Sex and the Psychopath
Why so many people fall for psychopaths—and how they can begin to heal.
Posted Oct 07, 2014
By definition, the psychopath doesn’t have successful relationships. Actually, the truth is more about capacity than quality. With the psychopath, there is an absence of emotional connection and true empathetic feeling. The psychopath simply isn’t capable of trusting and depending on another individual. To sit with them and assess them as I have in forensic settings, it’s as if you’re talking with someone who’s part ice. Though they engage in sex (and other trappings of relationships), their experience of sex is vastly different from their non-psychopathic peers.
First, let’s quickly review the most disturbing traits of the psychopath: According to the Antisocial Personality Questionnaire (Blackburn & Fawcett, 1999), primary psychopathy is characterized by hostility, extraversion, self-confidence, impulsivity, aggression, and mild-to-moderate anxiety. Though the psychopath may commit illegal crimes, a psychopath can go through life wreaking harm on others and yet never commit an actual crime. The traits of the psychopath are deeply troubling when applied to sex and relationships.
Sex is never a mutually emotional experience with a psychopath.
Conventional wisdom suggests that sex should be an emotional and intimate experience. Think of any popular ballad on the radio, and you know what I mean—songs about idealistic, perfect love in which both partners love and trust, and make love until dawn because their emotional connection is so strong. Simply put, a psychopath would be the last person in the world to have that kind of lasting, sustainable connection. Psychopaths are chiefly oriented around getting their most important needs met, regardless of the expense to others.
Because psychopaths don’t have mutually dependent and respectful romantic relationships, they can’t have a healthy sex life, either. The psychopath is often a pro at seducing and getting someone into bed, but the process is more of a calculated game than an organic emotional—and then sexual—experience.
What turns on the psychopath?
The psychopath is sexually motivated by power—everything is a means to an end. If having a sexual relationship with a woman means that she will then trust him more or give him more money, he will perform the sexual task with Herculean bravado. Some of the women I have worked with who have gotten involved with psychopaths actually share how amazing sex can be with them.
How could this be so?
Like much of their behavior, psychopaths have mastered the art of performance. They perform in areas of their lives most people wouldn’t even imagine—saying “I’m sorry” with the right sensitive tone, having seen an actor do it really well in a movie; professing love as if the world were to end the next day, reminiscent of lyrics from a popular song; always dressing the part wherever they may be, understanding that image and first impressions can lure others into their lair. When it comes to sex, psychopaths perform, too.
The psychopath who seeks to drain the bank account of a vulnerable but wealthy individual will have as much sex—or provide the best sex possible—if it helps him or her achieve that goal. Similarly, another psychopath who has sexual urges seeks a willing partner on whom to force himself and have sex as rough as necessary to discharge the dysregulated, hostile energy.
Promiscuous behavior, and multiple short-term relationships.
The psychopath frequently engages in promiscuous sexual behavior or has many short-term marital relationships, both items on Robert Hare’s seminal Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (1991). Ali and Chamorro-Premuzic (2010), for example, found that primary psychopathy was linked to more promiscuity and less commitment.
Psychopaths don’t engage in promiscuous sex because they love sex so much; it’s more about boosting their ego when they feel rejected, obtaining power, or defending against the boredom psychopaths often feel. Plus, sex—especially with a stranger—allows the psychopath to get incredibly quick access to another person at their most sexually intimate and vulnerable. Because psychopaths constantly have their eye on a goal, getting someone in a vulnerable position allows them to take more advantage of them. If someone is lonely, they may be more susceptible to the sexual advances of a psychopath—even if their instinct tells them something about this new person seems off or, as is sometimes the case, they seem "too good to be true."
The psychopath at the bar, restaurant, or other social hangouts.
Bars and restaurants with active happy hours are especially popular spots for psychopaths to sexually pursue individuals. With the wheels greased with alcohol, men and women alike are more willing to fall prey to the psychopath’s highly calculated strategies to ensnare. The psychopath in this setting can be spotted by picking up on the following signals: excessive, forced flattery; looking for pity or sympathy; creating a sense that the two share a deep, almost destined connection right from the start; and asking extremely personal questions too soon in service of the need to ascertain the target’s emotional weaknesses.
Finding victims when they’re lonely, depressed, or emotionally lost.
A female client of mine who started her relationship with a psychopath in a bar later told me, “I thought he was coming on a little strong, but I guess I was just really lonely at the time.” Psychopaths are experts at reading cues that indicate vulnerability, as these are the circumstances when normal men and women are most likely to fall for the psychopath’s tactics. It’s critical for everyone to trust their instincts when it comes to the sexual advances of others, especially when they get the sense that the pursuer is dead-set on sealing the deal at that moment—and getting them home.
Disposing of sexual or romantic partners as if they're unnecessary objects.
Just as a complex dynamic is at work with the abused woman who stays with an abusive boyfriend or husband, an equally complex dynamic is at work with the psychopath and his victim. People often stay with a psychopath far longer than they’re proud to admit because the psychopath has brainwashed the victim over time through a series of self-esteem killing strategies, such as isolating them from family and friends or criticizing them in countless ways. It’s often when the psychopath ends the relationship that the victims seek mental health treatment, frequently because they are devastated by the way they were abandoned so flippantly.
It’s hard for most people to understand how anyone could cut off a partner so quickly and callously, but healing from a relationship with a psychopath usually requires that the victim clearly understands the unique psychological profile of the psychopath. Healing also requires that the victim understand how vastly different the psychopath’s needs are in comparison: In essence, their emotional needs are all about serving their own grandiose self-image, and not at all about mutuality or reciprocity.
Most important, the psychopath will never truly honor the victim’s feelings, especially when it comes to asking the psychopath to take accountability for their deceitful and conscience-less ways. There will never be any meaningful, lasting insight from the psychopath. Martha Stout says it best in her book, The Sociopath Next Door: “In general, people without conscience tend to believe their way of being in the world is superior to ours.”
Ali, F., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2010). The dark side of love and life satisfaction: Associations with intimate relationships, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 228-233.
Blackburn, R., & Fawcett, D.J. (1999). The Antisocial Personality Questionnaire: An inventory for assessing deviant traits in offender populations. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 15, 14-24.
Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems.
Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door: The ruthless vs. the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books, p. 50.