Sex workers display heightened openness, conscientiousness, and Machiavellism

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A new study published in Sexuality and Culture investigates the personality traits of sex workers. A group of sex workers was compared to those not in the industry using several personality measures, including the Big Five, the Dark Triad, and Life History Strategy.

The results revealed that those in the sex work group had higher conscientiousness and openness to experience scores. They also scored higher in the Dark Triad trait of Machiavellism. Finally, sex workers were also likelier to have started menstruation earlier and tried drugs earlier in life than the control group.

Studies of the past inquiring about the personality traits of those involved in sex work often focused on those utilizing the services. Other studies focus on the consequences of sex work for those who pursue it. Recent research has been contradictory. Some studies have found that sometimes sex work is a valuable and empowering strategy for economic success, while other studies have found that the work feels nonvoluntary and inescapable.

These studies can be valuable to policymakers when deciding legality questions around sex work. Study author John E. Edlund and his colleagues felt a better understanding of who pursues sex work was missing from the literature. In general, understanding the complexities of personality can help us to understand and empathize with the decision-making of others. In order to create a policy that is free from moral judgment and functions to protect the sex worker, a better understanding of who the sex worker is may be valuable.

The new study defined sex work as “the act of rendering, from the client’s point of view, non-reproductive sex against payment.” Participants included 31 individuals (26 females, five males) in the sex worker group and 32 individuals (25 females, 7 males) in the control group.

First, demographic data were collected using the Age of Onset measure, a tool used to measure components of Life History Strategy, like age of the first period, drug use, first child, and abortions, if applicable.

Next, participants took the Ten Item Personality Inventory, a short assessment of the Big Five personality traits. These five traits include conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. Research has found that these traits are evident and measurable in most people, making them a helpful tool for comparison. Then, the participants completed a measure of the Dark Triad of Personality. The Dark Triad consists of measurable personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Individuals high in the Dark Triad tend to engage in harmful behaviors that often have negative social consequences.

Participants took a measure of social and economic risk-taking and social capital—finally, the sociosexuality inventory, which assessed attitudes toward casual sex.
Edlund and the team analyzed the data collected and found meaningful differences between the two groups. The sex work group experienced earlier menarche, was younger at the time of their first illegal drug experience and alcoholic drink, and, as expected, had more relaxed attitudes toward casual sex. Interestingly sex workers had higher scores on measures of long-term mating preference. Edlund and colleagues suggested, “it aligns with anecdotal reports that sex workers seem to adopt a long-term mating orientation as an anchor of emotional stability.”

The assessment of Big Five personality traits revealed that the sex work group scored higher in openness and conscientiousness, with no difference in neuroticism, agreeableness, or extraversion levels. These findings support conclusions that those in sex work are not more prone to neuroticism than those not in the industry.

The Dark Triad assessment revealed scores higher in Machiavellism for sex workers than the control group. Edlund and colleagues were not surprised by this finding, “given the fundamental nature of sex work (trading sexual activities for money), which is consistent with a disingenuous interpersonal style, cynical indifference for morality and focus on self-gain.”

The researchers acknowledged some limitations to their work. First, the sample size is small and predominantly female. Second, the comparison group’s economic status may have been different from the status of the sex work group. If people often choose sex work due to socioeconomic factors, having the comparison group originate from a similar socioeconomic status may have been beneficial.

Despite these limitations, Edlund and team conclude that their research is valuable, “To date, very few studies have explored the similarities and differences between sex workers personality traits and a cohort sample. Our study is one of the first and largest to explore the personality similarities and differences between active sex workers and a cohort sample. Our study expands the literature surrounding what we know about the personality of the men and women who engage in sex work.”

The study, “Personality traits of sex workers”, was authored by John E. Edlund, Zachary Carter, and Nathaly Cabrera.

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