Narcissism is a frequently maligned personality trait that involves being self-centered, entitled, and holding grandiose views of oneself. Sex researchers have long been interested in how narcissism plays out in people’s sexual and romantic lives; to date, however, they’ve really only focused on the potentially harmful outcomes associated with being narcissistic, such as being more likely to commit infidelity . New research challenges the widespread belief that narcissism is inherently bad, though. In fact, in some ways, narcissism just might be good for your sexual health and well-being.
In a new set of studies published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers sought to look at how sexual narcissism was linked to people’s genital self-image, sexual functioning, relationship satisfaction, and quality of life. They also sought to determine whether the effects were similar or different for men and women.
The first study involved an online sample of 500 adults in Germany (average age of 28; 89% heterosexual; 76% in relationships). The second study involved an online sample of 588 Americans (average age of 36; 88% heterosexual; 59% in relationships).
All participants completed a measure of sexual narcissism, which captured four different elements of this personality trait. Here they are, along with sample items for each:
· Sexual entitlement (e.g., ‘I am entitled to sex on a regular basis’)
· Low sexual empathy (e.g., ‘When I sleep with someone, I rarely know what they are thinking or feeling’)
· Sexual exploitation (e.g., ‘If I ruled the world for one day, I would have sex with anyone I choose’)
· Inflated sense of skill (e.g., ‘I really know how to please a partner sexually’)
The first study focused on how sexual narcissism was linked to genital self-image and sexual function; the second study tested the same things, but also considered potential linkages to relationship satisfaction and quality of life.
In both studies, people who scored high in sexual narcissism reported better sexual functioning, meaning they had fewer problems with things like arousal and orgasm—and this was true for both women and men. Sexual narcissism was also linked to better genital self-image across genders; however, this link was stronger and more consistent for women than it was for men.
Analysis of the narcissism subscales offered an additional level of depth to the findings. The inflated sense of skill subscale was the most strongly linked to both sexual functioning and genital self-image in women and men—it was also linked to greater life satisfaction across genders. Thus, it wasn’t the case that all aspects of sexual narcissism equally predicted positive outcomes.
It’s also important to note that sexual entitlement was linked to better sexual functioning in women, but not in men. Likewise, sexual entitlement was linked to lower relationship satisfaction for men, but not for women. This pattern suggests that different aspects of sexual narcissism may play out differently across genders, with sexual entitlement in particular being linked to worse outcomes for men, but better outcomes for women.
These results are interesting for a few reasons. One is that they challenge the popular idea that narcissism is inherently bad. As these studies demonstrate, certain forms of sexual narcissism are actually linked to happier and healthier sex lives and relationships. However, not all forms of narcissism are equal.
In particular, having an inflated sense of sexual skill—which some might view as akin to having positive sexual self-esteem—just might be a net positive for men and women alike. Also, feelings of sexual entitlement seem to have some positive effects in women but not in men. Why is that? Perhaps because women with this trait feel more compelled to ask for what they want in cultures where female pleasure isn’t prioritized as much as male pleasure.
At the same time, narcissism clearly has a darker side. For example, in this research, those who didn’t care about others’ feelings (i.e., persons with low sexual empathy) and those who were more willing to sexually exploit others tended to have less satisfying relationships.
In short, whether narcissism is adaptive or maladaptive ultimately depends on what kind of narcissist you are—and what your gender is, too.
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 McNulty, J. K., & Widman, L. (2014). Sexual narcissism and infidelity in early marriage. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(7), 1315-1325.
Klein, V., Reininger, K. M., Briken, P., & Turner, D. (in press). Sexual narcissism and its association with sexual and well-being outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences.
Image Source: 123RF/Alta Oosthuizen
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