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Personality and Individual Differences 55 (2013) 428432

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Personality and Individual Differences


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Attachment style and sexual permissiveness: The moderating role of gender


Susan Sprecher
Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA Department of Psychology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA

a r t i c l e

i n f o

a b s t r a c t
An individual difference variable that has been found to predict variation in young adults sexual attitudes and behaviors is attachment orientation. Although it has been argued that the association between attachment orientation and sexuality may differ for males and females, only a few studies have explored this possibility, and the results have been inconsistent. With data collected from a large sample (N = 4246) of college students at a U.S. Midwestern University, it was examined how men and women with different attachment styles may vary in sociosexuality and attitudes toward casual sex. This study found evidence that among men, and as hypothesized, a dismissive-avoidant attachment orientation was associated with higher scores on Simpson and Gangestads (1991) Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (sociosexuality) and on a measure of approval of sex in casual dating relationships. Among women, however, there was no support found for the hypothesis that an anxious-preoccupied attachment style was associated with greater sexual permissiveness or with approval of casual sex. As hypothesized, however, securely attached women had a lower score on sociosexuality than did women with other attachment styles. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Article history: Received 24 January 2013 Received in revised form 2 April 2013 Accepted 5 April 2013 Available online 6 May 2013 Keywords: Sexuality Attachment styles Sociosexuality Gender

1. Introduction Most young, unmarried adults in the U.S. today are sexually active (McAnulty & Cann, 2012). Nonetheless, there is variation among young adults in sexual permissiveness (Perlman & Sprecher, 2012; Tolman & McClelland, 2011). Some young adults are very sexually permissive and have many sexual partners including through hookup experiences (e.g., Owen, Fincham, & Moore, 2011). At the other end of the continuum are those who are restrictive and elect to abstain until a very committed stage, possibly marriage. Various individual difference variables are predictive of young adults sexual attitudes and behaviors. One strong predictor is gender. Males have consistently been found to be more sexually permissive and to be more approving of casual sex than females (e.g., Petersen & Hyde, 2011). Another individual difference variable that has been considered recently for its association with sexuality is attachment style or orientation (Cooper et al., 2006; Feeney & Noller, 2004; Gillath & Schachner, 2006). The purpose of this study was to examine how young adults attachment style is associated with their sexual standards and behaviors, and how these associations may differ for males versus females. According to attachment theory (e.g., Bowlby, 1973; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988), people have working models, which are positive or negative beliefs about themselves and others. These
Tel.: +1 309 438 8357.
E-mail address: sprecher@ilstu.edu 0191-8869/$ - see front matter Published by Elsevier Ltd. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.04.005

working models develop based on early childhood experiences, but also inuence and are inuenced by current social interactions and relationships. If interactions with important attachment gures are available and responsive, the working models are positive and a sense of security develops. Beginning with Hazan and Shavers (1987) theoretical and empirical extension of attachment to adult relationships, the identication of differences in relationship phenomena based on individuals attachment orientations has become one of the most prolic areas of research in relationship science (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). Research (for reviews, see Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2006) has demonstrated that secure attachment is associated with positive relationship outcomes, including stability, satisfaction, self-disclosure, trust, support, and other intimate behaviors. Anxious attachment has been found to be associated with dissatisfaction, conict, a high breakup rate, an obsessive-passionate love, an inappropriate level of selfdisclosure, being demanding of ones partner, endorsing dysfunctional beliefs, and extreme jealousy. Avoidant or dismissing attachment has been found to be associated with a lower level of intimacy and self-disclosure, a higher breakup rate, and a decreased likelihood of falling in love and remaining committed. Although considerable research has examined how attachment orientations are associated with a variety of relationship behaviors and outcomes, less research has examined how attachment is associated with sexual behaviors and attitudes. Over a decade ago, Bogaert and Sadava (2002, p. 198) wrote surprisingly little research has been conducted on attachment and sexuality. Even re-

