Artists Have More Sexual Partners, U.K. Survey Hints

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 15, 2005
A survey of 425 British men and women found that creative people have more sexual partners.

Researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Open University asked participants about their artistic skills and their history of sexual encounters since the age of 18.

Professional artists and poets reported sleeping with twice as many partners as other adults sampled.

Daniel Nettle, a psychology professor at the University of Newcastle's School of Biology, said two factors may explain the findings.

"Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result," he said. "They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people's interest."

Alternatively "it could also be that very creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience's sake, than the average person would," he said.

"Moreover, it's common to find that this sexual behavior is tolerated in creative people. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them."

According to the survey, professional artists and poets had between four to ten sexual partners, on average, compared to three partners for nonartists.

The study appeared last month in the U.K.-based science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Do Artists Attract?

Citing the survey's methodology, some outside sexual-behavior experts questioned the study authors' conclusions.

Erick Janssen, of Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, said that while the study results were "intriguing," other factors may explain the findings.

"[The study authors] got the control group from a small town in southern England and added some psychology students, while the 'artists' were found through advertisements in major visual arts magazines and [through] poetry organizations," Janssen said.

"So one concern is comparing small-town people with artists from all over the country. That will have implications for the differences you might find," he noted. "Is it really artists versus the rest of us? Or is it perhaps a difference between urban and rural populations?"

James Elias, director of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge, voiced similar concerns.

"We have no idea if the 'artist' group … and that of the 'general population' were matched in terms of major variables such as marriage, length of time together, age, etc.," he said.

"These types of variables could make a major difference in the results. I'm afraid that the research may have found what they set out to find."

Janssen, of the Kinsey Institute, also noted that survey participants can sometimes be less than truthful when it comes to discussing their sexual exploits.

"To put it bluntly, maybe artists are overreporting the number of partners that they have. Maybe they are just exaggerating," he said.

Creativity, Schizophrenia, and Evolution

In their study, Nettle and colleagues also reported that artists and poets share certain personality characteristics with schizophrenic patients. The authors linked such traits with increased sexual activity and suggested that these traits may contribute in some way to the evolutionary survival of humans.

"These personality traits can manifest themselves in negative ways, in that a person with them is likely to be prone to the shadows of full-blown mental illness, such as depression and suicidal thoughts," he said.

"This research shows there are positive reasons, such as their role in mate attraction and species survival, for why these characteristics are still around."

Actual schizophrenics, as opposed to people who display some related traits, suffer from social withdrawal and tend to have fewer sexual partners than the norm.

Janssen said, however, that any evolutionary benefits possibly associated with creative or schizophrenic traits are far from clear.

"To test the relationship between artistic creativity and reproductive success you'd have to test if [artists] are more attractive to others and if they are in fact successful in reproducing," he said.

"Looking at how many partners they've had may not be an accurate indicator. They may not be very good at maintaining relationships, and in that case they could actually have lower reproductive rates," Janssen added.

The survey results are provocative and, as Janssen noted, open to some interesting alternative interpretations.

"A more playful interpretation, which I don't necessarily think is true but is kind of fun, is that you could reverse the findings," he said. "[The study] is all about how creative abilities predict mating success, but you could say that maybe having sex makes you more creative."

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