Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 16, June 21, 2013


Positive Implications for Sexual Sensation Seeking: An Exploratory Study

Corey E. Flanders
Dana Rei Arakawa
Amalia Canua Cardozo

Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Corresponding Author: Corey Flanders, 2530 Dole St., Sakamaki C400, Honolulu, HI 96822, (808) 729-1012, coreyef@hawaii.edu


One concept in sexuality studies that has traditionally been studied as a negative, and even dangerous, trait is sexual sensation seeking (SSS).  The SSS scale, which is used to measure the preference for new and exciting sexual stimulation, was developed to predict involvement in sexual behavior that may put individuals at a high risk for HIV. Sexual sensation seeking is often studied in reference to sexual risk and negative social or physical consequences.  However, past research has indicated that when considered from a positive perspective instead of the normative negative perspective, people with SSS characteristics may also be considered independent, active, and curious.  The results of the current study indicate that SSS may be positively associated with traits such as curiosity, explorative tendencies (r = .160, p = .03), and overall satisfaction with life (r = .197, p = .007). Additionally, SSS was positively associated with experience with and willingness to try various sexual positions originally depicted in the Kama Sutra (r = .546, p < .001).  Finally, male participants scored significantly higher on the SSS scale (F = 24.10, p < .001), as well as the measure for experience with and willingness to try various sexual positions (F = 18.727, p < .001). We conclude that SSS does seem to be associated with positively evaluated traits and life satisfaction, and the male participants appear to continue score higher on the SSS scale.


Published research on human sexuality has been and continues to focus predominantly on negatively valenced aspects of human sexuality.  A content analysis of 606 sexuality research articles published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the New England Journal of Medicine over the span of five decades revealed that the majority (58%) of these articles focused on the problems associated with sexual behavior, including negative or medial/disease based content, such as mental health problems, sexual dysfunction associated with sex, the dangers of sex, sexual stigma or shame, risky sexual behaviors, sexually transmitted infections, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), teen pregnancy, homophobia, sexual harassment, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, biphobia, transphobia, negative attitudes, and sexual violence/abuse (Arakawa, Flanders, Hatfield, & Heck, 2013).  

In contrast, a mere 7% of articles in the content analysis investigated the delights of love, sex, and intimacy, with the remaining 35% of articles on topics of neutral valence.  The field of positive psychology has championed the benefits of studying positive aspects of human behavior, arguing that attending to the positive, healthy, and thriving aspects of humanity is just as important as studying dysfunction (Seligman, 2011) .  For example, researchers have found that human strengths like optimism and perseverance are traits that reliably help prevent mental illness (Seligman & Peterson, 2003) .  As in the case of clinical psychology, research in the field of human sexuality on positive aspects such as healthy attitudes towards sex, sexual desire, sexual fantasy, sexual excitement, sexual pleasure, sex and happiness, orgasm, sex and intimacy, sexual satisfaction, positive and/or healthy relationships, and the like may benefit our current sexual culture and increase scientific understanding of the variety of human sexual experience.

One concept in sexuality studies that has traditionally been studied as a negative, and even dangerous, trait is sexual sensation seeking (SSS).  The sexual sensation seeking scale (Kalichman & Rompa, 1995), or the scale to measure the “tendency to prefer exciting, optimal, and novel levels of stimulation or arousal” (Kalichman et al., 1994, p. 386), was developed to predict involvement in sexual behavior that may put individuals at a high risk for HIV (Gaither & Sellbom, 2003).  As such, SSS is often studied in reference to sexual risk and negative social or physical consequences.  Past research on SSS has investigated how the trait correlates with the risk for HIV infection (Gullette & Lyons, 2005; Lye Chng & Géliga-Vargas, 2000; Pinkerton & Abramson, 1995), sexual compulsivity (Gullette & Lyons, 2005; Perry, Accordino, & Hewes, 2007), and extra-dyadic sexual involvement (Wiederman & Hurd, 1999), to name a few topics.

However, past research has also indicated that when considered from a positive perspective instead of the normative negative perspective, people who have the SSS trait may also be considered independent, active, and curious, but such individuals are rarely portrayed positively (Apt & Hurlbert, 1992).  Indeed, research has shown that SSS is positively correlated with traits such as Openness to Experience and Extraversion, from the Big Five Inventory (Gaither & Sellbom, 2003).

