A groundbreaking article by researchers at Ruhr University, Germany – published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sex Research – has put forward the mind-boggling notion that the personalities of each partner can have an impact on a sexual relationship. This, one might think, was common knowledge. Still, before getting sniffy about the idiocy of academics, it’s perhaps worth having a closer look at the article.
While the take-home message of the research is the stereotype-supporting “Teutonic” notion that scheduling sex is a very good idea – “Time for some very satisfactory Geschlechtsverkehr in 17 minutes, mein liebling” – it also contains all sorts of other sinister and dystopian points, confusingly couched in the driest language imaginable.
With reference to the “dual control model of sexual response” (people having sex) the article’s authors ultimately argue that “personality measures, socioeconomic status and intelligence are comparable, for instance, in predicting divorce rates”. So it’s not only about brains and money, apparently; one’s sexual function can be significantly affected by other “partner variables”.
To begin with the most widely reported aspect of the research, we hear that a thorough analysis of the impact of the “big five” personality traits on mutually satisfying sexy-time demonstrates that conscientiousness is far more important than extraversion, agreeableness, openness or emotional stability. “Conscientious partners may respond to sexual problems with an integrating conflict resolution strategy that involves a high level of concern for both themselves and their partners.” And not only that, but, “Men who are thorough and dutiful may feel the need to satisfy their partner sexually, which may in turn lead to better sexual function of their partners.” Spontaneity, experimentation, daring and shamelessness be damned, scientists now say that it’s far more attractive in the long run to offer an irresistible blend of diplomacy and punctiliousness. (Goethe must be turning in his grave. What would Young Werther have made of all this?)
In case this is all sounding a bit too “nice”, it’s perhaps worth noting that the overall drive of the research seems to be to generate reliable methods for predicting and ensuring marital success. If you do what the nice doctors tell you, you will form a functional unit, all the better for serving society. The unemotional tone of the research has echoes of The Lobster or Black Mirror’s sinister Hang the DJ.
This might not be such a worry if the findings were all along the charming lines reported in the popular press: “Timetabling your love life makes for long-term wedded bliss!” But there’s all sorts of other stuff in there that you maybe wouldn’t want to fall into the hands of people who think Jordan Petersen is a good philosopher. For instance, “Lower agreeableness of a sexual partner was predictive of better sexual function in women but not in men.” In order to understand the full horror of this statement, it’s important to know that “sexual function”, as the article explains, is not the same as “sexual satisfaction”; the first one means you did it, the second one means you liked it.
So disagreeable men are good at getting women to perform sexual acts with them, but unpleasant women don’t have this same power. Surprise surprise. Also, “Men whose partners had less emotional stability reported better sexual function.” So men were able to get it up more with emotionally unstable women, although they weren’t necessarily satisfied by the results.
It’s hard to blame the men, though, when you read that “women whose partners were more agreeable reported lower sexual function”. But does that mean we’re all a bit Catherine Earnshaw, or that nice men let us off sex when we’re not in the mood? Either way, what a sad, sad world they seem to be describing. Can’t we just go back to pretending it’s all about Tuesday being hump night? I don’t like where this predictive relationship data is headed.
Still, there were a few get-out clauses if you read closely enough. For one, they hardly spoke to any LGBTQ+ people. Then there was the fact that they found their candidates by picking numbers from the national telephone database. What kind of a person would answer a sex survey by a cold-caller? Add to that the fact that both halves of the couple had to agree to participate.
So we now have an important elaboration on the Sexual Excitation/Sexual Inhibition Inventory for Women and Men (SESII-W/M) based on heterosexual “happy” couples who answer their phones to strangers. I therefore know that I have nothing in common with these people and don’t have to worry. Phew! Now, let me go and re-watch The Handmaid’s Tale to prepare for the future.
• Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and author