It’s that magic moment on Feb. 14. You’ve just exchanged Valentine’s Day presents, and now it’s time for the kiss to symbolize the love (or at least the strong liking) you have for each other. If you’ve settled into a long-term relationship, the kiss might be more of a peck. If your relationship is fresher, or you’re feeling frisky… the kiss might be longer.
The song “As Time Goes By,” featured in the classic film “Casablanca,” contains the lyric, “A kiss is just a kiss.” But is that true? Is a kiss just a kiss? Or, is it something more?
To modern lovers, a kiss has more than one meaning. It can be a test to determine if there’s a potential romantic relationship in the works. There are few moments more disappointing than the instant when, having aimed for the lips, you make contact with the cheek, because she turned her head at the last minute.
Your passion has been misdirected. She just wants to be friends.
A kiss can be a thermometer that tests the passion level of an ongoing relationship. There’s been a fight but it seems like the disagreement is over and the status quo has returned. Or has it? Test that conjecture with a kiss. Is the kiss returned warmly? Or is there a chilly subtext? If the latter, you can be pretty sure the relationship still needs repair.
Given the importance of kissing, it’s fair to ask a question that might ultimately sabotage your Valentine’s Day joy: “Are you a good kisser?”
I’m being a bit coy here. We all know that “being a good kisser” is a euphemism for something else. In honor of this Valentine’s Day holiday, let’s consider the PG and X-rated versions of the same question: Are you a good kisser? Are you good in bed?
If you’re like the hundreds of people I’ve asked both the PG and X-rated versions of this question, your answer to both will be, “Yes. I’m a good kisser, and, yes, I’m good in bed.”
Right now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve asked hundreds of people to self-report on this aspect of their sexual identity. The reason is that I’m a sociology professor at the UofL, and I’ve taught and done research on human sexuality for about 20 years. One of my main research interests is the self-concept’s influence on how people think about and behave with regard to their own sexuality.
The Good In Bed Effect
To better convey where I’m going with this, let me ask a potentially more troublesome question: “Are you a better than average kisser?” Or, more pointedly, “Are you better than average in bed?”
According to my research, the large majority of people will answer in the affirmative: “Yes, I’m a better than average kisser, and yes, I’m better than average in bed.” Why is changing the wording from “are you good” to “are you better than average” such a big deal?
It’s possible for everyone — or almost everyone — to be good at something.
Most people are good at breathing. The ones who aren’t are dead.
But it’s impossible for most people to be better than average. If some people are above average, their better-than-typical status has to be balanced out by others who are worse than average. But when I ask about kissing (or being good in bed), virtually no one says they are below average.
If people accurately assessed themselves, then some people would have to recognize that they are worse than others, and they would therefore balance out the ones who are better than average. And there would also have to be a big portion who recognize that they are just average.
I labeled the tendency to see the self as better than others as a sex partner The Good In Bed Effect.
People see themselves as better than others on both global assessments (“Are you better than others as a sex partner?”) and with regard to specific abilities or traits (“Are you a better kisser than others?”). On some dimensions, people do not display The Good In Bed Effect. In one study, women saw themselves as about average on their oral sex ability.
Most of the research I’ve conducted on The Good In Bed Effect has taken the form of surveys collected from some 500 college students, but I’m pretty sure those results would generalize to the general population. I’ve published some of my findings in a paper published in the Journal of Psychology in 2013 (along with coauthors Jennifer Vencill and Sheila Garos).
In making my argument about people seeing themselves as better than average sexual partners, I’m making the assumption that they’re comparing themselves to everyday people and not to those who would be truly awful sex partners, like Caligula or perhaps Hannibal Lecter.
In another set of studies, I asked people to list characteristics that make them good in bed or make other people good in bed. People generate more I-am-good statements than they-are-good statements. But when asked about bad behaviors, they list more they-are-bad statements than I-am-bad statements. In other words, I’m more good than you are, and you’re more bad than I am. In a follow-up study, I showed that others’ bad behaviors are worse than one’s own. For example, I sometimes forget to throw away the condom wrapper, but you refuse to use a condom at all.