The Present Study

The purpose of the present study was to investigate whether SSS is positively correlated with other attributes and consequences that are typically considered to be positive, specifically curiosity and overall satisfaction with life.  Additionally, as women’s attitudes towards casual sex have become more liberal (Conley, 2011) , we were interested in whether men continue to display higher rates of SSS than do women, a historic gender difference in SSS found among college students (e.g. Gaither & Sellbom, 2003; Gullette & Lyons, 2005).  Lastly, we were interested in whether willingness to engage in or experiment with various sexual positions outlined in the Kama Sutra is positively correlated with SSS.

The Kama Sutra and other manuals on sexual positions are pervasive within current western sexual culture, as evidenced by the abundance of traditional and modern sex manuals illustrating sexual positions originally described in the ancient text.  A quick perusal of the online bookstore Amazon.com reveals 1,676 book results for the Kama Sutra, and 4,108 book results for “sex manuals.”  These texts give advice on how to perform sexual positions from the mundane to the seemingly gravity-defying.  Since a component of the SSS trait is defined as a desire for novel or varied sexual experiences, it is reasonable to speculate that SSS would be positively correlated with experience with or willingness to try varied and uncommon sexual positions.  Thus, measuring willingness and experience with Kama Sutra sexual positions could serve as an indirect measure of some of the more positively valenced aspects of SSS, namely interest in new or novel experiences and explorative tendencies.

Our first hypothesis for the current study is that participants who are high in SSS will possess higher rates of curiosity.  Specifically, SSS scale ratings will be positively correlated with the Curiosity and Explorative Inventory (CEI) ratings. Secondly, we hypothesize that participants who are high in SSS will have greater overall satisfaction with life.  Specifically, SSS scale ratings will be positively correlated with the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) ratings. Our third hypothesis is that participants who are high in SSS will be more willing to experience, or will have more experience, with various Kama Sutra sexual positions.  Specifically, SSS scale ratings will be positively correlated with both willingness to try and with previous experience with Kama Sutra positions. Fourthly, we hypothesize that male participants will have higher SSS ratings than female participants. Our fifth and final hypothesis is that male participants will have greater levels of willingness to try and with previous experience with Kama Sutra positions.

As is standard in social science research, we selected an alpha-level of p = .05 to indicate significant results, with a moderate effect size, for all analyses.   Cohen (1992) indicates that the sample size for each gender would need to be a minimum of 64 to run an ANOVA as well as Pearson’s correlation. While we obtained beyond the minimum number of female participants, we had six too few male participants. Thus, this limitation must be kept in mind when considering the conclusions generated from the results of this study.



After receiving ethical approval from the Committee for Human Subjects at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, we recruited a total of 177 participants who were undergraduate students, 119 women and 58 men, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM).   They were recruited from a research pool that consists of students enrolled in the introductory psychology class at UHM and received extra credit for their participation.  Participants were required to print a notification of study completion to turn in to the experimenter, with a limit of one notification per participant, to try to ensure no participants completed the study more than once.  Table 1 summarizes demographic characteristics.

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics


Sample Size (N)
Age (in years)









Racial Identity































Choose not to disclose













Prior participation in sexual intercourse








Note a. For strength of religious identification, on a scale of 1-not all, to 5- very strongly, the average was 2.8.


The questionnaire was a compilation of four different scales of measurement, including the Curiosity and Exploration Inventory (CEI; Kashdan, Rose, & Fincham, 2004), the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), the Sexual Sensation Seeking Scale (SSSS; Kalichman et al., 1994), and the Kama Sutra Experience and Interest Survey (KSEIS).  The CEI, SWLS, and SSSS have all demonstrated good psychometric properties, including internal consistency and construct validity (see Kashdan, Rose, & Fincham, 2004; Pavot & Diener, 1993; and Gaither & Sellbom, 2003, respectively).  The KSEIS was developed for the purposes of this study and has not been used previously.  The order participants viewed the questionnaires was counterbalanced. In the CEI, participants are asked to respond to statements assessing a positive emotional-motivational system associated with the recognition, pursuit, and self-regulation of novelty and challenge.  In the SWLS, participants are asked to agree or disagree to statements that describe their overall satisfaction with life.  In the SSSS, participants are given statements about sexual sensation seeking behaviors, and are asked to identify how closely the statements describe their normal behavior.  Finally, in the KSEIS, participants are shown six different pictures of sexual positions and asked if they engage in each position (to measure experience), and if not, would they be willing to engage in the position (to measure interest).


The composite questionnaire was administered to the sample population via SurveyMonkey.com, an online survey and questionnaire tool of increasing popularity (Evans et al., 2009).  Participants accessed the composite questionnaire at their own convenience.  