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cently, in a review article on the sex-attachment link, Dewitte (2012, p. 106) claimed that the number of (empirical) articles on the interplay between sex and attachment is still limited. The research that has been done linking attachment to sexuality has often taken a relational perspective, with a focus on how attachment is associated with the sexual aspect of existing relationships. Not surprisingly, this research indicates that secure attachment orientation is associated with positive sexual experiences, including more frequent and satisfying sex and having sex to express love to ones partner. Insecure attachment is associated with negative outcomes such as less frequent and less satisfying sex and more negative emotions during sex (e.g., Birnbaum, 2007; Birnbaum, Reis, Mikulincer, Gillath, & Orpaz, 2006; Bogaert & Sadava, 2002; Brassard, Shaver, & Lussier, 2007; Tracy, Shaver, Albino, & Cooper, 2003). Another line of research, and the one that this study extends, is on how attachment orientations are associated with individuals sexual attitudes and overall sexual behaviors. Although research on this topic is not abundant, ndings have accumulated to show distinct differences in sexuality based on attachment style or dimensions. Secure attachment has been found to be associated with the belief that sex should occur in the context of relationships, having fewer partners, and the decreased likelihood of participating in hookups and extra-dyadic relationships (e.g., Brennan & Shaver, 1995; Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; Hazan, Zeifman, & Middleton, 1994, as reported in Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000; Tracy et al., 2003). This pattern of sexuality would be consistent with the theorys characterization of securely attached people as valuing emotional intimacy. Avoidant attachment has been found to be associated with greater acceptance of and engagement in casual sex (Brennan & Shaver, 1995; Feeney, Noller, & Patty, 1993; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004; Simpson & Gangestad, 1989, as reported in Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). Avoidant individuals interest in casual sex can be a strategy used to avoid intimacy. The other way that avoidantly attached individuals can avoid intimacy is to not have sex, which may be a common strategy used during adolescence when sexual activity has not yet become normative (Brassard et al., 2007; Cooper et al., 1998; Tracy et al., 2003). Attachment researchers have argued that people high on anxious attachment, because of their intense intimacy needs, may be willing to have sex even when they do not desire it, for the purpose of initiating or maintaining a relationship and to avoid being rejected. For example, research has shown that anxious-attachment is associated with participating in unwanted sex (Feeney, Peterson, Gallois, & Terry, 2000; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004) and with early sexual intercourse and more partners (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002). The effect of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment on individuals sexuality, however, may differ for males and females (e.g., Bogaert & Sadava, 2002; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004). As noted above, considerable research has shown that men report greater acceptance of casual sex than women. Conversely, women are more focused on emotional intimacy of sex than men (e.g., Petersen & Hyde, 2011). As a consequence, and as cogently argued by Bogaert and Sadava (2002), attachment and its various links to sexuality may depend on mens strategy/role of being initiators and womens strategy/role of being gatekeepers (p. 195). More specically, the association between anxious-attachment and sexuality should be stronger for women than for men (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004). Anxiously attached females may give into their male partners pressure to have sex in order not to be rejected. Indeed, in some research, anxiously attached females, relative to other females, have been found to begin sex at an earlier age (Bogaert & Sadava, 2002; Cooper et al., 2006; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004), have higher scores on erotophilia and other positive attitudes toward casual sex (Allen & Baucom, 2004; Bogaert & Sadava, 2002), have more sexual experience (Tracy et al., 2003),

