Excerpted from Volume IV, Issue II (May 1999)
The survey that many of you responded to has yielded some important, interesting results. First, the preliminary facts: We received questionnaires from 443 people--308 women, 135 men. (How many were HSPs depends on where you divide them--we tried both dividing at the midpoint of sensitivity-nonsensitivity and comparing the very sensitive to the very not. Results were about the same.) The average age was 48 for men, 46 for women.
In analyzing the data, we statistically partialled out or removed the effect on peoples answers of their age, being prone to depression and anxiety, and reporting having had a difficult childhood or more objective problems in the childhood home, such as alcoholism and mental health. The reason for this is that we wanted to be studying only the effect of the trait of sensitivity on sexuality, uncontaminated by age or these other issues, which could impact sexuality too.
I have abbreviated highly sensitive women to HSWs and highly sensitive men to HSMs. On the graphs, the numbers on the left are the average answer on a scale of 1 to 7.
Where We Do Not Differ
On the following items we found no difference between HSPs and nonHSPs:
- Number of sexual partners lived with.
I found all of this rather comforting--we seem to be just as satisfied with our relationships as nonHSPs. We are equally able to see sex itself as satisfying, to be active and in charge, excited and guilt- and worry-free, and no more likely to report nonsensitivity-related sexual problems. In short, we do not seem more sexually inhibited or otherwise troubled sexually.
(While it is surprising that we seem to be no better at knowing when our partner does or does not want sex, I realize now that it may be due to a problem inherent in the question: Theres no way to know the actual success rate--HSPs may be actually better at it, but more aware of when they failed to know than nonHSPs are!)
Where We Do Differ
It is important to realize that whenever I report a difference, it is only on the average. There is still great overlap between HSPs and nonHSPs. What I say below may not be true of you at all.
Given that caveat, I found that HSPs, whether men or women, were more likely to say often or almost always to these items:
- Finding that sex has a sense of mystery or power about it.
These results are exactly what I would expect. The first two reflect our processing of experience in a deep way. We find sexuality mysterious, powerful, and separate from the mundane. Of course it is difficult to go back to business as usual in a casual way. We are intense about sex.
The other questions (I asked more of them so they outnumber the first three) reflect the fact that our physical sensitivity and awareness of subtleties can interfere with sexuality. The differences between HSPs and nonHSPs were especially strong (although again this is still on the average and there is always great overlap--many HSPs who would not agree with these items, many nonHSPs who would).
I asked these questions about being bothered by things because I figured that if these were true for most of us, it would be a great comfort for us to know we are not alone and give us more permission to be ourselves, even when that means sometimes being overwhelmed or overstimulated, easily distracted or easily turned off, and liking things to be the same each time. (Who needs change when familiar sexuality is already mysterious and powerful?) Its all part of the package deal--if our partner likes our intensity, he or she will have to put up with these little quirks too. Everyone, HSP or not, has their preferences about sexuality. Ours are normal for us.
Highly Sensitive Women And Sexuality
HSWs were more likely on the average (with great overlap) to be higher than nonHSWs on these items (and in general, HSMs did not differ from nonHSMs on these):
- Considering the impact of a sexual relationship on the other person.
While it is sad to see that the HSWs who responded to this questionnaire were slightly less likely to like having sex, they showed no difference in seeing sex as potentially satisfying, and found it even easier than nonHSWs to lubricate and have an orgasm. Thus their not liking sex may be related to HSPs reporting that it is often or almost always true that their genitals can be touched in ways that are too painful or intense, even when aroused. HSWs in particular--even more than HSMs, who also report this pain or intensity--may need to feel permission to complain when something hurts without feeling embarrassed, odd, or rejecting, or worrying that they will interfere with the others pleasure. Pain is pain, and HSPs do have a lower pain threshold.
HSWs as a group certainly seem to be considerate, conscientious, and discerning about who they get into bed with--they want to express their sexuality within a loving relationship. This preference may explain their greater ease having an orgasm and greater feelings of being loved and less feeling of fear or sadness. Smart women.
HSMs And Sexuality
HSMs tended, again on the average, to rate themselves higher than nonHSMs on the following items (and in general HSWs did not differ from nonHSWs on these):
- Preferring not to have music on while having sex.
Apparently HSMs are not very different from nonHSMs, except in the ways all HSPs differ from all nonHSPs, plus not liking music on and having more fantasies. As for having their sexuality more affected by alcohol, that is exactly what I would have predicted, given that all HSPs are more affected by alcohol, and alcohol interferes more with mens sexual performance than womens. Thus it ought to have a differential affect on HSMs sexual performance.
Overall, HSPs seem to have as much interest in sex, have no more sexual problems, and bring even greater intensity to sexuality than nonHSPs. But we have different needs and responses--we require more calm and we are more easily overstimulated, stressed, distracted, and bothered by small unpleasantries, plus HSWs really want a loving, secure relationship before entering into sex. We are sensitive. And it makes a difference in our sexual lives. I hope sexual advisors and martial therapists will make use of these footnotes to what is normal.
In the next issue I will summarize some of the comments written on these questionnaires and also discuss how another temperament trait, sensation seeking, interacts with sensitivity.