Sex is about more than making babies

March 7, 2014

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Psychologists are eager to discuss the baby-making potential of sex and how it drives us. Many others concentrate on sex as a form of pleasure. But sex is a complicated behaviour, with complicated motivations. It seems sensible to talk about those quieter motivations given the large role sex plays in our societies.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Psychologists are very fond of emphasising the reproductive nature of sex. Evolutionary psychology is particularly keen on forcing children into our motivations. But how many times in your life do have sex for the sole purpose of creating a helpless bundle of  tears and joy? We also have sex for fun. That's obvious. But really, how many times do you have sex just for fun? Sex is a complex behaviour, with complex motivations, and it seems sensible to talk about these quieter motivations given sex (or the thought of sex) is such a large part of many people's lives.

Sex was once a baffling domain of research

Sex was pretty much a non-issue in psychology for a very long time. Right up until the last 100 years or so. Interested investigators would come up with a brief, and often inexplicable, theory for the complicated role of sex and sexual organs in human behaviour and call it a day. Here's something of a highlight reel:

  • The clitoris is a tiny penis that only mutant women have.
  • Extra nipples (something 1 in 18 people have) are the sign of a witch.
  • The womb just roams the female body when not in use, messing about and accounting for all that 'female crazy'.

Seems a little lazy really. But in 1938, Alfred Kinsey started up one of the very first courses on Marriage at Indiana University and used it as something of a testing ground for research into sex. From his studies we got the very first real solid information about sex in his two tomes Sexuality of Men and Sexuality of Women, both published around 1950. This was a wide departure from much of the conventional wisdom surrounding sex, including the amount of pre-marital sex going on, the number of affairs, the kinds of masturbation and the female orgasm.

Sex appears to have four core motivations

Since then, it's become more popular to explore sexual behaviour and the motivations for sex have been elucidated greatly. For example, a recent paper out of the University of Texas (pdf) revealed that students could identify 237 separate reasons that people have sex. Each of these myriad reasons could be explained by one or more of four underlying motives:

  • Emotional - the sex is about communicating love and commitment.
  • Physical  - the sex is about the physical pleasure and the satisfaction of our sexual urges.
  • Pragmatic - the sex is a tool, used to fulfil a purpose. Perhaps to make babies, but just as often to get revenge or gain social status.
  • Insecurity - the sex fills some kind of hole in our lives, to boost our self-esteem and make us feel better about ourselves; more desirable.

These motivations aren't particularly groundbreaking of course. But they do highlight that of the four primary motivation for sex, there is very little room for traditional notions of sexual behaviour. The subtext, rather, is that while some people are engaging in sex in a context of love and family, others are using it as a tool; abandoning the more sentimental notions we tend to hold. Which raises a question: how much sex conforms to our traditional expectations?

Current views on sex

Research into sexual behaviour is typically based on survey data, which is less then precise. But we can draw some conclusions. In the 2006 proof of concept of their sexual attitude scale, Susan Hendrick and her colleages found that just under 25% of people still believe in traditional view that premarital sex is wrong. So despite more liberal views of sex, something like a quarter of the US population are still interested in saving themselves for marriage. However it seems like these motives all depend on your expectations of a relationship; whether you expect commitment, or expect it to be more casual. And in this, our society is apparently split by gender. Men are far more in favour of casual and premarital sex than women, where women tend to more often report links between sex, intimacy, love, and commitment. This particularly finding has been stable for some time, but it's interesting to note this finding is quite ambigious. It's not exactly clear, for example, what casual sex means in this regard, nor why casual sex must by default be exclusive from feelings of intimacy. What seems more likely is that casual sex is interpreted through different lenses for men and women, and our questioning seperates out the fact that women are more thoughtful when it comes to answering questions about their sex lives.

Indeed, sex is still something we all seem to hold dear in certain ways. In the various follow ups since DeLamater and MacCorquodale's 1979 work on sexual attitudes we've found that boys and girls stably tend to follow a similar sexual development. Beginning at around 14, both boys and girls move from hand-holding, to kissing; heavy petting to sex at about the same rate, with boys losing their virginity at 17 and girls at around the same time. This sequence is similar across cultures too, although the timing might change, for instance, Japanese statistics average closer to the 20 mark for sex.

So although we may have sex for many reasons, it still certainly holds value for us. In particular, its a tool. Not simply a tool for mercenary ends, but a tool for building community. For achieving intimacy, for creating bonds, for sharing experiences and sharing pleasure.

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