David P Schmitt Ph.D.

Sexual Personalities


Sexual Personality Highlights of 2011

Sexual Science Highlights of 2011

Posted Jan 15, 2012

The year 2011 produced a fascinating array of sexual personality science. Here are 10 important findings—mostly from social psychology—that helped illuminate our understanding of how and why people are sexually diverse.  

10. Permissivity and Mate Preferences. Sexually permissive people (those who want and have more short-term sexcapades) tend to want different kinds of mates than their more monogamous counterparts. In 2011, researchers found permissive men tend to place more value than other men do on women who have large breasts (Zelazniewicz & Pawlowski, 2011), whereas permissive women tend to place particular emphasis on a man's facial symmetry (Quist et al., 2011). More and more evidence is accumulating to suggest that inside all of us exist two sexualities—a psychology of long-term monogamy and a psychology of short-term promiscuity. Which one dominates depends on other aspects of our sexual personalities.

9. Testosterone and the Opposite Sex. The way men interact with others can be affected by their testosterone levels and also by the mere presence of the opposite sex. In 2011, researchers found the more elevated a man's testosterone after engaging in a competition, the more he flirts with strange women (van der Meij et al., 2011); among men who think they are socially dominant, those with high testosterone tend to be more dominant in competition with other men (and women in the study tend to think they "clicked" more with these higher testosterone men; Slatcher et al., 2011); and men's (but not women's) ability to think clearly is impaired when they're about to interact with the opposite sex (Nauts et al., 2011). The relationship between testosterone and sexual personality is almost never as simple as more testosterone means more intense sexual desire and behavior, but new studies continue to paint an ever more realistic picture of how our sex hormones can directly affect our sexual personality.

8. Sex Differences in Emotion. On average, women and men experience some emotions a little differently, such as the trend for women to experience a bit more anxiety and worry than men do. In 2011, studies found women tend to remember more negative words from a word list (even when the negative words are not actually there) than men do (Dewhurst et al., 2011); happy women (but not men) and prideful men (but not women) are seen as most sexually attractive (Tracy & Beall, 2011); and sex differences in the emotion of jealousy seemed to transcend several other features of our sexual personalities (Confer et al., 2011; Kuhle, 2011; Tagler et al., 2011). Many of our basic emotional systems are hardwired into our Homo sapiens sapiens brain, but the way these emotions are experienced and how these emotions function in our sexual lives may depend, in part, on our biological sex.

7. Sexual Personalities in Couples. Very few studies have been conducted on cultural differences in the sexual personality of couples. In 2011, a study of married couples across six cultures found some sex differences are universal (on average, husbands want more sex from their wives), but others are not (husbands are not always more possessive); a study of older couples across five cultures found women (but not men) tend to become more sexually satisfied as they age (Heiman et al., 2011); and a study of newlyweds-while not cross-cultural-interestingly found that having too forgiving a sexual personality can lead your partner to persist in their aggressive ways (McNulty, 2011). Much of our sexual personality takes place in interaction with others, and it appears that no matter the culture we are from there is no more important other than our primary long-term partner.

6. Environmental Factors Influence Sexual Personalities. There is an emerging trend that local environments and social situations can affect our sexual personalities. In 2011, an experimental study found bad smells in the immediate environment leads people to intend to use condoms (Tybur et al., 2011); a study found some cultural differences in sexuality result from people learning mate preferences by copying the preferences of high status and attractive others in their local social situations (Little et al., 2011); and a study found that extra-marital sex tends to be quite high in foraging cultures, especially among women (Scelza, 2011). It seems much of our sexual personality depends on our environments, more so than most people realize.

5. Ovulatory Status and Oral Contraception Affect Sexual Personalities. One of the most striking findings in sexual personality research is that women's desires and behaviors seem to shift across their ovulatory cycle. In 2011, a study found women who take the pill tend to choose "good guys" as mates, but end up sexually unsatisfied (Roberts et al., 2011); a study found women's personalities become warmer during their most fertile ovulatory phase (Markey et al., 2011); and another study found that when women are at their most fertile, the men around them make riskier decisions (Miller et al., 2011). These results may seem strange and many of the effects are subtle, but more and more research from labs around the world is suggesting that women's ovulation plays a key role in our sexual personalities.

4. Mate Value and Sexual Personalities. How we are viewed by others—whether we are high status, physically attractive, and so forth—can have a strong impact on the sexual experiences of ourselves and our partners. In 2011, a study found that women tend to orgasm more often when having sex with attractive partners (but not when self-pleasuring themselves, so the effect seems to come from the male partner's mate value; Puts et al., 2011); a study of foraging peoples found men who possess higher status and prestige tend to have more sexual partners (including extra-marital affairs; von Rueden et al., 2011); and a study found that women tend to shy away from attractive mates as husbands because they fear these men will be unfaithful, but this fear wasn't evident among women who are themselves highly attractive (Chu et al., 2011). For many people, their sexual personalities seem to result, in part, from their value as a potential mate, with somewhat different consequences for men and women.


3. Our Eyes, Voices, Lips, and Genitals Reveal Sexual Personalities. It used to be thought that our physical bodies had very little to do with our personalities. In 2011, researchers found several intriguing associations between our physical bodies and our sexual personalities. In one study, researchers found the larger the black ring in our eyes (the thin black slice that surrounds the colored area of the iris), the more people find us attractive (Peshek et al., 2011); a second study found the deeper men's voices, the more they are perceived to be unfaithful (O'Connor et al., 2011); a third study found the more prominent the middle section of a woman's upper lip (called the tubercle), the more likely she is to have orgasms (Brody et al., 2011); and finally a study found the longer the distance between a woman's clitoris and her urethral meatus (indicating high prenatal androgen exposure), the less likely she is to experience orgasms (Wallen et al., 2011). Our physical bodies seem to be made up of cues and clues to our past, present, and future sexual personalities.

