Are you a sexual person? (This is not a trick question.) Let me ask it a different way: What kind of sexual person are you? Or, put another way, why do you enjoy sex?
A recently published paper1 including data from 18 different samples (from Israel and America) suggests that there is a lot of variability in how people experience sex based on something called the “sexual behavioral system.” Basically, this is the system that your mind constructs so that you can navigate sexual feelings, attitudes, and experiences. The overall result of the study was that 2 new personality variables emerged, which can help explain how the sexual behavioral system operates.
Most people view sex as a fun and pleasurable experience, and good sex is something that they strive for. However, people can also have anxieties or aversive feelings toward sex (based on societal pressures, bad experiences, etc.) that interfere with healthy sexual functioning. For example, some people display “hyperactivation” of their sexual system, meaning that they maintain an extremely intense desire for sex in order to deal with performance anxiety and fear of being rejected by others, among other concerns. The tendency to be sexually “hyperactive” is captured with survey items like, “I worry about not being ‘good enough’ in bed,” and “If I can’t get other people to desire me and want to have sex with me, I get frustrated and angry,” and “During sexual intercourse, I worry a lot about what my partner is thinking and feeling.” These folks are worried that they aren’t sexy, and they overemphasize the importance of sex to maintain social bonds with others. So their solution (stemming from their insecurities) is to pursue sex with deep urgency, perhaps in a way that is impulsive or intrusive, and without consideration of a partner’s needs.
People who show high levels of hyperactivation also report fantasizing more about sex, including fantasies about “detached” (unemotional) sex and control (dominance). They’re more likely to want casual (short-term) sex, to be sexually coercive, and to invest greater effort (e.g., time, money) into attracting sexual partners. Male hyperactivators are also more likely to report having premature ejaculation (perhaps due to getting overly excited). In terms of general personality traits, these folks tend to be more insecurely attached in their relationships (they fear abandonment/betrayal and resist intimacy), as well as more neurotic (more emotionally unstable) and less agreeable (less trusting).
Other people display “deactivation” of their sexual system, meaning that they may attempt to suppress their sexual desires or may not feel the need to express them fully. The tendency to “deactivate” when it comes to sex is captured with survey items like, “I often find it hard to experience pleasure during sexual activity,” and “During sexual activity, I sometimes feel uninvolved and uninterested,” and “I usually have sex only when my partner pressures me or really wants me to.” These folks don’t value sex as a pleasurable behavior—they view sexual expression as painful, perhaps because they’ve been disappointed or scarred from previous experiences and, therefore, want to avoid painful experiences in the future. So their solution is to avoid sexual experiences, deemphasize the importance of sex, and turn away from people/stimuli that turn them on. Unfortunately, this tendency means that these folks are denying themselves sexual pleasure.
Those who show high levels of deactivation experience low levels of sexual arousal and are more likely to have orgasmic dysfunction (i.e., an inability to achieve orgasm). These folks are less likely to want casual sex and spend much less effort attracting partners. They’re also less likely to talk about sex with someone they’re dating. Furthermore, imagining conflict with a romantic partner does not change how attracted they feel to that person, and they are less likely to think of sex as a conflict-resolution strategy in relationships (Note: many people experience the exact opposite tendency—specifically, that conflict can produce sexual arousal, and post-conflict sex can be a way of fostering intimacy). Finally, like the hyperactive people, they also tend to be more insecurely attached in their relationships and more neurotic but also less open to new experiences (i.e., more closed-minded).
Importantly, the authors did not find significant gender differences in these types of approaches to sex, which suggests that what makes a person high in hyperactivation or deactivation has more to do with personal experiences and developmental processes rather than male/female gender roles.
Keep in mind that not everyone scores high on hyperactivation or deactivation when it comes to sex. Many people score low on both dimensions, and these people are (for lack of a better word) more confident and secure when it comes to sex. They have healthier motivations for sex (they seek sex because it feels good, not because they’re afraid of being dumped). Also, if you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh no, I’m definitely one of these ‘deactivation’ people” (or something like that), don’t panic. There’s nothing necessarily “abnormal” about that. Remember that if you’re experiencing significant distress, there is always hope for positive change.
So now that we’ve considered these pieces of evidence, I’ll ask again, what kind of sexual person are you? How do you (or the people you know) experience sex? Although psychology cannot delineate the “right” or “wrong” way to experience sex, psychology offers evidence that people’s traits can predict what types of sexual experiences they will have. If sex is important to you, we would suggest thinking deeply about who you are, what you want, and what your partner(s) want with respect to your sex life.
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1Birnbaum, G. E., Mikulincer, M., Szepsenwol, O., Shaver, P. R., & Mizrahi, M. (2014). When sex goes wrong: A behavioral systems perspective on individual differences in sexual attitudes, motives, feelings, and behaviors. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 106(5), 822-842.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.