It's the news Trotskyites never wanted to hear. According to a recent YouGov poll of 19,000 Europeans, you're more likely to be have a happy sex life if you consider yourself "very right wing" – specifically, the data showed 72 percent of right-wingers rated themselves as sexually satisfied versus 62 percent of proportional left-wingers. At first, it's a surprising conclusion. When most of us think of classically right-wing – read: old-fashioned – people fucking, we imagine all the quiet, clinical joys of missionary sex.
But when conservatives – from the UK, Germany, Sweden, France and Denmark – put down their 0 to 100 ranking next to a question asking how happy they'd say they were with their sex lives, what did they think it meant? Satisfaction is a slippery idea, and people could have been thinking of criteria as diffuse as number of orgasms, proportion of time spent on foreplay, the experimental lyricism of dirty talk, outlandish positions or how emotionally connected they felt to their partner.
Interestingly, in an earlier and similar survey conducted by the same researcher, people were asked for their political persuasions and their sexual fantasies. The results felt more like what you'd stereotypically expect: conservatives were, well, conservative, while liberals and socialists had a long list of fantasies in mind. So what is it? In an effort to understand the complexities of the concept of sexual satisfaction and how that sort of research can be basically used to pit people of different political persuasions against each other, I spoke to clinical psychologist and author Dr Noam Shpancer.
VICE: Hi Dr Shpancer, can you tell me what's actually meant by sexual satisfaction in these kinds of surveys?
Dr Noam Shpancer: Most of the time sexual satisfaction is assessed by one survey item asking about it. So it just means whatever the participant thinks it means. Being sexually satisfied may represent very different things to different people. And since we don't know what participants think about when they think about sexual satisfaction, the results are ambiguous, and should be taken with caution.
How has the clinical understanding of what contributes to sexual satisfaction changed in the past few years?
I think we're beginning to appreciate that some of this is complex. Sexual satisfaction is usually a function of a person's relationship with others. We're gaining a better understanding of how both self and partner qualities operate within a sexual interaction to produce the experience of satisfying sex. For example, your personality matters for sexual satisfaction, but so does your partner's personality.
At the same time, sexual satisfaction has a lot to do with how the notions of sexual pleasure and gratification are integrated into someone's "self-concept". Do you see yourself as someone deserving of sexual pleasure? Do you see your sexual needs as worthy of asserting? These questions matter.
I also think we understand that sexual pleasure involves sexual knowledge and skill. In the past there was a tendency to assume that this is a natural function that will take care of itself. Well, it is and it isn't. You can compare this to hunger and eating. Hunger and eating are natural functions; you don't need to learn to be hungry, and you can probably figure out how to find and eat food for subsistence. But if you want the sublime pleasure of a gourmet meal, you need some effort and skill. It won't appear in nature on its own. The same goes for sexual pleasure. Most people can figure out basic "subsistence sex" easily. But if you want gourmet sex, you need to learn how to do it.
Are these surveys normally representative of heterosexual committed couples, or is there inclusion of singles and LGBTQ+ people?
Often these large surveys are not random but rather samples of convenience. To get a representative sample of anything, you need to do some work, which costs money. That being said there is research going on attempting to use representative samples (which include sexual minorities) or target sexual minorities specifically. Ultimately, relying on survey data is problematic in terms of advancing our knowledge. We need more experimental data, observational data, longitudinal data, and in-depth ethnographic data for that.
Are there areas of the world where the study of sexual satisfaction is absent or non-existent?
There are sex research findings coming in from all corners of the globe these days. But it's still a difficult line of work. Sex research is often ridiculed; government funding is often withheld; and scientists are often ridiculed and attacked for doing this kind of work. Quality control is another issue. Much of sex research is not very good.
How reliable can reports on sexual satisfaction ever be? I feel like there must sometimes be levels of self-deception involved in answering questions about your sex life, or potential divergent interpretations of wording that affect the outcome.
How valid are our findings? It's hard to say. Definitely people may interpret the same word differently. Definitely some people lie. And definitely we cannot measure directly what's in someone's true deep soul. But those are limitations of all psychological research, not just sex research. We often measure slippery concepts, indirectly, and we rely heavily on self-report. So there are issues. Clearly, to get deeper toward the truth, we have to do more than surveys. We have to invest in experimental studies, observational studies, studies that use physiological and brain measures, and longitudinal studies that follow people over time to get the full picture of how things really work.
What reasons can you imagine that might mean a correlation between political principles and increased sexual enjoyment? Is it potentially that right-wing voters could be older, married and financially stable – and therefore more generally satisfied?
Those are good guesses, but I think the study you cite controlled for age and other demographics, so that may not be the answer. I also don't think this is a case where A causes B or B causes A. In other words, I don't think voting conservative makes you satisfied or vice versa. My hunch is that some temperamental tendency may be responsible for the link (to the extent that it really exists. We need more converging evidence to gain trust in this finding). Perhaps by genetic temperament, people who are less restless or thrill-seeking tend to vote conservative and also be more easily satisfied sexually.
What a mystery. Thanks for your help, Dr Shpancer.
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