science of us

The Unsexy Personality Trait That Makes for Better Sex

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In a lot of ways, conscientiousness feels like the least sexy of the “Big Five” personality traits, a group that also includes extroversion, agreeableness, openness, and neuroticism. Painted with a broad brush, people who are conscientious are organized, thorough, diligent, and good at responding to emails. They’re into making plans, and being punctual, and other activities that tend to be a far cry from the things we typically associate with exciting sex: adventurousness, passion, staying in the moment instead of two steps ahead.

It’s a dichotomy that’s persisted in our collective cultural understanding — spontaneity is hot, careful planning isn’t — to a frustrating extent, even though the actual experience of sex often contradicts it. Sexual desire, for both men and women, is often a slow-building, reactive response, rather than an urge that hits out of nowhere. You might say it’s carefully planned.

A study published last week in the Journal of Sex Research adds a little more evidence to the argument that our sexual priorities are a bit skewed, illustrating that conscientiousness isn’t just not a mood-killer — it can also be a tool for maintaining a satisfying sex life. The study authors surveyed just under a thousand couples (most, but not all, of whom were in heterosexual relationships) about their sex lives, asking each half of the couple to rate things like how easily they got aroused, how inhibited they were around sex, and any issues they may have with sexual dysfunction. The participants were also asked to describe both their own personality and their partner’s according to the Big Five. And while the correlation wasn’t huge, it was significant: Conscientious people of both sexes reported fewer problems with their sex lives, as did women whose partners were high in the trait.

To be frank, I loved this study, especially the part where the authors took a swing at explaining their results: “High conscientiousness can be especially beneficial when it comes to putting effort into a satisfying sexual life,” they wrote, “or to postpone one’s own needs and interests to focus on resolving a sexual problem within the context of committed, long-term relationships.” (And for heterosexual women with conscientious significant others: “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.”) It’s not because I think of myself as particularly conscientious and newly vindicated — it’s just that, with so much angst out there about how to keep the spark alive after relationship newness wears off, here’s a really lovely reminder of how commitment can foster its own unique kind of eroticism.

Which, for anyone who’s moved past that butterflies-and-making-out stage, is more than a little soothing. It’s encouraging, even: a suggestion that the best part of your sex life as a couple may be yet to come. The circumstances that we’re conditioned to believe make for good sex so often don’t line up with the realities of a long-term relationship. But here, with data to back it up, is a reminder that trying hard can be hot, and that intention can be better than abandon.

The Unsexy Personality Trait That Makes for Better Sex