The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to The Comfort ZoneExcerpted from Volume IV, Issue II (May 1999)
Reflections On Research:
Results of the First Temperament and Sexuality Survey


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 people’s 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.
- Relationship satisfaction.
- Sex being one of the most potentially satisfying parts of life.
- Finding it easy to sense when your partner does or does not want sex.
- Being aroused by subtle cues.
- Difficulty making the transition into sex.
- Liking to be the one who is active and deciding what the two of you will do.
- Liking to talk during sex.
- Frequency of having an orgasm.
- Frequency of masturbating.
- Physical or emotional problems or medications interfering with sex.
- Having fantasies of having power over another person.
- Having been sexually abused, and if abused, having these experiences affect your life.
- Sexual dysfunctions (eight items, such as lack of interest, not finding sex pleasurable, impotence, premature ejaculation, etc.)
- Feelings of satisfaction, worry, excitement, or guilt during sex.

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: There’s 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.
- Finding it difficult to return abruptly to ordinary activities after sex.
- Not being turned on by strong, explicit sexual cues.
- Having areas of your genitals that can be touched in a way that is painful or too intense, even when aroused.
- Needing to stop during sex because of being overwhelmed or overstimulated.
- Being distracted or interrupted while having sex gets you out of the mood.
- While having sex or considering it, being easily disturbed by slight sounds, smells, seeing certain things (in the environment of the other person). (See figure.)[figure to be inserted into web page later.]
- Liking to have things be the same each time you have sex (true for HSWs, but especially true for HSMs.)

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?) It’s 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.
- Concern before entering a sexual relationship about sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
- Needing to feel loving towards your partner in order to enjoy sex and not enjoying sex with someone you don’t love.
- Not desiring a variety of sexual partners, even if not in a relationship.
- Not being able to take sex lightly.
- Not liking to have sex.
- But being less likely to have trouble having an orgasm or lubricating.
- Being less likely to feel sad, scared, or afraid and more likely to feel loved.
- Preferring not to engage in a wide variety of sexual activities.
- Not having a sexual fantasy while having sex with a partner, not having romantic sexual fantasies, and not having fantasies of another person having power over you.
- Having fewer sexual partners over your lifetime and during this year.
- Having first intercourse later.

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 other’s 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.
- Alcohol adversely affecting sexual performance.
- Having a sexual fantasy while having sex with a partner or while masturbating (what active imaginations!).

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 men’s sexual performance than women’s. 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.

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