Sexual Motivation, pt. 2

Close-up of a young couple kissing

by Randall S. Frederick

As noted previously, there are three primary reasons to have sex:  procreation, recreation, and relationship. People want to have babies, they want to have fun, and they want to have significant sex with someone significant to them. I also pointed out from a 2010 Univ. of Texas study that people come up with over 200 reasons why they have sex. It really depends on you are and what you’re doing (or not doing) at a particular moment. 

Which is to say… why do we have sex? Who knows, who cares? Besides, do we even really need to have a reason?

Director of Northwestern University’s Sexual Disorders and Couple Therapy Program, Dr. Richard A. Carroll, says there’s no need to make it complicated. People have sex “because we are programmed to do so. Asking why people have sex is akin to asking why we eat. Our brains are designed to motivate us toward that behavior.”

The assumption that humans, as mammals, are “programmed” to have sex as part of the hierarchy of needs is a long standing idea, traced to evolutionary biology of the early Twentieth Century. Professor of Psychology at the Univ. of Hawaii, Elaine Hatfield believes that “Evolutionary theorists point out that a desire for sexual relations is ‘wired in’ in order to promote species survival,” but that “cultural theorists tend to focus on the cultural and personal reasons people have (or avoid) sex. Cultures differ markedly in what are considered to be ‘appropriate’ reasons for having or avoiding sex.”

Making this distinction between science and culture is an important one because, in my experience, it drives so much of the conversation about sex. Growing up in a religious environment (Evangelical parents, Catholic school, etc.), I was taught that marriage was for sex, and sex led to babies. Pleasure was never discussed, whether in church or at school. Thankfully, my parents taught me very early in life that pleasure was a very important part of the sexual experience. For Catholics particularly, sex was absolutely essential because it led to procreation. In one Evangelical community I am aware of, having children is the only way women can experience salvation (a misguided teaching based on 1 Timothy 2:15). Even when those lines between science and culture blur, very often you can still tease them apart.

Reviewing the stated reasons that people have sex from the Univ. of Texas study, a few patterns stand out. If we were to compress all 237 reasons for why people have sex, we might say that individuals have sex for

  • Physical reasons: Pleasure, stress relief, exercise, sexual curiosity, or attraction to a person
  • Goal-based reasons: To make a baby, improve social status (for example, to become popular), or seek revenge
  • Emotional reasons: Love, commitment, or gratitude
  • Insecurity reasons: To boost self-esteem, keep a partner from seeking sex elsewhere, or feeling a sense of duty or pressure (for example, a partner insists on having sex)

Speaking on the 2010 study, science writer Kelli Miller says that, “Generally speaking, men seek sex because they like how it feels. Women, although they very well may also derive pleasure from the act, are generally more interested in the relationship enhancement that sex offers. Researchers describe these differences as body-centered versus person-centered sex.”

  • Body-centered sex is when you have sex because you like the way it makes your body feel. You aren’t concerned with the emotions of your partner.
  • Person-centered sex is when you have sex to connect with the other person. You care about the emotions involved and the relationship.

Both genders experience a kind of polar shift as they age. Men often start out being body centered, but that may change as they reach their 40s, 50s, and 60s when their relationship becomes more important. Likewise, women may start out focused on the relationship and, as they age, focus more on their individual pleasure. Dr. Carroll claims that, “Women actually become more like men over time in that often, early on, sex is about initiating, developing, strengthening, and maintaining relationships, but in a long-term relationship they can actually focus on pleasure.” Despite these general observations, research suggests that there has been a convergence in sexual attitudes among men and women in recent years. In 1985, Dr. Janell Carroll (no relation to Dr. Carroll) “found that most college-aged males had casual sex for physical reasons without emotional attachments.” She repeated many of the same study questions to a new audience in 2006 and affirms that “Instead of men and women being at opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, they are now coming together. More women might be having sex for physical reasons, but many more men were more likely to say they had sex for emotional reasons.”

Justin J. Lehmiller in his Psychology of Human Sexuality (2014) really drills deep, though. His work deals with exploring the psychological makeup of why people say they have sex. Data, Dr. Lehmiller suggests, reveals a considerable amount of information about the human experience. But at the psychological and relational level, the 237 stated reasons barely scratch the surface because

the concept of sex in modern times has been significantly expanded and sexual activity has become quite complex. For instance, “sex” now refers to a wide range of behaviors including everything from mutual masturbation to oral, vaginal, and anal stimulation, not to mention things like “sexting” and phone sex. Sexual activity is no longer legally or morally restricted to traditional heterosexual marriage either; sex occurs between unmarried romantic partners, “friends with benefits,” and people of varying sexual orientations.

For Dr. Lehmiller, asking why people have sex is as difficult to pin down as asking someone why they are in a partnership, why they are friends with someone, or why they chose the job they are at currently. It has a great deal to do with who we are and our individual personalities. Which is what we’ll be discussing in Part Three of this series.

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Note: This article borrowed significantly from Kelli Miller’s article “Top 20 Reasons Why People Have Sex” on WebMD.

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