and have more partners outside of a primary relationship (Gangestad & Thornhill, 1997). The same associations are not as strong or are nonexistent for men. In fact, Feeney et al. (1993) found that anxiety attachment was associated with less sexual activity among men (similar results were found in Hazan et al., 1994, as reported in Feeney & Noller, 2004). Although gender differences in the effects of avoidant attachment on sexuality have been less frequently discussed in the literature, Gentzler and Kerns (2004) made the argument that avoidant attachment should be more strongly associated with sexual permissiveness for men than for women. The argument was that because men are less likely to link sex and love than women, male avoidants may be especially likely to approve of casual sex and be sexually permissive. Gentzler and Kerns (2004) found, however, that avoidant attachment was associated with acceptance of casual sex for both men and women, approximately equally. 1.1. The present study The moderating inuence of gender on the association between attachment orientations and sexual attitudes and behaviors has been examined in only a few prior studies, and the results have not been consistent. Furthermore, some of the samples (e.g., Feeney et al., 1993; Gentzler & Kerns, 2004; Schachner & Shaver, 2004) have been relatively small, which reduces the number of participants within each gender who could be characterized as having insecure attachments. Most of the research conducted on the attachment-sexuality link has used multiple-item measures of attachment (e.g., Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998) and examined how two continuous dimensions avoidant attachment and anxious attachment are associated with sexuality (e.g., Brassard et al., 2007). In some of the studies (e.g., Feeney et al., 1993), however, the categorical approach of discrete attachment styles, either Hazan and Shavers (1987) three-category model or Bartholomew and Horowitzs (1991) four-category model, has been used. The data collection for this study began in 1997, when the category model of discrete attachment styles was more commonly used. This study used the Bartholomews four-category model, which assesses how people vary in level of anxiety and avoidance: secure (low anxiety, low avoidance), preoccupied (high anxiety, low avoidance), dismissing (low anxiety, high avoidance), and fearful (high anxiety, high avoidance). I examine how attachment is related to two common measures of sexual permissiveness. The rst is Simpson and Gangestads (1991) Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI), which assesses how restrictive versus unrestrictive people are in their sexuality and includes both attitudinal and behavioral items. Second, I used a measure that emerged out of the sociological literature (e.g., Reiss, 1964; Sprecher, McKinney, Walsh, & Anderson, 1988), the Premarital Sexual Permissiveness Scale. More specically, I focused on the items that assess approval of sex during casual dating 1. Based on Attachment theory and the limited research linking attachment to sexuality, the hypotheses are: H1: Among men, those who have a dismissive/avoidant style will have higher scores on sociosexuality and be more accepting of sex in casual relationships than will men with any of the other attachment styles. No differences are expected between men with other attachment styles. H2: Among women, those who have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style will have higher scores on sociosexuality and be more accepting of sex in casual relationships than will women with any other attachment style. Furthermore, among women,
1 Although the scale also assesses standards about sex for serious stages of relationships (seriously dating, engaged), most young adults approve of sex during the seriously dating and engaged stages (i.e., little variance).

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the secure attachment style will be associated with lower scores on sociosexuality and with less approval of sex in casual relationships, relative to women with other attachment styles. 2. Method 2.1. Participants and procedure Participants were a subsample of students who completed a lengthy survey about their sexual attitudes and behaviors anonymously as an optional class activity in a sexuality class at a Midwestern U.S. University. Although the study began in 1990, the questions on attachment were not added to the survey until the fall of 1997. Therefore, the participants in the present study were students who completed the survey during a semester between the fall of 1997 and the spring of 2012. After eliminating some participants due to missing data on key variables or incorrect completion of the op-scan, the analytic sample for this study was N = 4246. Reecting the population of the larger university, a greater percent of the participants were female (n = 2731; 64.5%) than male (n = 1502; 35.5%); 13 did not list their gender. The modal age was 20 (26.2%); 90% were between the ages of 18 and 22. The sample consisted of 84.6% Caucasian (n = 3582), 9.4% AfricanAmerican (n = 399), and 3.1% Hispanic/Latino (n = 133). The remainder of the participants were Asian (n = 56; 1.3%), American Indian (n = 4; 0.1%), or Other (n = 58; 1.4%). An additional 13 individuals (0.3%) did not report their race. Sixty-one percent reported that they were currently in a relationship. 3. Measures 3.1. Adult attachment style Participants were given the four descriptions of attachment styles from Bartholomew and Horowitzs (1991) four-category model, and asked to select the option that best described them. The paragraphs referred to fearful, preoccupied, dismissing, and secure attachment styles. This measurement tool has been found to be valid and congruent to other measures of adult attachment style (Brennan, Shaver, & Tobey, 1991). The numbers of males and females who chose each attachment style can be found in Table 1. 3.2. Sociosexuality

