Why Personality Holds the Key to Understanding Sexuality

Research shows that sexuality is often correlated to personality characteristics

Posted Jan 18, 2017

Sex differences in psychology, labeled for reuse, Wikipedia
Source: Sex differences in psychology, labeled for reuse, Wikipedia

One of the most fascinating aspects of sexuality is in understanding where it comes from. Specifically, from where do differences in sexual orientation and preference arise? Mountains of research have been conducted on orientation, focused on understanding distinctions in brain size and anatomy, prenatal hormone surges, genetic variations, and even disparities in finger length. However, especially when it comes to preference (not orientation), physiology is just one part of the equation. Indeed, as I will argue here, personality is a key missing ingredient in understanding individual sexual proclivities.

Up until recently, not much has been written about sexuality and personality. What has been published has mostly come from a very psychoanalytic perspective, often equating deviations in sexuality (from a vanilla norm) to pathologies in personality. Only in the last few years has research emerged, studying specific sexual interests and corresponding personality traits from a rigorous, empirical framework. Let's take a look at a few of these research studies and their implications. But before digging in, I think it's important to take a deeper dive into understanding what personality is and how it is measured.

The most standard way of measuring personality is using a test called the Big Five Inventory (BFI). Decades of research have shown that personality can only be divided down into five main categories. I like to use the acronym OCEAN to remember them. Let's go through each letter in turn.

  • O. Openness to experience. This trait is a measure of how much an individual is imaginative, creative, and curious.
  • C. Conscientiousness is a measure of how much an individual is organized, dependable, self-disciplined and dutiful.
  • E. Extroversion is a measure of an individual’s level of outgoingness, sociability, and assertiveness.
  • A. Agreeableness signifies compassion and cooperativeness.
  • N. Neuroticism, is the tendency to experience negative emotions.

One other very important thing to remember is that research overwhelmingly shows that personality is highly heritable, ranging from around 40-60 percent, as evidenced by identical twin studies.

According to recent research, individuals in both the BDSM and poly communities scored much higher on O than community (non-BDSM or poly) samples. Indeed, it appears that one of the defining characteristics of people who are drawn to alternative sexuality communities is that they are open-minded, exploratory, and adventurous, all traits captured by O. According to a Dutch study of BDSM participants, both dominant and submissive individuals were much more likely to score highly for C, Conscientiousness. They may be more drawn to rules and order, and that plays out by taking or giving control in the bedroom. Dominants also scored lower on A, Agreeableness, indicating that they were more likely to be very individualistic, rather than focused on group harmony.

These are all findings published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Let's take it a little further as I make some additional observations on possible connections between personality and sexuality. Please note: This section is speculative as it is only based on my anecdotal experiences as a therapist and not on peer-reviewed empirical research.

We have already seen how important the O dimension is in terms of its effect on sexual choices. But let's take a look at some of the other dimensions such as A, Agreeableness, which has not been written about much in regards to sexuality. In my experience, individuals that struggle to assert their own sexual needs and are instead preoccupied with their partners' experience(s) are more likely to score high on A. Because they are so agreeable, it actually works against them in the bedroom, as they find it difficult to get in touch with their own desires at the expense of prioritizing the needs of others. In this case, it may benefit them to learn to be a little more sexually "ruthless" in being in touch with and (consensually of course) pursuing their own desires.

Source: Ancient archetypes, labeled for reuse, Wikipedia

In addition, I would suggest that those with high A are more likely to succeed in a polyfidelitous relationship, in which each individual in the relationship is equally vested and there is no hierarchy of primary or secondary relationships. For more on what polyfidelity is and how it differs from other poly structures, click here and here.

As Eli Sheff writes in her book The Polyamorists Next Door, many poly relationships consist of a relationship of two individuals that privilege their primary relationship, but then have secondary relationships on the side, which are important, but don't receive the same sort of "specialness" as the primary relationship. Individuals with low A would probably do better in such a hierarchical structure since they are more individualistic and do better compartmentalizing their various relationships. As mentioned, those with high A would probably be drawn to the flatter hierarchy of polyfidelity, since they enjoy all of the trappings of creating and sustaining group harmony.

Taking a look at other dimensions, I would think that generally speaking, those with high E, Extroversion would be more likely to go to public events and so would be more likely to identify with a community. So, public players, those who are most likely to behave exhibitionistically at scene events, are also more likely to be extroverts. I know that there are many introverted individuals that belong to alt communities, but again, in the aggregate, it would not surprise me if the numbers were more tilted towards extroversion than in general population samples.

So what does this all mean? First, since personality is highly heritable, if personality is correlated to sexual interests, then sexuality (besides orientation and drilling down to specific interests and proclivities) must also be at least somewhat heritable. Second, understanding sexuality through the lens of personality helps us to honor and respect individual differences. Just as we can understand that every person will have unique personalities that are at least somewhat beyond their control so too we must conclude that their sexuality is also unique and at least somewhat beyond willpower and choice. 

I've often critiqued the field of psychotherapy as leaning too far toward a social constructionist position of seeing individuals as blank slates. Research, however, confirms that neither personality nor sexuality is a blank slate. Just as anything else, both of these are a mixture of nature and nurture, but in the social sciences, we too easily forget about the nature component. All of the evidence appears to indicate that people are drawn to their sexual preferences for a number of reasons, with personality being one of the most important factors. In the end, we cannot escape our personalities, so we must do what any humanistic society allows its members to do, which is to provide the space for individuals to discover whatever sexuality best fits with their fundamental personality traits.

For more, please see my new book, Modern Sexuality, which has a chapter covering sexuality and personality.

About the Author

Michael Aaron, Ph.D., LCSW, CST, is a nationally certified sex therapist and clinical sexologist.

More Posts