Narcissism, estimated to occur in about 1-3% of the population but as high as 5-15% of men, has been conceptualized as a personality trait (a relatively stable pattern of thinking, perceiving, reacting, and relating), characterized by self-centeredness, feelings of entitlement, an unrealistic positive self-view, tendencies toward exploiting others, a general lack of empathy for others, and an excessive need for admiration across different social situations. In its more extreme form, it is defined as a personality disorder characterized by antagonism, self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and emotional and behavioral dysregulation that impairs daily and interpersonal functioning. The personality structure is manifested in two types, namely, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. The grandiose type is characterized by exhibitionism, self-enhancement, feelings of superiority, and preoccupation with receiving admiration and attention from others. Feelings of neglect, anxiety, diminished self-esteem, and insecurity characterize the vulnerable type. Both types share grandiose fantasies, a sense of entitlement, and a constant need for validation and admiration. These tendencies are latent in vulnerable narcissists, whereas grandiose narcissists openly act upon them.
Narcissism as a personality trait and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has been linked to sexual interactions for more than a century. However, narcissism is not always associated with sexual outcomes and may not predict sexual behavior. The manner and degree to which narcissistic tendencies might develop within and impact a sexual context—including sexual and relationship functioning—have been captured in the construct of “sexual narcissism”.
Widman and McNulty (2010, 2011) introduced the concept of sexual narcissism as the activation of cognitive components of narcissistic personality styles in sexual situations. They developed and used a domain-specific measure of sexual narcissism, the Sexual Narcissism Scale (SNS), to seize the extent to which four essential components of narcissism are activated in sexual domains and shape sexual outcomes:
- Sexual Entitlement: a sense of sexual entitlement and belief that the fulfillment of one’s sexual desires is a personal right
- Sexual Exploitation: the ability and willingness to manipulate a person to gain sexual access
- Low Sexual Empathy: a general lack of empathy and devaluation of sexual partners
- Sexual Skill: a tendency to hold a grandiose sense of sexual skill or an exaggerated sense of sexual success
Although global and sexual narcissism share some variance, not all narcissists are sexual narcissists, and vice versa. Moreover, while narcissism, like other personality traits, is likely to be stable over time, the degree to which components of narcissism are activated in the sexual domain varies across people and may also change within people over time. Recent studies found that sexual but not global narcissism was related to specific sexual attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes.
Individuals high in sexual narcissism are likely to show higher:
- Sociosexuality: willingness or propensity to engage in sexual activity without commitment or intimacy, including a higher lifetime number of sexual partners and a greater desire to seek short-term mates.
- Infidelity: extradyadic dating involvement (flirting, kissing, going on a date, having a brief or a serious affair).
- Game-playing love style: love bombing, ghosting, triangulation, gaslighting, low commitment and intimacy, covertly seeking out other potential romantic partners.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): heightened risk of acquiring STDs and knowingly transmitting STDs.
- Sexual aggression: unwanted sexual contact, sexual coercion, attempted/completed rape, and future sexual aggression propensity.
Of the studies that have considered the role of gender, results generally find stronger relationships between narcissism and sexuality among men than among women. However, there may be a difference in how it is perceived based on the partner’s beliefs about traditional gender roles. While sexually narcissistic men may be seen by their partners as aggressive or controlling, sexually narcissistic women may be considered empowered or modern (given that they prioritize their pleasure over their partner’s).
Little research on sexual narcissism has been conducted about people outside of the cisgender woman/man binary.
In men who have sex with men (MSM), narcissistic traits predicted higher sexual risk behaviors (e.g., using substances when having sex, not using condoms, and having unprotected sex with HIV-positive partners). Moreover, among MSM, appearance may play some role in developing and maintaining narcissistic attitudes. They are more likely to self-report having masculine or gender-empathic attributes (height, muscularity, penis size) and select/reject partners according to what the community values as attractive.
adverse outcomes associated with sexual narcissism
Since people with narcissistic traits need to be admired, their self-esteem depends on the positive consideration of others and is, therefore, usually very fragile. People with these characteristics often look to see what others think of them and gauge their performance. They are sensitive and bothered by others’ criticism, which makes them feel humiliated and defeated. They can respond with anger or contempt or brutally fight back. Or they may withdraw or accept the situation externally to protect their sense of self-importance (grandiosity). They can avoid situations where they can fail. Sexual narcissists activate these attitudes in the sexual domain. Not a surprise that diminished relationship satisfaction is typical among narcissistic couples.