cause participants responded on op-scan sheets, these questions could not be open-ended. The responses to the rst and third items were: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 79, 1012, and over 12. The second item had the following response options: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 58, 912, 13 20, 2135, over 35. The frequency of fantasy about having sex with someone other than the current or most recent partner was the fourth item in the SOI, and was followed by eight possible responses: never, once every two or three months, once a month, once every two weeks, once a week, a few times each week, nearly every day, at least once a day. Three additional items assessed attitudes toward casual sex and were, Sex without love is okay, I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying casual sex with different partners, and I would have to be closely attached to someone (both emotionally and psychologically) before I could feel comfortable and fully enjoy having sex with him or her (reverse coded). The response options to the attitude items ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 9 (strongly agree). Following one of Simpson and Gangestads (1991) recommended aggregation procedures, a mean of the three attitudinal items was rst created, and then their recommended weighting was applied to create a total summed score. This score was highly correlated (>.90) with other ways of creating a total SOI, including a mean of all the (unweighted) items and a version based on standardized scores. Higher SOI scores reect greater unrestrictedness. Cronbachs alpha for the individual (unweighted) items of SOI with this sample was .83. 3.3. Premarital sexual standards for casual relationships Two items from the Sprecher et al.s (1988) Premarital Sexual Permissiveness Scale (PSPS) were used to assess acceptance of sexual intercourse for the casual stage of relationships (rst date, casual dating) (see footnote 1). The two items were: I believe that sexual intercourse is acceptable for me on a rst date. I believe that sexual intercourse is acceptable for me when casual dating (dating less than one month). The response scale for each item ranged from (1) agree strongly to (6) disagree strongly. The items were reverse-coded for the analyses so that the higher number on the composite score (PSPS-casual) indicated more agreement or greater sexual permissiveness. Cronbachs alpha for the 2-item index was .85. 4. Results

Sociosexuality was measured with the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI; Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). (The revised SOI Penke & Asendorpf, 2008 was not available when this study began.) The scale consists of seven items assessing an individuals sexual behaviors and attitudes. Behavioral items include: the number of sexual partners within the last year, the number of partners an individual foresees having in the next ve years, and the number of partners an individual had sex with on only one occasion. Be-

I rst conducted a 4 (attachment style) 2 (gender) Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA) with the scores on SOI and PSPS-casual as the dependent variables. Not surprisingly, the main effect of gender was very signicant, with men being more permissive on both indices than women. The main effect of gender is not further discussed in this paper, although was the focus of another paper (Sprecher, Treger, & Sakaluk, 2011).

Table 1 Differences in sociosexuality and attitudes toward casual sex as a function of attachment style for men versus women. Men SOI-total Permissiveness for casual relationships Women SOI-total Permissive for casual relationships Secure (n = 583) 53.60 (28.01)a 3.62 (1.71)a Secure (n = 997) 33.77 (21.74)a,b 2.12 (1.32) Fearful (n = 329) 56.57 (27.10)b 3.65 (1.72)b Fearful (n = 871 37.75 (23.10)a 2.16 (1.34) Preoccupied (n = 280) 51.83 (26.66)c 3.50 (1.62)c Preoccupied (n = 515) 37.37 (22.05)b 2.22 (1.30)

Dismissive Avoidant (n = 310) 63.20 (29.47)abc 4.07 (1.66)abc Dismissive- Avoidant (n = 348) 37.28 (22.44) 2.25 (1.39) p < .01,

F (Oneway) 10.21 6.89 F (oneway) 5.94 1.22

Notes: Identical superscripts in each row indicate a signicant difference based on Bonferroni pair-wise comparisons.

p < .001.

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Of interest to this paper, the main effect of attachment type was signicant, Wilks K = .99, F (6, 8228) = 7.26, p < .001, partial g2 = .005. This signicant main effect, however, was qualied by a signicant attachment style gender interaction, Wilks K = .99, F (6, 8228) = 3.15, p = .004, partial g2 = .002. In follow-up univariate ANOVAS, the signicant attachment style gender interaction was signicant, for both SOI (F[3,4119] = 6.26, p < .001, partial g2 = .005), and PSPS-casual (F[3,4221] = 3.97, p = .008, partial g2 = .003). Table 1 presents the means for each index, for men and women separately. Among men, those who were dismissive-avoidant had signicantly higher scores on both SOI and PSPS-casual than those with any of the other attachment styles, in support of Hypothesis 1. No other differences between attachment types were found among men in the sexuality variables. Results for women (presented in the bottom of Table 1) were in partial support of Hypothesis 2. Contrary to the hypothesis, preoccupied women did not score signicantly higher on either SOI or PSPS-casual, relative to women with other attachment styles. In support of the hypothesis, however, securely attached women scored lower on SOI, particularly in comparison to fearfully attached women and anxious-preoccupied attached women. (No signicant difference based on attachment type was found for PSPScasual among women, however.)2,3