Who is The Comparison Person?
With sex, there are two groups to whom we can compare. One is potential rivals. In the quest for a partner, I have to prove myself more worthy than my opponents. But another important comparison group contains past, present, and even imagined future romantic and sexual partners. I’ve found that just as people see themselves as better than their rivals, they also see themselves as better than their partner.
Record Keeping in Relationships
Deciding whether you or your partner is better at sex is a tricky problem. You might be better, worse or the same. The problem is that every possibility carries a cost. If we focus solely on the potential for sexual gratification, then if you are better than your partner, you should be asking yourself why you’re in the relationship. Of course, despite the importance of sex in relationships, there are also many other dimensions where people can show they care about and value a partner. The mental calculus of judging satisfaction can include trade-offs between several dimensions simultaneously. People might see themselves as a better sex partner but also recognize the many other ways their partner gives them joy. But if you just focus on the dimension of sex, if you’re better, don’t you owe it to yourself to find a more worthy partner? The flip side is even more unpleasant. If your partner is better than you, he or she may be looking elsewhere even as we speak. The third option — that you are both evenly matched — would seem ideal but also unlikely and maybe a little too transparent (like saying you love all your children equally, even the one who just got arrested). The equality approach challenges the credibility of your assertion by its very implausibility and puts your blatant self-delusion or intentional misrepresentation right out in the open.
My research indicates that we do tend to see ourselves as better than our partners. Asserting that you are better at sex than your romantic partner may seem odd because, in the end, you are the one who is hurt by it. But it makes sense if we realize that, in a good relationship, a person’s happiness is based on what they get but also on knowing that their partner is happy, too. By thinking I’m better than my partner, I achieve two positive outcomes. I feel good about my sexual skill, and I feel good that I can make my partner the beneficiary of my skill.
Psychologists tend to use the word self-enhancement to mean an unwarranted positive view of the self. The key here is that the statement is genuinely believed to be true. If I tell someone I make a six-figure income when I really make only a four, my assertion is a flat-out lie. I know it, and my W-2 form knows it. My statement is deception but not self-deception, because I’m aware that I’m lying.
With self-enhancement, I don’t realize that I’m deceiving myself. I believe my own lie.
One explanation sees self-enhancement as motivated by self-protection. I think I’m a better kisser than I am because I want to see myself in a positive way and defend my ego against the possibility of being a substandard lover.
The cognitive perspective interprets self-enhancement in terms of limitations in the way that people process information. If someone praises my kissing ability, I think about the compliment more often and am more likely to integrate it into my self-concept. If someone criticizes me, I try to forget about or discount the incident. I was tired or drunk. Or I might try to criticize the person criticizing me. It wasn’t me, it was her fault. She had bad breath.
The third approach is social in nature and has to do with the difficulty inherent in getting accurate information from others about sexual performance. People loathe to give other people negative feedback especially about a sensitive topic like sexual competency. They rationalize withholding bad news on the grounds of protecting the other person’s feelings. Paradoxically, the more intensely you ask for honest advice, the more likely they might be to lie to you, thinking that this issue really matters to you.
Benefits of Self-Enhancement
Self-enhancement gives you confidence.
Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses can insulate against unhappiness. In the 1970s, psychologists realized that people with depression are often more accurate in their perceptions and inferences than non-depressed people. They called this phenomenon “depressive realism.” People with depression aren’t unhappy because they’re overly pessimistic in their worldview; they’re unhappy because they accurately perceived the world. In reality, the joy that happy people experience derives from unreasonable optimism.
Men and women don’t reproduce in exactly the same way.
