Chemistry. Communication. Compatibility. To the list of traits most of us look for in a long-term partner, we might want to consider adding one more, at least according to a new study: sexual "personality."
Robin Milhausen and Kristen Mark at the University of Guelph and Erick Janssen from The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University recently polled 506 men and 412 women who reported involvement in "monogamous sexual relationships lasting from three months to 43 years" to examine the link between our gender, our sexual "personality," and our likelihood to cheat.
What they found was surprising: While the probability of cheating was nearly identical irrespective of gender (23 percent of men and 19 percent of women reported infidelity), the causes for the infidelity differed drastically.
Men who were easily aroused and men who suffered from "performance anxiety" were more likely to be unfaithful. Their sexual satisfaction within their "monogamous relationship" was irrelevant--they'd cheat whether the sex with their partner was good or not.
Conversely, for women, happiness with their long-term sexual partner was paramount--women who felt sexually unsatisfied were more likely to cheat.
The study's researchers refer to those differences as being part of our "sexual personality," which is a broad term describing the range of traits that dictate how easily people become turned on or off by certain cues. To get a better grasp on the nuances of the "sexual personality," we spoke with Mr. Janssen:
Huffington Post: What were your findings?
Erick Janssen: We discovered that there are distinct connections between “sexual personalities” and infidelity. In the past, there has been research on demographic predictors [for infidelity] including whether you’re male or female, married, what religion you are, and some studies have looked at the link between relationships and sexual satisfaction. But there was not much work in terms of what kind of a sexual person you are and to what degree that might have an impact [on infidelity].
HP: What do you mean by “sexual personality” and how is it measured?
EJ: Everyone has personality traits--people can be more or less extroverted or introverted, for example, and the same applies to sex. For over 15 years the Kinsey Institute has explored the role of “sexual excitation proneness” or “sexual inhibition proneness.” Basically it’s about how easily people become turned on or off by certain things. Sexual excitation is about how sensitive people are to different triggers and cues and how easily they become turned on. Sexual inhibition is about how easily you’re turned off by potential dangers or risks or threats.
HP: Can you be both easily excited and easily inhibited? Which is the major indicator of infidelity?
EJ: Whether you become aroused in a situation depends on the balance between those forces. They are independent processes. You could be someone who is very easily turned on at the same time very easily turned off: you could lose your arousal when the phone rings, or, you think of your grocery list, and it’s over. Other people are not as easily inhibited. We’ve done a lot of research on this in terms of sexual risk-taking. People who are turned on easily are high on sexual excitation. People who are low on sexual inhibition are more likely to engage in risky and aggressive sexual behaviors. In this study we wanted to see whether those behaviors are relevant to sexual infidelity, which, in a way, is a form of risky sexual behavior.
HP: But you found that both men who experience “performance anxiety” and men who are “easily aroused” are likely to cheat. It seems like those categories hit both ends of the spectrum. Who isn’t going to be unfaithful?
EJ: If you were [less] easily turned on, you would be less likely to engage in [infidelity]. [But in regards to cheating,] we found that we have two types of inhibition: one [is concerned with] whether social and emotional risks, such as being caught cheating by others, would cause you to lose your arousal. Some people say “yes” and their desire for sex is gone. But for others, the ceiling could come down and they would still be turned on--they are easily aroused no matter the circumstance, [thus the inhibiting risk of unfaithful sex does not affect them]. Another type of inhibition is more relevant to performance anxiety—how difficult it is for you to be turned on because of concerns about your performance and anxieties. Strangely enough, almost paradoxically, that one predicted infidelity.
HP: What about “performance anxiety” prompts sexual infidelity?
EJ: We are not entirely sure what to make of it, but one possibility is that people engage in risky behaviors, including infidelity, to overcome inhibition.
HP: You say, “personality traits are more likely to determine whether a man will cheat than demographic details.” Does that mean there are specific characteristics people should watch out for when seeking a monogamous relationship?
EJ: No, I don’t think it’s that simple. You might think that if you are with someone who doesn’t care about sex to begin with, that person might be less likely to cheat on you sexually. But even that we don’t know for sure.
HP: So what makes people more likely to cheat? Are there differences between gender?
EJ: We looked at whether age, marital status, the importance of religion, but also happiness and sexual satisfaction in the relationship had an effect on infidelity—none of which proved to be very relevant. Although, for women, general happiness in the relationship was an important predictor of infidelity. We also asked people to indicate if they felt compatible with their partner in terms of how often they had sex, wanted to have sex, and their sexual values. And for women, how compatible they felt with their partner in shared sexual values was also a predictor [for cheating]. With men, none of those things mattered as much as their own sexual personality traits. They could be happy and sexually satisfied in a relationship and still might say they cheated. The sexual excitation proneness in males is important. In men, more than women, being very easily turned on is a contributor to infidelity.
HP: Are couples with similar sexual personality traits more likely to maintain monogamy?
EJ: What people said about compatibility was not that relevant. For men, infidelity was unrelated to whether they said that they their partner shared similar sexual values. If women had similar sexual characteristics to their partner, they were more likely to engage in infidelity—but that may mean that they both have very liberal sexual values. For women, though, similarity in sexual values was relevant to their sexual satisfaction.
HP:Do you have any final thoughts on infidelity as a whole?
EJ: There’s one thing to keep in mind. Men are [slightly] more likely to [cheat] than women: But both men and women engage in these types of behaviors. This type of woman or this type of man might be more likely to commit infidelity, and yes it can be because you’re unhappy in your relationship, but this research shows that it’s not necessarily due to how happy or unhappy you are.