Just when the political divide couldn’t get any wider, a new study in Personality and Individual Differences confirms what most of us would have already presumed—that having left- or right-leaning values offers clues as to what you’re like in the bedroom.
The study, by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, sought to determine whether there exists a link between a person’s political beliefs and their sexual practices.
Issues relevant to sex remain of critical importance to a good number of American voters, as we’ve seen based on the polarization around topics like abortion and women’s reproductive rights, age of consent laws, birth control, transgender bathroom bills, pornography, sex work, gay marriage and sex education…just to name a few.
Also of continued public fascination is how the discrepancy between a politician’s sex life and his public persona can lead to his downfall.
Of all of the scientific literature to date, only one researcher, a personality psychologist named Hans Eysenck, has looked at how sexual behaviors are related to social and political orientation. In 1976, he found that guys in the UK who were higher in social conservatism were less likely to be sexually permissive when it came to behaviors like kissing their partner in public, having sex before marriage or watching porn.
For the current study, the researchers used an online survey to collect their data. All 1058 participants were US residents at least 18 years old, and over half were male. Questionnaire items asked about their political ideology and sexual behavior.
The questions pertaining to political orientation revolved around a number of factors, including what they called “out-group/punishment ideology” (which were attitudes around things like the death penalty, longer prison sentences, stricter immigration and English-only legislation) and “social conservatism” (which were beliefs around topics like school prayer, evolution, sex education and legalization of marijuana).
It’s important to note that these particular political beliefs were not necessarily a reflection of a person’s voting habits or their party affiliation, but self-reported attitudes toward particular issues.
Questions pertaining to sexual behavior asked about a grab bag of sexual preferences, like kissing, oral and anal sex, sex in the missionary position and positions in which partners are facing one another (like cowgirl), “doggy style,” masturbation, partaking in BDSM, public sex and using sex toys.
This also included risky sexual behaviors, like sex while being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, sex with a stranger, unprotected sex when pregnancy was unwanted, infidelity, sex with someone you met on the same day and sex with more than one person in 24 hours.
Participants were also asked the number of sexual partners they had had to date, how many they expected to have over the next five years, the age at which they first became sexually active and how satisfied they were with their sex life.
The authors found that people with socially conservative values pursued more traditional sexual behaviors, including kissing, sex in the missionary position and in positions facing one another. They were also more likely to have their first sexual experience at an older age, and perhaps surprisingly, to engage in sex with sex workers.
Those with liberal values reported engaging in masturbation, BDSM and using sex toys more often. Liberal attitudes were also associated with greater instances of risky sex and infidelity (including cheating without using a condom), a greater number of expected sex partners over the next five years and a higher number of lifetime partners.
Giving and receiving oral sex, and having sex in the cowgirl and “doggy style” positions, were associated with conservative beliefs regarding outgroup/punishment issues, but also, liberal beliefs around social issues.
There were no significant differences for anal sex or public sex when it came to political orientation. As well, despite having a more narrow repertoire with regards to the variety of sexual activities they would partake in, conservatives tended to be more satisfied with their sex lives.
Overall, it seems not too much has changed since the 1970s, as these findings echoed the sentiments of Eysenck’s work. Liberals have been shown to score higher on the personality trait of openness to experience, which may explain their tendency to engage in more “adventurous” and diverse sexual behaviors.
Regarding the fact that those with conservative attitudes tended to have a smaller number of items on their sexual menu, but also greater sexual satisfaction, research has previously shown that for some of us, having a plethora of choices available can paradoxically leave us feeling less satisfied. Similarly, the tendency for those holding liberal values to feel less satisfied with their sex lives could be a case of the grass always being greener on the other side.
In the end, there was a fair amount of heterogeneity across how sexual behavior relates to a person’s political attitudes. Many sexual behaviors were associated with liberalism on some dimensions and conservatism on others (as we saw with political beliefs associated with having sex in the cowgirl and doggy style positions, as well as oral sex). So, it would appear that labels like “conservative” or “liberal” don’t paint the full picture of a person’s preferences in the bedroom.
Although the study was reliant on self-report questionnaires—and thereby, respondents being honest in their answers—the researchers took several precautions to prevent potential bias. Study participants were told that all of their answers would be anonymous and that no identifiable information would be collected from them. Participants were also asked how comfortable they were answering the survey honestly, and those who responded that they felt uncomfortable were removed from the analysis.
In sum, we can’t conclude that having particular political values caused these sexual behaviors or vice versa. The authors suggested that perhaps a third variable, involving biological and social developmental mechanisms, plays a role in influencing both our sexual and political positions.
In a free society, we are fortunate to get to choose the kind of sex we want to have, and political attitudes to align with how we want to live our lives. Although we tend to date people who share similar political beliefs, this study suggests bipartisan dating might not be such a bad idea, after all.
Debra W. Soh, PhD, writes about the science of sex and its politics. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.