Statistical Analyses

Hypotheses for the present study were tested primarily with Pearson’s r and one-way Analyses of Variance (ANOVA).  Pearson’s r was used to determine the direction and the significance of the correlations between SSS (Kalichman et al., 1994)  and our other variables of interest: curiosity and explorative tendencies (Kashdan, Rose, & Fincham, 2004), satisfaction with life (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), and willingness to try or experience with various Kama Sutra sexual positions.  One-way ANOVAs were used to compare male and female participant responses to determine whether men scored higher in SSS and willingness to try or experience with Kama Sutra sexual positions than did women.  Levene’s test of homogeneity of variance was non-significant on all four scales, retaining the assumption of homogeneity of variance. 


Hypothesis One, SSS scale ratings will be positively correlated with CEI ratings, was supported with a low but significant positive correlation (r = .160, p = .03).  Thus, as the rate of sexual sensation seeking increased, the rate of curiosity and explorative tendencies did as well, indicating that the trait of SSS is positively associated with curiosity.

Hypothesis Two, SSSS ratings will be positively correlated with satisfaction with life, as measured by the SWLS, was supported (r = .197, p = .007).  Specifically, as rates of SSS increased, overall satisfaction with life increased as well, indicating that SSS is positively associated with life satisfaction.

Hypothesis Three, SSSS ratings will be positively correlated with willingness to try and experience with Kama Sutra positions, was supported with a highly significant (p < .000) correlation of moderate strength (r = .546), which suggests that the SSSS and the KSEIS may be measuring similar traits.  The positive direction of the correlation indicates that as the rate of SSS increased, willingness to try and experience with Kama Sutra positions also increased. 

Hypothesis Four, male participants will have higher SSSS ratings than female participants, was also supported, F (1, 175)= 24.10, p < .000.  This finding indicates that the average rate of SSS for the men in our sample (M = 22.10, SD = 5.69) differed significantly from the average rate of SSS for female participants (M = 17.88, SD = 5.20), in accordance with past research on gender differences in SSS.

Finally, Hypothesis Five, male participants will have greater levels of willingness to try and experience with Kama Sutra positions, was supported, F (1, 175)= 18.727, p < .000.  The average willingness and experience with Kama Sutra positions for the male participants (M = 6.66, SD = 2.50) was significantly higher than the average for female participants (M = 4.75, SD = 2.86).  ANOVA results for Hypotheses Four and Five are seen below in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Men and women’s responses for willingness to try and experience with Kama Sutra positions (Kama Sutra Scale) and sexual sensation seeking scale (SSSS).


The primary goal of this study was to examine the nature of SSS within the context of a new theoretical framework based on a positive approach to sexuality research (Arakawa et al., 2013).  This framework investigated several implications for SSS, including potential relationships with two different personality/behavioral traits and a positive outcome, i.e., satisfaction with life.

The first personality trait we considered was curiosity, a trait commonly held in positive regard.   Kashdan and colleagues (2004) describe two different components of curiosity:  1) diverse curiosity, or exploration, that entails allocating personal resources like attention to novel and challenging experiences; and 2) specific curiosity or well-defined activity that entails absorption or a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988), resulting in discovery, pleasure, and the usage of one’s skills.  Both components of exploration and absorption were found to facilitate positive subjective experiences and opportunities for personal growth, and were negatively associated with social anxiety, boredom, anxiety, and apathy.

Considering the construct of curiosity, we hypothesized (H1) that SSS would share similar exploratory tendencies and the propensity to experience flow-states, i.e., that ratings on the SSSS would be positively correlated with the CEI.   Indeed, the significant positive correlation between the SSSS and the CEI indicates that the trait of SSS is positively associated with curiosity, although at a low magnitude.  With the majority of research on SSS focusing on its association with negative traits and outcomes, this finding suggests one way in which SSS may overlap with a psychological construct with known positive outcomes. 

Next, we wanted to investigate whether SSS would itself be correlated with a positive outcome, i.e., life satisfaction or happiness.  Throughout history, we find the topic of happiness as a concern among religious leaders and theologians like Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.  Philosophers, from Aristotle and the Athenian philosophers in the West, to Confucius and Lao-Tsu in the East (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005), have grappled to pin down a clear and all-encompassing definition of happiness (e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).  Similarly, scientists have endeavored to demystify the concept of happiness.  Although there is no consensus as to its definition (Snyder, Lopez, & Pedrotti, 2010), there are several synonyms used throughout the literature to describe a general state of wellbeing, e.g., happiness, self-actualization, contentment, adjustment, economic prosperity, and quality of life (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011).       

