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Narcissism

Narcissism in Sexual Relationships

Sexual narcissism involves a self-centered pattern of sexual behavior.

Key points

  • Narcissism, to some degree, is not only normal but healthy.
  • Sexual narcissism may involve an inflated sense of sexual ability or sexual entitlement.
  • Sexual narcissism may be overcompensation for sexual shame and low self-esteem.
  • Sexual narcissists have a deep need for others to admire their sexual prowess and performance.
Shutterstock, Prazis Images
Source: Shutterstock, Prazis Images

Despite its sordid reputation, narcissism is not universally harmful or unproductive. In fact, the term healthy narcissism, first coined in the 1970s[1], suggests that those without some degree of narcissism—those without a robust sense of self—would find it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

In healthy people, narcissism is not about self-aggrandizement, manipulation of others, and a lack of empathy—as it is with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) [2]. Rather, it is more related to healthy self-esteem and the willingness to take reasonable risks, like asking someone out for a date or requesting a raise at work.

Narcissism, to some degree, is not only normal but healthy. In fact, it is an essential component of mature self-esteem and basic self-worth. Without a healthy dose of narcissism, we will not protect ourselves or push ourselves to achieve.

That said, there are countless examples where early attachment deficits and biological influences lead to adult-life problems ranging from fixed narcissistic traits to NPD. These more extreme forms of narcissism often lead to alienation, abuse, and exploitation rather than healthy connection.

One of the contexts in which narcissism (both non-pathological and pathological) can manifest is sexuality. This is known as sexual narcissism.

Sexual narcissism involves a self-centered pattern of sexual behavior. Sometimes this manifests as an inflated sense of sexual ability or sexual entitlement. Other times, it is overcompensation for sexual shame and low self-esteem. Either way, there is a tendency to manipulate others and a lack of empathy for how they may be affected by certain actions (and sometimes inactions).

Common characteristics of sexual narcissists include:

  • Using manipulation (including charm, money, power) to obtain sex
  • Feeling entitled to sex from romantic partners and pretty much anyone else they encounter
  • Cheating on long-term romantic partners
  • Wanting excessive attention and praise for their sexual prowess
  • Not caring whether their sexual behaviors are physically or emotionally painful to others.

Primarily, sexual narcissists have a deep need for others to admire their sexual prowess and performance—everything from their ability to obtain sexual partners to their ability to be a great sexual partner (in their own mind, at least). Interestingly, even though they want to be praised as a sexual hero, able to satisfy any partner at any time, they have little interest in what their sexual partners actually want and enjoy.

Like others who behave in narcissistic ways, sexual narcissists are willing to manipulate and exploit others to get what they want. They feel entitled to sex whenever they want it, with whomever they fancy at any given moment. They feel their sexual partners should comply without question or complaint to the type of sex they like. They do not care whether their behavior goes against their wedding vows or other promises of fidelity. They do not care whether their behavior causes pain to their sexual partner or others in their lives. Lastly, they are more likely than most others to be sexually aggressive.

It is important to understand that not everyone who is sexually narcissistic has NPD. Some sexual narcissists do, while others are simply covering anxiety and low self-esteem.

  • If you think you may be in a relationship with a sexual narcissist, look for the following signs:
  • Your primary sexual role is to satisfy your partner’s desires.
  • Your sexual pleasure seems to matter only in relation to how much it inflates your partner’s ego.
  • Your partner is attentive and charming to obtain sex but ignores you afterward.
  • If you say no to sex, your partner will find ways to make you regret it.
  • Your partner seems to “perform” when having sex (perhaps hoping for a standing ovation).
  • Your partner criticizes or critiques your sexual performance.
  • Your partner cheats on you and doesn’t seem to care that it hurts you.

Sadly, partners of sexual narcissists tend, over time, to lose a sense of their own sexual selves. After years or even decades of being manipulated, ignored, cheated on, and put down by a sexual narcissist, partners may accept the lack of intimacy and connection in their relationship as the norm. But it is not.

Partners of sexual narcissists have a right to emotional intimacy and their own sexual pleasure. To get that, however, they need to stand up for their own needs, setting sexual boundaries and insisting on different behavior. If the sexual narcissist is willing and able to make changes, the sexual relationship can heal, as can overall intimacy within that relationship. If not, then more drastic measures may be the partner’s healthiest option.

References

[1] Russell, G. A. (1985). Narcissism and the narcissistic personality disorder: A comparison of the theories of Kernberg and Kohut. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 58(2), 137-148.

[2] American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (Vol. 5), p 669. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

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