Depending on your ideological outlook, 2016 has either been a great year for politics or the year that your hopes and dreams were dashed to pieces. The Brexit referendum, which set the UK on course to leave the EU, was followed by Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, is riding high in the polls for the next French president, and right wing politicians across Europe are feeling more confident about their chances in upcoming contests.
How to make sense of what can seem, at times, like a worldwide political earthquake? Many commentators have called on liberals to reach out to their more conservative peers, to make a greater effort to understand why men like Trump or women like Le Pen are so popular. Maybe liberals and conservatives need to get to know each other better, and develop a deeper insight into what makes each group tick.
There are many differences between a typical right- and left-wing voter, including attitudes about economics, immigration, military spending, and state intervention in business. Many journalists have speculated how each of these differences in attitudes and values may have swayed voters in this year’s most consequential elections.
But this is a blog about the psychology of human mating behavior and so, today, we’ll investigate whether conservatives and liberals differ not only in the voting booth but in the equally private confines of their bedrooms.
Research in the UK in the 1970s showed that social conservatives are less sexually permissive, perhaps as we might expect. But it also revealed that supporters of the Conservative Party reported more satisfying sex lives and higher libidos. The psychologist who conducted this research, Hans Eysenck, admitted that his results should be considered provisional until more data were in.
In the last month, those data finally arrived after a 40 year wait. Peter Hatemi of Penn State University led a team of political scientists in a new study of political orientation and the whole gamut of sexual behavior, and published his results in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Over one thousand US-based men and women completed a barrage of questionnaires on their political values and sexual behavior. They answered questions on their attitudes about military spending, drone strikes, tax rates, environmental protection, healthcare, drug legalization, and euthanasia, among many other topics. Questions about sex included items on the frequency with which participants engaged in various sexual behaviors, the riskiness of their sexual behavior, and total number of sexual partners.
Because of the personal nature of the questions, any discussion of the results of this study must be accompanied by a content warning. If you don’t want to read about anal sex, masturbation, and sex toys then — whoops! — it’s already too late.
Hatemi and colleagues ran scores of analyses to find out whether various sexual behaviors predicted political attitudes. Reading an exhaustive list of every result would be as interminable as a lovemaking session with Tantric pop megastar Sting, and literally nobody wants that. But here are some of my favorite findings.
People who give or receive oral sex tend to be more socially liberal (for example, supporting gay rights) but more conservative on out-group punishment attitudes (anti-immigration and pro-death penalty). Out-group punishment attitudes are also stronger among those who enjoy “doggy style” sex.
More frequent masturbation is associated with more liberal attitudes across the board, as is the use of sex toys. Those who partake in S&M are more likely to have voted for Obama in 2012; those who engage in more mouth-to-breast contact voted in greater numbers for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
People who more frequently touch others’ genitals, or have their own genitals touched by others, are more conservative on all measures. All, that is, except for attitudes to national security: in a victory for fans of irony everywhere, those who liked to touch and be touched thought warrant-less searches were a real no-no.
Infidelity and sex while under the influence are more common among those with liberal national security and social attitudes, and those who have contracted a sexually transmitted infection were more likely to have voted for Obama. However, conservatives were more likely to have paid for sex.
Finally, Hatemi and colleagues replicated Eysenck’s finding from the UK: those who are most satisfied with their sex lives are more likely to be conservative, and conservatives report having a lot more sex than liberals (although with fewer partners).
Many of these findings are amusing, but are they any more than that? We can’t know for sure whether sexual behaviors cause political attitudes any more than we can say that political attitudes cause sexual behaviors. Besides, isn’t talk of sex frivolous when we’re trying to come to terms with important election results?
Hatemi and colleagues disagree:
Pundits often decry the public’s obsession with sex over substance without realizing that sex is substance. Electoral campaigns orchestrated around sexual topics are not organized solely for purposes of voyeurism or entertainment, but rather align with individual self-interest. While some may claim such a strategy appeals to the lowest common denominator, it exists precisely because the interest in personal sexual experience is near universal.
This has rarely been more true than in this most recent US election, where one candidate was accused by multiple people of committing sexual assault, and one of the dividing lines between the Democratic and Republican nominees was on the subject of abortion.
Politics is inextricably entwined with sex, so if we want to understand political decision-making it makes sense to investigate behaviors in the bedroom too.
And, if nothing else, it beats poring through reams of unemployment figures and immigration estimates…
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Hatemi, P. K., Crabtree, C., & McDermott, R. (2017). The relationship between sexual preferences and political orientations: Do positions in the bedroom affect positions in the ballot box? Personality and Individual Differences, 105, 318–325.