One way to operationally define happiness is as subjective wellbeing (SWB), a combination of satisfaction with life, high positive affect, and low negative affect (Diener, 1984).  Thus, happiness, or SWB, encompasses how people evaluate their own lives in terms of affective and cognitive explanations (Diener, 2000).  Some of the known objective consequences of subjective wellbeing are high income (Diener & Seligman, 2002), positive health outcomes (Pressman & Cohen, 2005), strong relationships, and educational and workplace achievement (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

To measure SWB, there are multiple scales with very high levels of validity and reliability, including the SWLS (Diener et al., 1985) and Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999), among others.  These tools converge with mood reports, expert ratings, experience sampling measures, reports of family and friends, and smiling (Diener, Lucas, Oishi, & Suh, 2002).  We hypothesized that SSS would be positively correlated with satisfaction with life, as measured by the SWLS (H2).  Indeed, this hypothesis was supported, indicating that as rates of SSS increased, overall satisfaction with life increased as well.  As satisfaction with life has other important correlates, including income, health, better relationships, and higher achievement, this finding points to the need to more holistically evaluate the trait of SSS, which has rarely been investigated for its potentially positive aspects.

Third, we wanted to evaluate what other behavioral traits would be associated with SSS.  The KSEIS measured both experience with and interest in trying six different positions from the Kama Sutra.  Of the four measures, the inter-correlation between the SSSS and the KSEIS was the highest and of moderate strength, suggesting that they might be tapping into similar latent constructs.  If so, the KSEIS could potentially be used to seek out individuals who might engage in sensation seeking behavior without incurring certain demand characteristics that inquiring about unhealthy sexual risk-taking might incur.  For example, some items of the SSSS, e.g., “My sexual partners probably think I am a ‘risk taker’” and “I like wild ‘uninhibited’ sexual encounters,” may lead participants to answer less honestly due to negative associations with risky sexual behavior.  The finding that SSSS ratings were positively correlated with willingness to try and experience with Kama Sutra positions (H3), may allow researchers to further investigate sexual sensation seeking in absence of risky behavior.

Finally, this study tested the influence of gender on SSS, finding that men are still scoring higher in SSS (H4), despite more liberal attitudes towards casual sex for women.  Additionally, men reported higher experience with and willingness to engage in positions from the Kama Sutra (H5).  While the cause of these findings is beyond the scope of this study, these findings suggest a continued gap between college-aged men and women in attitudes toward sexual behavior.  However, there could also be demand characteristics influencing participant responses that may also contribute to the gender differences found, as it is more socially acceptable for men to endorse open attitudes toward sexual behavior than for women.  Additionally, we had fewer male participants than desirable for a one-way ANOVA. Thus, the conclusion that male participants were higher in sexual sensation seeking, while in line with previous research, is limited in its generalizability.  

Conclusion and Limitations

As previously stated, the goal of this research was to explore positive implications of the personality trait of SSS. As SSS is defined as a personality trait and not just a behavior, we believe it is important to not only understand the negative consequences of SSS, but to also investigate the ways in which this trait may be part of a well-balanced and thriving life.  This investigation yielded two such paths: 1) by discerning positive relationships between SSS and other positive traits (curiosity and explorative tendencies), as well as overall satisfaction with life, and 2) by identifying another way to measure an aspect of SSS that does not involve unsafe sexual practices.  The scale items originally developed to measure SSS contained several negative consequences, steeping the definition of SSS in the perspective of disease and dysfunction.  While understanding how to address and prevent negative health behaviors is undoubtedly important, by creating a scale that appears to measure a similar construct without relying on involvement in unsafe sexual practices, we have taken a step toward positive (or at least neutral) evaluation of sexual behavior.

Further research could investigate how a non-heterosexual population responds to the KSEIS in comparison to heterosexual people, as the sample of the current study was fairly limited in the number of non-heterosexually identified participants. As past differences have been found in sexual sensation seeking with gay men and heterosexual individuals (Kalichman & Rompa, 1995), it is possible that the same could be true for the KSEIS. If the KSEIS were to be tested with a non-heterosexual sample, it would need to be edited to include sexual positions involving same-sex partnered encounters, in order to be relevant to this population.  

The sample of this investigation included only college students, limiting the generalizability of the results to a select group of people (i.e. college students).  Additionally, as the questionnaire was Internet-based, our sample was limited to people who would be willing to engage in research online.  Thus, future research in positive implications of SSS should also include more diversity in age, education level, and socioeconomic status. Finally, another limitation of the study is the potential influence of religious endorsement.  As we did not measure attitudes toward premarital sex as an aspect of religious or spiritual attitudes, we do not know how that may have influenced participant responses about their experience with or willingness to engage in various sexual behaviors.


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