Even in the 21st century it seems that men are more likely to approach women than women are to approach men. Unless perhaps a man is a rock star, a billionaire or both, an inevitable corollary of approach is rejection. For some people, the fear of rejection is enough to stifle the attempt. But as the motto of the lottery reminds us, you can’t win if you don’t play. In the love lottery, everything else being held equal, a man who tries more often is more likely to succeed. Persistence is a strategy with a positive payoff. A man who operates under the assumption that he has more to offer than he actually does is more likely to keep looking for new opportunities.
Because of reproduction’s greater cost for women, evolutionary forces have pressed women to be more selective with regard to the mates they pick. Their advantage comes from patiently waiting for someone willing to co-parent a child. Self-enhancement can be beneficial for these women to the extent that it makes them value themselves more and justifies their waiting until the right one comes along.
Dangers of Self-Enhancement?
Self-enhancement can work against you if you put too high a value on yourself as a sex partner, and you waste your time pursuing long shots. Aiming too high virtually guarantees rejection and stymies your efforts to find a partner. Targeting only Victoria Secret supermodels or holding out for a Prince Charming might lead to many lonely nights.
In addition to interfering with mate selection, too much self-enhancement can interfere with mate retention. Thinking too highly of yourself might prevent you from taking your fair share of responsibility for problems that creep into a relationship. You don’t need to change if you’re not doing anything wrong. If sexual incompatibility is causing a bump in your relationship, but you blame the other person (and the other person blames you), both sides minimize their own contributions to their joint problems.
A More Expansive Definition of being Good in Bed
Asserting that you’re better at sex at a generic, global level is one way to engage in sexual self-enhancement. But sex is made up of many little actions: kissing, hugging, stroking, listening, asking, offering and even withholding. I’ve found that people tend to think that they’re also better than others — including their partners — at the little things that represent the components of a positive sexual experience.
But there are some notable qualifications when we engage in cross-sex comparisons. Some of these qualifications are consistent with gender stereotypes, others are supported by legitimate research on human sexuality, and some are both. I’ve asked people about their abilities to create a romantic atmosphere. As would be expected from The Good In Bed Effect, men think they are better than other men, and women think they are better than other women. Further, women think they are better than men. But the one judgment that doesn’t fit The Good In Bed Effect is the judgments of men comparing themselves to women. In this comparison, men think that women are better than they are. Although this finding is opposite the standard good-in-bed prediction, it is consistent with stereotypes about women’s romantic nature. Women think they are better than other women at achieving orgasm, but both men and women recognize that women are not as reliable as men at achieving orgasm.
When I ask people if they think they’re good in bed, they first think about the set of skills they have to help another person feel sexually turned on. This is their ability to be sexually satisfying.
But some people take it to another level. They realize that part of being good in bed is to be capable of being sexually satisfied, to be the willing recipient of pleasure. Some people recognize that their attitude toward receiving pleasure in a variety of forms contributes to making their partner happy, too.
Surprisingly perhaps, being able to satisfy someone else means being able to satisfy yourself. That other person will be happier if he or she thinks you are satisfied.
Only the most self-centered person would feel the orgasmic conclusion to their sexual escapade was completely gratifying if the person they were having sex with had a sour expression on his or her face.
I told a friend that I was writing this article, and she offered an insightful response that captured this notion that giving pleasure might mean accepting pleasure. She said, “I think I’m adventurous. … I don’t think you necessarily have to be exceptionally skilled at sex to be good at it; sometimes if you’re just open and adventurous, it can be considered being good at sex.” She added, “I’m more open to trying things that he’s interested in, where a lot of things that I’m interested in, maybe he’s not so open to, so to him, he probably sees me as more skilled, and I probably see myself as more skilled because of that openness.”
In the end, the lesson of The Good In Bed Effect for this Valentine’s Day might be to remind us to show our pleasure at being satisfied by another and not just focus on all the hard work we do. •
Jim Beggan is a professor of sociology at UofL. He regularly teaches classes on human sexuality, social problems and the self in society. He has published research on topics including the representation of gender and stereotypes in pornography, sexual decision making and social deviance.