Narcissists’ fear of rejection may interfere with their ability to integrate sex and emotional intimacy, with their relationships often characterized by ego-protective rather than other-focused behaviors. Yet, at the same time, they may be strongly motivated to seek out sexual relationships to validate their self-esteem and social status. Typical of many sexual narcissists, they may be preoccupied with sex, pursuing relationships with passion at the outset but quickly losing interest as the novelty wanes. This strong motivation for sex, coupled with a lack of empathy in close relationships, may not only lead to exploitation and use of manipulation strategies within a relationship but also manifest in infidelity, promiscuity, and a tendency for multiple/concomitant partners. Such a highly self-centered pattern makes it difficult for narcissistic individuals to experience a functional and reciprocal relationship.
Along with an unstable (sometimes fragile) self-esteem and fear of rejection, the narcissistic sense of entitlement often leads to sex that is impersonal, avoidance of relationship commitment, and a preference for short-term relationships, especially with people already in relationships. Furthermore, this sense of entitlement reinforces their focus on their physical pleasure, overshadowing the relational rewards of emotional and physical intimacy that generally accompany sexual interaction.
Sexual narcissists seem more exposed to sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction too. Precisely, there is evidence suggesting that sexual narcissists typically:
- Subscribe to traditional and rigid gender role attitudes, thus being less flexible when they interpret an episodic sexual failure.
- Exhibit psycho-behavioral tendencies such as sexual sensation seeking, promiscuity, infidelity, impulsive sexual behavior, and even sexual aggression.
- They are more prone to sexual boredom and frustration over time.
- Show higher vulnerability to developing sexual dysfunction.
- More frequently report decreased sexual rewards and/or increased sexual costs and thus lower levels of sexual and relational satisfaction as relationships develop.
The association between sexual narcissism and sexual function/dysfunction has been recently studied.
Narcissistic men seem strongly self-pleasure driven, deriving sexual satisfaction more from orgasm than relational interactions, reporting partnered sex as being less satisfying/pleasurable than masturbation (usually with extensive porn consumption). They may not have difficulty getting an erection, even if a few studies report a higher prevalence of erectile dysfunction in this population. Still, they seem more prone to rapid ejaculation (presumably early in a sexual relationship) and difficulty reaching ejaculation (presumably as relationship novelty wanes). This paradoxical pattern of hyperarousal and hypo-arousal in narcissistic men suggests that their sexual arousal may be primarily dependent on, or sensitive to, the specific conditions (thrilling or not) surrounding the sexual interaction.
In women, high traits of vulnerable narcissism are negatively associated with sexual functioning, while the opposite emerges for grandiose narcissism, which is positively related to sexual functioning. Body image self-consciousness explains such associations: women who score higher in vulnerable narcissism are not only prone to experiencing shame and low self-esteem in general but also tend to experience more specific forms of self-consciousness and concerns related to their own body and physical appearance. Therefore, vulnerable narcissism fuels maladaptive tendencies to self-monitor one’s body (particularly of one’s perceived bodily defects) while having sexual intercourse (spectatoring).
It is to be noted that when narcissism is combined with sexual dysfunction, it predicts lower relationship satisfaction.
Is sexual narcissism associated with beneficial outcomes in the sexual domain?
Almost all studies concerning the association between narcissism and sexuality have focused on potentially harmful outcomes. However, there are also adaptive facets of narcissistic personality traits associated with beneficial effects on sexual health and well-being. Having a high sense of sexual skill particularly can likely be identified as the underlying mechanism explaining this association. This facet of sexual narcissism could be described as a form of sexual self-esteem or self-efficacy in sexual performance. Sexual narcissists are likely to show:
- Higher mate appeal
- Positive self-view and belief to be physically attractive, and therefore more attention to their physical appearance
- Positive orientation toward sex, high sexual desire, and assertiveness, higher auto-erotic orientation
- Positive genital self-image
- In women, this is positively related to sexual function, autoerotic behaviors, number of oral sex partners, sexual desire, and orgasm experience. Also, it predicts increasing health awareness regarding regularly engaging in gynecological exams.
- In men, this is associated with less sexual anxiety and better erectile and orgasmic function.
- Better sexual functioning that contributes to higher sexual and relationship satisfaction in either gender
- A sense of interpersonal skill and self-efficacy that, in turn, leads to more rewarding interpersonal experiences
- Higher life satisfaction and overall quality of life
Adaptive narcissism seems to bring even more positive consequences for women. Sexual entitlement appears significantly correlated with sexual functioning in women but not men. Women develop sexuality in a sociocultural environment discouraging their initiative and sexual expression. As such, some women restrict their sexual pleasure by not articulating sexual wishes and preferences, primarily trying to please their partner by valuing the sexual pleasure of their partner to a higher degree than their own. Pointing to the crucial role of entitlement in women’s sexual function, benign sexual narcissism seems to be more important for women than men. It might contribute to an enhancement of women’s sexual health and well-being.