a more caring view of sexual interaction and actually desire to share love, intimacy and pleasure with many different people. In fact, the people in this study who had the most sexual partners combined either high warmth or low warmth with high dominance. This raises the possibility that porn stars also might fall (more or less) into two interpersonal types: a warm, extraverted type and a cold, arrogant type. Coldness is associated with the dark triad, so the selfish antisocial personality traits associated with sociosexuality might be more characteristic of cold rather than warm performers.

Other research has found that people who have more sexual partners also tend to have higher self-esteem, especially if they are men (Walsh, 1991). This may be because sexual advances involve a risk of rejection and therefore self-confidence is required to make them. Also, having sex with someone may affirm one’s sense of attractiveness and be a source of pride.  In regard to male porn stars, it has been argued that actors might regard their ability to perform sexually on cue as of particular importance. In regard to female actresses, the researchers point out that having a highly positive image of oneself and one’s body would be very helpful to someone expected to undress on camera. Additionally, the authors consider that porn stars may well have a streak of exhibitionism and that their work allows them to freely express this aspect of their personality and be praised for doing so. Perhaps these factors might explain why porn stars of both sexes report high self-esteem than other people.  

Although self-esteem is generally consider an important marker of psychological health and well-being, the study’s authors’ point out that in some people self-esteem can be a marker of less desirable characteristics, such as narcissism and Machiavellianism (members of the “dark triad” mentioned earlier). Other research has found that there are different types of self-esteem. Stable self-esteem, based on liking of one’s personal attributes appears to be healthier than unstable self-esteem, based on pride in one’s accomplishments (Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993). The former seems to reflect a healthy self-regard that allows one to weather setbacks. The latter is easily threatened by personal failures and leads to defensiveness in response to negative feedback as well as general arrogance. Future research could help clarify if the self-esteem of porn stars tends to be mostly stable or unstable.  

Another finding that could be clarified is that regarding the greater “spirituality” of female performers compared to women in the general community. (For some reason, the study on males did not appear to assess this at all.) The term spirituality frequently appears in the current mental health literature, quite often without being clearly defined. This can lead to confusion about what exactly is meant by the term, resulting in rather amusing headlines around the internet proclaiming “Porn stars more religious than other women.” To a casual reader this might give the impression that when not making erotic films, female porn stars are devoutly attending church and praying, an idea that seem more than a little incongruous with their public image. However, the actual measure of spirituality[1] used in the study asks very generic questions intended to refer to “religion, spirituality, and any other personal beliefs you may hold.” Example questions include:

“To what extent do you feel your life to be meaningful?” and “To what extent do your personal beliefs give you the strength to face difficulties?”

None of the questions refer to belief in God or a higher power, or to participation in traditional religious or even “spiritual” activities such as prayer or meditation. Although the questions could be interpreted very loosely as “spiritual”, it would seem more accurate to consider these questions as referring to one’s ability to cope with and understand life difficulties and to experience personal meaning. A better interpretation might be something like “self-efficacy” or perhaps “resilience” than “spirituality”, which is easily misunderstood. Perhaps working in the adult film industry requires particular mental toughness to thrive compared to more mundane roles. However, the study does not speak to what porn stars actually believe and so does not address whether or not they differ from other women in terms of any specifically religious or particularly “spiritual” beliefs as these terms are usually understood.

 The ideas in this article are necessarily speculative. Only further research can determine whether porn star can be sorted usefully into either a warm, friendly type or a cold, selfish type with dark triad traits. It might even be the case that these personality traits are not particularly relevant to this population at all, as they might simply be people with very permissive sexual attitudes and very positive views of themselves. Further research is also needed to examine what self-esteem and “spirituality” really mean for porn stars so as to better understand why they are higher in these things than other people.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

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Note

[1] The World Health Organization Quality of Life instrument, spirituality facet. 

References

 Bourdage, J. S., Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., & Perry, A. (2007). Big Five and HEXACO model personality correlates of sexuality. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(6), 1506-1516. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.04.008

Griffith, J. D., Mitchell, S., Hammond, B., Gu, L. L., & Hart, C. L. (2012). A Comparison of Sexual Behaviors and Attitudes, Self-Esteem, Quality of Life, and Drug Use Among Pornography Actors and a Matched Sample. International Journal of Sexual Health, 24(4), 254-266. doi: 10.1080/19317611.2012.710183

Griffith, J. D., Mitchell, S., Hart, C. L., Adams, L. T., & Gu, L. L. (2012). Pornography Actresses: An Assessment of the Damaged Goods Hypothesis. Journal of Sex Research, 1-12. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., Webster, G. D., & Schmitt, D. P. (2009). The dark triad: Facilitating a short-term mating strategy in men. European Journal of Personality, 23(1), 5-18. doi: 10.1002/per.698

Kernis, M. H., Cornell, D. P., Sun, C.-R., Berry, A., & Harlow, T. (1993). There's More to Self-Esteem Than Whether It Is High or Low: The Importance of Stability of Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(6), 1190-1204.

Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). The interpersonal meaning of sexual promiscuity. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(6), 1199-1212. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2007.02.004

Walsh, A. (1991). Self-esteem and sexual behavior: Exploring gender differences. Sex Roles, 25(7-8), 441-450. doi: 10.1007/bf00292533

Scott McGreal is a psychology researcher with a particular interest in individual differences, especially in personality and intelligence.

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