Doing It for the Right Reasons
There's a paper in last month's Archives of Sexual Behavior on the relationship between sexual satisfaction and motivation that's generating some interest in the news. Since sexual satisfaction and function are intimately linked (and really, sexual satisfaction by itself is something most of us consider pretty important), the researchers hoped to learn if the reasons people had sex affected how much they enjoyed it, and whether there was a gender component. Previous studies have shown that people who have sex for "pleasure" motives (such as physical pleasure or intimacy) are more likely to practice safe sex, while those who had sex for "avoidance" motives (such as to increase self esteem or avoid conflict) were more likely to engage in risky behaviors, but the way motivation influences how much people enjoy sex hasn't received a lot of attention from the scientific community.
To determine the relationship between motive and satisfaction, the researchers analyzed survey results from a previous study of 544 undergraduates. Of the survey respondents, only 93 were men -- the other 541 were women -- so there's a good chance that this data is more accurate with respect to women than men. Ninety-one percent of respondents were heterosexual, 63 percent were of European descent, 16 percent were Hispanic, 14 percent were Asian American, 4 percent were African American, and 2 percent were mixed race or other -- in other words, it's your typical sex survey - mostly white and straight (but they do provide their demographics up front, which I always appreciate). The mean age of subjects was 18.9, so the effects of age and really long term relationships aren't accounted for in this study (it would be interesting to see how the results look different for people who've been married 20+ years). Because the sample was composed of people who took the survey voluntarily, the results were skewed toward those who found their sexual encounters pleasurable, so again, not the most representative sample, but at least with respect to women it's a sizable sample. The survey respondents were asked to give their reasons for having sex and rate their satisfaction from sex in terms of contentment, compatibility, personal concerns, and relationship concerns. In other words, satisfaction is not defined in this context by orgasms or arousal levels, but on something more difficult to quantify, the overall feeling the person had that the sex was, essentially, worthwhile. A wide variety of motives, such as physical pleasure, love and commitment, social status, revenge, etc were looked at.
Out of all the possible reasons people have for having sex, only three were strong predictors of satisfaction for men. The results show that when men have sex for reasons of love/commitment, their satisfaction is higher, whereas if their motive is self esteem or resource acquisition (resources could be anything from drugs to employment), it's decreased. For women the story is more complex. Women were also more likely to report satisfaction when their motive was love and commitment, but to a lesser extent than men. Motives of self expression and pleasure were also positively correlated with satisfaction for women, while motives of self esteem, resources, and experience seeking were all predictors of less satisfaction. The researchers suggest that the differences between the genders may be due to the fact that women are often the ones who decide when sex happens, but I'd guess it may have just as much to do with the small sample size of men compared to women. It's also possible that for men motivation just has less of an impact on satisfaction than it does for women. In fact, other than the wider range of predictive motivations for women, there isn't all that much difference between the genders. Both men and women appear to get more satisfaction out of sex with a partner they're in a loving relationship with, and less when they're fucking to raise their self esteem or gain something material. And yes, that does sound like scientists announcing something that seems like common sense as new results, but it never hurts to have empirical evidence.
It's tempting to say that this research shows that there are "right" reasons and "wrong" reasons to have sex, and conveniently the most "right" reason is love and commitment, but as always this stuff is complicated and personal, and very likely influenced as much by societal norms as any other human behavior. If you've been told your whole life that having sex for love is best, then you might subjectively rate that experience better than others just because you believe it should be better. On the other hand, it's probably safe to say that people who are having sex to raise their self esteem may not be behaving in the most healthy manner, since self esteem really can't be gained from without. (I'm on the fence as to having sex to gain resources - I wouldn't do it my self, but even our ape cousins have been known to trade sex for food, so I don't think it can be called an illegitimate reason for sex. No one should feel they have to, but if they want to, then it's fine with me.) In any case, as long as the sex is consensual I think it's better to just acknowledge that we all have different reasons for doing the things we do and nobody really knows what's going on in someone else's head. In an ideal world, no one would have sex for any reason except that it brings them and their partner pleasure, but we don't live in an ideal world; we live in the real one and people will have sex for all sorts of reasons, and maybe it won't always be the best sex, but that doesn't mean it was "wrong" to do have it.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.