Are You or Your Partner a Sexual Perfectionist?
Research offers insights for managing expectations and increasing fulfillment.
Posted Sep 16, 2014
Because perfectionists seek, well, perfection, it would make sense that they would apply the standards by which they live their lives to their sexuality. Surprisingly, given how much psychologists know about perfectionism, including its downside, there has been relatively little research on how this trait translates into the bedroom.
To investigate this problem, psychologist Jochim Stoeber at the University of Kent and his colleagues looked at what they called “multidimensional” sexual perfectionism. They recognized that this approach to sexuality isn’t a single trait, but comprises four components. See which might apply to you or your partner:
- Self-oriented—wanting to be the perfect sexual partner. (“I have very high expectations for myself as a sexual partner.")
- Partner-oriented—wanting your partner to be perfect.
- Partner-prescribed—feeling that your partner expects you to be perfect.
- Socially-prescribed—feeling that society expects you to be perfect.
Stoeber and his team surveyed 272 students ranging in age from 18 to 45 years old (the mean was 20). In addition to measures of sexual perfectionism, participants provided ratings of their sexual self-esteem (how good they feel about their sexuality); self-esteem (self-ratings of sexual skill); optimism (believing you will have positive sexual relations in the future); self-blame (the belief that if things are going badly you’re at fault); depression (being sad about the sexual aspects of your life); and anxiety (you’re anxious when you think about sex).
The Stoeber team also asked about whether each individual was plagued by perfectionistic thoughts in general (“I feel miserable if I make a mistake”). Finally, as you would expect, participants rated their sexual satisfaction. Most participants were female, but there were enough men to allow gender comparisons on all of these types of questions.
For sexual perfectionists, the question is how the desire for an A+ in the bedroom translates into sexual adjustment. Stoeber et al.’s findings provide some insights. They found some benefits to being a sexual perfectionist—people with high scores on the scale assessing self-oriented sexual perfectionism were higher on many positive indicators such as self-esteem, optimism, and satisfaction. However, they were also high on the tendency to become preoccupied with mistakes while having sex, a classic symptom of spectatoring.
People who expect their partners to be perfect also have some of the qualities of the self-oriented sexual perfectionist, but they’re less likely to blame themselves for problems. The researchers did not look into how their partners felt about them. However, you might imagine that having sex with a person who expects you to be perfect would make the experience less enjoyable. And people high on the scale of partner-prescribed sexual perfectionism were most likely to blame themselves for sexual problems.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario, though, occurs for people highest in socially-prescribed sexual perfectionism. They scored negatively on all scales, but compared to those high on the other perfectionism scales, they were also more likely to experience depression about their sexuality and lack of optimism.
Being a sexual perfectionist, then, isn’t all bad, but each form of this characteristic was a prognosticator of at least one sexually problematic behavior or attitude. If you want to be sexually “perfect,” it's best to put that desire out of your head. Wanting to be perfect is not a desire that translates well into sexuality. And if your partner is a sexual perfectionist, use the results from the Stoeber and team study to initiate a conversation about both of your expectations.
The main point of this study is that if perfectionism is plaguing you or your partner, take the paradoxical approach of forgetting about doing things flawlessly. Stop each time you catch yourself having perfectionistic thoughts about your performance, or about whether you’re meeting social standards of the ideal sexual partner.
When you’re not in the sexual situation, try to make a list of the thoughts you had at the time, being very specific about which aspect of your performance you felt was less than perfect. Talk with your partner about these thoughts and see how you can challenge and ultimately change them. Just like any irrational belief, perfectionism is a tendency that can be changed once you identify your thoughts.
As a couple, you can benefit from pulling out these individual thoughts, checking them, and challenging them. We can’t change irrational beliefs unless we confront them. Doing so as a couple will strengthen your potential for sexual fulfillment now and in the long-term.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Stoeber, J., Harvey, L. N., Almeida, I., & Lyons, E. (2013). Multidimensional sexual perfectionism. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 42(8), 1593-1604. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0135-8