Dangerous pleasure why we can be attracted to dangerous sex

Dangerous pleasure - attraction to danger

By Charlotte Fantelli

Bad boys/girls always catching your eye? Charlotte Fantelli looks at the psychology of our attraction to danger and considers why risk can be so sexually arousing.

The thrill

Danger - a word that instils fear into some, while for others there is nothing quite as arousing as risk taking. 

Behaviour glamourised by the gangster films of the 70s, the action films of the 80s and the indie films of the 90s saw the bad boy always getting the girl. And it’s not just the fairer sex that enjoys the thrill of a perilous suitor – the men are at it too.

Let’s face it there’s nothing like a bit of power and naughtiness to get us hot under the collar. The thrill of pushing boundaries and living on the edge can, for some of us, be exciting and enthralling... 

Adventure and Danger

Firstly the feelings of adventure and feelings of danger are very alike; if you have ever felt both incredibly excited and incredibly nervous, you may have noticed the two feelings have many similarities.

Adrenaline builds inside to a level that makes us feel awake, alive and alert. We may also experience heightened awareness: our senses are sharp, our breathing quickens and our heart races, feelings that are also associated with sexual arousal.

Similar to watching a horror movie, or taking part in a risky sport like motor racing, boxing or even skydiving, taking risks in our love life can stimulate that part of our human nature that makes us feel an increased sense of exhilaration.

Attraction of rebellion

Researchers from Michigan State University in the USA collected DNA from 200 university-aged men, all strangers to one another, set them up in a situation and encouraged them to interact. After an hour, they were asked which members of the group they liked best.


In multiple samples, the students with a serotonin gene linked to rule-breaking came out on top. The first interesting thing about this study is that they identified the gene that is linked with rule-breaking! And secondly, it showed that the people with this gene were classed as most appealing!

Don’t get me wrong, I am not encouraging the bad boy/girl or risky sex, far from it. I am simply considering the reasons why we might find ourselves attracted to them.

The Dark Triad

Dr Peter K Jonason of the University of West Florida has pioneered research into the ‘bad boy’ personality and our attraction to this personality type. He has identified ‘the dark triad’ – I know, it sounds like a member of the Chinese mafia dressed in a black trench coat – but it refers to three particular character traits: narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy. 

Narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy

Narcissists love the spotlight and believe that they are far better than anyone else. Machiavellians can be controlling, manipulative and lie or bend the truth to get what they want. Psychopaths, psychologically speaking, don’t feel guilt in the same way as non-psychopaths, which means they may have little care about behaviours others deem as being unacceptable (obviously these all have a sliding scale).

So why are these personality types attractive – they sound awful, right?

Well narcissistic personalities can do very well in other areas outside sexual conquests, including business, as they have a high level of self belief which often rubs off on those around them. Confidence is a huge factor in this – arrogance is not a trait we would say we were looking for, but if a product is branded well we often believe what it says on the tin, and in the case of a narcissist it reads ‘I’m the best you will ever have!’ Rightly – or in most cases very wrongly – we fall for this hook, line and sinker.

Machiavellian types also find ways of getting what they want, usually by manipulative means, but they know how to play the game and say what the listener wants to hear. Often good at job interviews, presentations and sales, people with machiavellian characteristics know how to charm.

Psychopaths, well surely we wouldn’t find anything appealing about a psychopath? When we use this term it often applies to a criminal gangster or killer, and although to a large extent, those partaking in crime will have a certain amount of this characteristic, it does not just refer to these extremes. Having psychopathic traits can mean that you enjoy risky behaviour and have lower moral standards – this can be appealing to those seeking a thrill, or wanting some ‘carefree’ naughtiness and escapism.

Type T Personalities

Another factor in this attraction lies within ourselves. Frank Farley, PhD, Psychologist at Temple University and former President of the American Psychological Association, has studied people who have what he calls ‘type T’ (thrill-seeking) personalities: men and women who thrive on adrenaline, living on the edge of fear. "Sky divers will tell you it's the thrill, the rush, and a little element of fear that motivates them to push themselves to the extreme," he says. 

These same characteristics are apparent in those attracted to risky partners.

Type T personalities are usually found in those who have had instability in their lives. They seek drama that keeps them feeling on edge.

“I can change them!”

We hear it all the time, the perhaps slightly naive murmurings of a person determined to ‘mend’ their lover’s wily ways. I would say two things to this... 

First of all: you won’t change their ways! Why do I say this? Well, not just from personal experience (that would be quite narcissistic of me to believe I had the monopoly on knowing the ‘bad boys’ – although I have known my fair share!) No, whether it be the ‘rule-breaking’ gene, or personality traits, these factors are not subject to simple change. I am not condoning or excusing behaviours by simply accepting the ‘it’s in my genes’ argument; however, you cannot change anyone who does not want to change themselves. 

Point number two: if you did ‘mend’ them, would they be the person you were attracted to in the first place? 

A Few Home Truths

This is a subject that fascinates me, it is what interested me in psychology in the first place. Ever since I first felt the power of attraction it was for the bad boys, I had all the Van Damme movies and more often than not it was the baddies I liked (think Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier – although the cutting off the ear thing was a bit odd! I digress.) I wanted to understand why I felt this way. Was it just the depiction on screen? The leather jackets, the air of Danny Zuko cool about these guys that gave them the edge over the good guys? 

Unfortunately not, because when it came to dating, the danger fixation did not stop.

I was not aware of the psychological nuances, it just felt exciting, exhilarating... terrifying.  

The Fantasy/Reality Divide

The fantasy of the rogue, the idea of the powerful and passionate renegade, or the tempter/ temptress is enough to set anyone’s passion alight. But the divide between these feelings and the reality of the situation is key. Whether this be with a dangerous partner, or in an affair situation, the feelings of the body are often conflicting with the known reality in your head.

Body versus Brain

If you have ever felt the thrill and excitement of doing something you know is wrong, you will understand the internal conflict. In those moments you have a battle between desire and conscience – you feel physically thrilled and excited, but your head is saying ‘you shouldn’t be doing this...’ 

In this moment, as in any conflict, there will be one winner: you either stop and give in to reason, or continue and act upon your desire. If you act upon your desire, your brain tries to rationalise this decision; it will come up with reasons and excuses for your behaviour, and the ‘fantasy’ will be perpetuated. 

When reality bites – when they are back in jail, or gambling, or having an affair (whatever your particular baddy’s badness is) – it is a cold lonely world.

The Good Guy Gets The Girl

OK, so it seems like the dark triad has it all: the confidence, the job, the sex... So what’s in it for the good guy/girl? Well, the good news is: you get the prize in the end! According to research by Susan Kelly, of Liverpool University, in the short term we prefer the thrill, the lover with the ‘not afraid of anything’ gene.

But although these affairs may start off well, the ‘bad boy/ girl’ is often scared of commitment and has nomadic tendencies that mean they very often end up alone. The guy or girl who wants to settle down seeks characteristics far from those possessed by a dark triad, and goes off in search of a more suitable mate.

So in reality, the good guy gets the girl in the end!

Sex addiction

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Further reading


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