2. Resisting Infidelity Depends on Sexual Personalities. Lots of studies have shown that our personality traits—like extraversion and impulsivity—are related to whether we cheat on our mates or stay faithful. In 2011, researchers found a feature of our personality called "executive control" is really important for sexual fidelity, especially in terms of our ability to resist flirting with attractive members of the opposite sex (Pronk et al., 2011). On the opposite side of the coin is the trait of avoidant attachment, as people who are romantically dismissing tend to pay more attention to attractive alternatives to their current mate and such people also stray more over time (DeWall et al., 2011). Finally, Mark et al. (2011) found that among women (but not men), being dissatisfied with one's relationship matters as much as our personality in predicting infidelity. Being able to stay focused, feel real intimacy, and chose a satisfying partner all seem to be keys to unlocking our most faithful sexual selves.


1. Sex Differences in Sexual Personalities. Several large-scale reviews of sex differences in sexuality found biological sex plays an important role in our sexual personalities, though not always in a simple testosterone-mediated way. In a literature review, Ellis (2011) identified 65 psychological sex differences that have been fully replicated across more than 10 independent studies, including sex differences in sex drive, initiating sex, desires for sexual variety, and various mate preferences. Valla et al. (2011) noted some problems in using finger length ratios as a simple index of the masculinization of human brains and the subsequent effects of masculinization has on sexuality in men and women. Finally, in a review of meta-analyses and large datasets Petersen et al. (2011) smartly concluded that "anatomical, biological, and sociocultural factors all play a role in determining gender differences in sexuality. No single factor determines gender differences in sexuality, but rather a complex interaction of multiple factors." This is so true of the science of sexual personalities. So true.


Brody et al. (2011). Vaginal orgasm is more prevalent among women with a prominent tubercle of the upper lip. International Society for Sexual Medicine. DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02331.x.

Chu et al. (2011). Interpersonal trust and market value moderates the bias in women's preferences away from attractive high-status men. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 143-147.

Confer et al. (2011). Sex differences in response to imagining a partner's heterosexual or homosexual affair. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 129-134.

DeWall et al. (2011). So far away from one's partner, yet so close to romantic alternatives: Avoidant attachment, interest in alternatives, and infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1302-1316.

Dewhurst et al. (2011). A gender difference in the false recall of negative words: Women DRM more than men. Cognition & Emotion. DOI:10.1080/02699931.2011.553037.

Ellis, L. (2011). Identifying and explaining apparent universal sex differences in cognition and behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 552-561.

Heiman et al. (2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 741-753.

Kuhle, B.X. (2011). Did you have sex with him? Do you love her? An in vivo test of sex differences in jealous interrogations. Personality and Individual Differences. DOI:10.1016/j.paid.2011.07.034

Little et al. (2011). Social learning and human mate preferences: A potential mechanism for generating and maintaining between population diversity in attraction. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 366, 366-375.

Mark et al. (2011). Infidelity in heterosexual couples: Demographic, interpersonal, and personality-related predictors of extradyadic sex. Arch Sex Behav. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-011-9771-z.

Markey et al. (2011). Changes in women's interpersonal styles across the menstrual cycle. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 493-499.

McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/0146167211407077.

Miller, S.L., & Maner, J.K. (2011). Ovulation as a male mating prime: Subtle signs of women's fertility influence men's mating cognition and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 295-308

Nauts et al. (2011). The mere anticipation of an interaction with a woman can impair men's cognitive performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-011-9860-z.

O'Connor et al. (2011). Voice pitch influences perceptions of sexual infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 64-78.

Peshek et al. (2011). Preliminary evidence that the limbal ring influences facial attractiveness. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 137-146

Petersen et al. (2011). Gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors: A review of meta-analytic results and large datasets. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 149-165.

Pronk et al. (2011). How can you resist? Executive control helps romantically involved individuals to stay faithful. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 827-837.

Puts et al. (2011). Men's masculinity and attractiveness predict their female partners' reported orgasm frequency and timing. Evolution and Human Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.03.003.

Quist et al. (2011). Sociosexuality predicts women's preferences for symmetry in men's faces. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-011-9848-8.

Roberts et al. (2011). Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1647

Scelza, B.A. (2011).  Female choice and extra-pair paternity in a traditional human population. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0478

Slatcher et al. (2011). Testosterone and self-reported dominance interact to influence human mating behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550611400099.

Tagler et al. (2011). Gender, jealousy, and attachment: A (more) thorough examination across measures and samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 697-701.

Tracy & Beall (2011). Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotion expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion. DOI: 10.1037/a0022902.

Tybur et al. (2011). Smells like safe sex: Olfactory pathogen primes increase intentions to use condoms. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611400096

Valla et al. (2011). Can sex differences in science be tied to the long reach of prenatal hormones? Brain organization theory, digit ratio (2D/4D), and sex differences in preferences and cognition. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 134-146.

van der Meij et al. (2011). Men with elevated testosterone levels show more affiliative behaviours during interactions with women. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0764.

von Rueden, C., Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H. (2011). Why do men seek status? Fitness payoffs to dominance and prestige. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, 278, 2223-2232.

Wallen & Lloyd (2011). Female sexual arousal: Genital anatomy and orgasm in intercourse. Hormones and Behavior, 59, 780-792.

Weisfeld et al. (2011). Sex differences and similarities in married couples: Patterns across and within cultures. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 1165-1172.

Zelazniewicz & Pawlowski (2011). Female breast size attractiveness for men as a function of sociosexual orientation (restricted vs. unrestricted). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 1129-1135.