If Dr. Lehmiller is correct that it is difficult to pin down a working understanding of sex, it is near impossible to understand why humans engage in sexual behavior. After all, what is “sexual”? The question may seem inconsequential, but it is a key indicator to what motivates us. Without any data to back this up, I’ve been intentional over the last few years about noticing how people talk about sex. Generalizing, more conservative individuals define sex as penetrative and allow a very defined, even at times limited expression of sex and sexuality. The more liberal someone is, the more “sex” is hard to define. For them, sex is apophatic – defined by removing what is not sex or sexual. This may strike an odd thing – after all, there are very traditional conservative communities that would say sex includes kissing and very liberal communities that would say penetration and circlusion are not necessarily sexual. In fact, for the more liberal individual, sex does not even have to include another person or object.
Without getting too far down this argument of definition, the key idea here is that more conservative individuals tend to work from, as we discussed previously, a body-centered concept of sexual expression where sex is defined by the contact of bodies. Those who are more liberally inclined tend to work from a more person-centered concept of sex where sex is defined by the nature of the relationship. There are of course differences and peculiarities still to be sorted out, but we might keep in mind these two concepts as soft polarities in a circle. They are all connected, and there are different degrees, but what everyone can agree on is that there is a human experience we call “sex” and that, by statistical weight and cultural cues, the majority of humans are vaguely aware of this experience. Dr. Ruth Westheimer in her characteristic accepting way, says that we shouldn’t get too hung up on the definition of sex. Sex is not just about “special organs that are made to have sex” and which “fit together and have many nerve-endings so as to make sex pleasurable.” Sex, she says, is “a whole body experience, from your brain” and who you are as a person “to your toes” and physical body. Having a hard and fast line of what constitutes sex removes some of the creativity and novelty of our experience. “Part of the mystery of sex is why so many paths lead to this one end,” she writes. “Is sex just the way we differentiate ourselves, male and female? Or is it the means by which we reproduce? Is it a yearning that makes us go a bit crazy until we can satisfy those urges? Or could it be the key to exchanging extreme pleasure? Maybe it’s a way of cementing a relationship. What makes sex so amazing is that it’s all of those and more.”
I dated a girl for a time who said that one of the things she focused on during sex, whether partnered or alone, was “floating on a cloud above a field of flowers and, as I’m orgasming, slowly gliding or flying down into the field.” She traced this fantasy to several experiences, including a childhood experience of watching Mary Poppins. For her, Mary Poppins “was this really empowered, smart, and good woman who never flew directly. Superman always flies around in a straight line and he’s always rushing. But I would think that Mary Poppins could come and go whenever she wanted, and she was never in a rush. For some reason, that’s the idea that has stuck.” Perhaps part of our reluctance to admit those parts of our lives which are sexual is because we want to appear normal. After all, the “normal” definition of sex is two bodies coming together in a pleasurable experience. Deviating from this (admittedly loose) definition can often sound weird or strange. It might raise an eyebrow of suspicion, judgement, or elicit an unwelcome proposition. Be misunderstood. And so we stay within the lines and stick to the common denominator we can all safely agree on – intercourse.
Philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book How to Think More About Sex, writes
Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by a range of powerful socially sanctioned ideas that codify how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter. In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, by indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant – but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.
Given how common it is to be strange, it is regrettable ow seldom the realities of sexual life make it into the public realm. Most of what we are sexually remains impossible to communicate with anyone whom we would want to think well of us. Men and women in love will instinctively hold back from sharing more than a fraction of their desires out of fear, usually accurate, of generating intolerable disgust in their partners. We may find it easier to die without having had certain conversations.
Speaking as a philosopher, de Botton notes that sex is less about physical bodies and more than anything about those experiences in life which “we are either longing to have or struggling to avoid.” With such a complex definition of sex and with such a sobering perspective, full of guilt and phobias and disgust, whatever experience is sexual for you, you inevitably have to ask yourself what motivates you to have such an experience? Returning to the connecting question of this series, what motivates us to have a sexual experience, and to keep having it?