men score higher on some indicators of sexuality (not assessed in this study) that refer to giving into the sexual demands of partners so as not to be rejected. The nding that securely attached women had lower scores on sociosexuality is consistent with prior research showing that secure attachment is associated with the reduced likelihood of casual sex (e.g., Brennan & Shaver, 1995). The fact that securely attached men were not found to score lower on sociosexuality compared to insecurely attached men is probably an indication that such men feel comfortable expressing emotional intimacy through sex.

5.1. Strengths and Limitations of the Study A strength of the study was the extremely large sample (over 4000 young adults). No prior study examining the association between attachment orientations and sexuality has come close to this sample size. The benet of this large sample for this particular research topic is that each type of insecure attachment category was represented in large numbers. A limitation of the study, however, was the use of only a categorical measure of attachment types. Although this was a common measure used when the data collection began in 1997, the eld has advanced to using primarily dimension measures. In addition, the original SOI has been replaced by the revised SOI (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008). Another limitation is that over the period of data collection (1997 to present), hookup experiences that include oral sex have become more common on college campuses (e.g., Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012); however, this study did not include measures of these types of sexual experiences. Another limitation is that the sample consisted primarily of young adults. The associations found in this study between attachment styles and sexual permissiveness (e.g., that dismissive-avoidant men were more sexually permissive) may be limited to young adulthood, a time of sexual exploration.

5. Discussion This may be the rst study to show strong evidence that a dismissive-avoidant attachment orientation is associated with approval of casual sex and with more permissive sexuality (i.e., sociosexuality) for men (although not for women). Prior attachment theorists have argued that a strategy that can be used by young adults who are avoidantly attached is to have casual sex and therefore not become emotionally committed to their partners (e.g., Cooper et al., 1998), and the ndings of this study suggest that this is a strategy used by male avoidants although not by female avoidants. Avoidant females were not any more approving of casual sex or sexually permissive (as indicated by their scores on SOI) than females characterized by other attachment styles. The ndings that gender moderated the effects of avoidant attachment on sexuality was consistent with the hypothesis of this study and the arguments made by some prior researchers (e.g., Gentzler & Kerns, 2004). Because men are more likely than women to be sexually permissive overall and to be sex initiators (e.g., Sprecher et al. (2011), Petersen & Hyde, 2011), male avoidants, to a greater degree than female avoidants, may engage in casual sex as a way to avoid emotional intimacy. Avoidant women may have other strategies to avoid emotional intimacy. Although I had hypothesized that gender would also moderate the effect of anxious-preoccupied attachment on sexual attitudes and behaviors, and more specically that preoccupied-attached women would be more sexually permissive and be more likely to approve of casual sex than would women with any other attachment style, no evidence was found for this in this study. This is inconsistent with some prior research which has found evidence that anxiously attached women, relative to women characterized by other attachment styles, have more positive attitudes toward casual sex (e.g., Bogaert & Sadava, 2002) and more sexual experience (Tracy et al., 2003). It is possible that anxiously attached wo2 The analyses were conducted again with only the heterosexuals, and the same pattern of results was found. The subsamples of homosexuals (n = 79) and bisexuals (n = 98) were too small to conduct analyses separately for them. 3 In addition, the basic analyses were conducted separately for the Attitude component versus the Behavioral component of the SOI, and a similar pattern of results was found.

6. Conclusion The most robust nding of this study was that men who selected the dismissive-avoidant attachment style as the attachment style that best represented them, scored considerably higher on sociosexuality and attitudes about casual sex than men who chose any other attachment style. This nding has implications for romantic pairings, especially those that involve an avoidant male and a secure female. Not only would the partners in such relationships likely differ in desire for emotional commitment, but they may have conict as they negotiate how soon and how often to have sex.

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