Understanding why people seek sex is not always a simple task. Most studies have involved college undergraduates, a “sample of convenience” for university researchers but one that is often very limiting. Young men and women typically haven’t been in very committed relationships and are in the process of discovering their sexuality. Their answers to “why do you have sex” are often greatly tied to the image of themselves and their social relationships, says Dr. Richard Carroll. This can change over time, and such knowledge can improve a couple’s sex life. “Understanding these differences in motivations is very important. It helps us understand what’s going on in the sexual relationship and treat sexual disorders. Very often, you find the source of the problem can be traced to the particular motivation,” Dr. Carroll says.
Another way of looking at sexual motivation is considering personality theory. This is a large conversation on psychological health, especially in relationships and self-actualization but we might start by looking at the Big Five Personality Traits and their association with sexual behavior. In short, the Big Five (also known as the Five Factor Model) uses a statistical technique to apply common language descriptors to our behavior. The five are
- Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent, and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. High openness can be perceived as unpredictability or lack of focus. Moreover, individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences, such as skydiving, living abroad, gambling, et cetera. Conversely, those with low openness seek to gain fulfillment through perseverance, and are characterized as pragmatic and data-driven—sometimes even perceived to be dogmatic and closed-minded. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret and contextualize the openness factor.
- Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubborn and obsessive. Low conscientiousness are flexible and spontaneous, but can be perceived as sloppy and unreliable.
- Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. High extraversion is often perceived as attention-seeking, and domineering. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed.
- Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentative or untrustworthy.
- Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control and is sometimes referred to by its low pole, “emotional stability”. A high need for stability manifests as a stable and calm personality, but can be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned. A low need for stability causes a reactive and excitable personality, often very dynamic individuals, but they can be perceived as unstable or insecure.
Thought it may be a bit of bias towards the model, it is generally believed that no strong preferences (someone who possesses either all or none of the five dimensions) are adaptable, moderate and reasonable personalities, but can be perceived as unprincipled, inscrutable and calculating.
Combining several studies here, the Big Five relate to sexual behavior in the following ways. Pay attention to how these summaries are worded and, as always, remember that these are summaries of extensive work. If something strikes you as curious, please be encouraged to seek out these studies for yourself and see the original conclusions.
- Openness to experience – High openness is related to lower sexual anxiety (Heaven et al., 2003); however, most other studies have failed to find an association between openness and sexual behavior.
- Conscientiousness – Low conscientiousness is linked to having unprotected sex (Hoyle, Fefjar, & Miller, 2000) and combining alcohol and drugs with sex (Miller et al., 2004)
- Agreeableness – Low agreeableness is linked to having casual sex with someone other than one’s romantic partner and combining drugs and alcohol with sex (Hoyle, Fefjar, & Miller, 2000; Miller et al., 2004). Both high and low levels of interpersonal warmth are linked to having more sexual partners (Markey & Markey, 2007).
- Extraversion – High extraversion is linked to having more sexual partners (Miller et al., 2004; Schenk & Pfrang, 1986) and sexual risk taking (Turchik et al., 2010). Interpersonal assertiveness and dominance are linked to having more sexual partners (Markey & Markey, 2007).
- Neuroticism – High neuroticism is linked to risky and unprotected sex (Trobst et al., 2002). Most other studies have shown no relation to sexual behavior.
Familiarizing yourself with the Big Five is important because while, as always, there may be particular circumstances or conditions, even statistical variations (the “hiccups” of life), our individual personalities very often both set the stage for when, where, why, and with whom we engage in sexual activities. Why do we have sex? Because that’s who we are.
In all of this, and in reading over this series, you may feel something wasn’t touched on. Perhaps there were gaps in either what was addressed or how it was addressed. I would welcome your input and additions, though if you feel you are experiencing larger questions that I could ever possibly answer, please find a qualified sex therapist in your area through organizations such as the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapist (AASECT) or The Society for Sex Therapy and Research.