Everything is about sex these days, does it still mean something to us? cover image

Everything is about sex these days, does it still mean something to us?

Dorian Minors • March 7, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Here at The Dirt Psychology, we often speak about sex being very much motivated by the baby making. In fact, many psychologists put a lot of emphasis on the reproductive motivation for it. But how many times in your life do have sex for the sole purpose of creating a helpless bundle of  tears and joy? Everyone else talks a lot about how much fun it is. But really, how many times do you have sex just for fun? We've certainly hinted that there are other factors at play. In this article we're going to cover some of the big questions about sex, starting with the why.

Sex was pretty much a non-issue in psychology for a very long time. Right up until almost 1940. Scientists had come up with a bunch of nonsense over the years and called it a day shortly after. Here's something of a highlight reel:

'It's bumping against my pancreas and it's making me tear up at this sad movie!' Photo courtesy of wanapixel (Flickr). 'It's bumping against my pancreas and it's making me tear up at this sad movie!' Photo courtesy of wanapixel (Flickr).

So olden day humans were pretty lazy about the whole thing. 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 (a sex testing ground? I bet the students were delighted). From his studies we got the very first real solid information about sex in the two tomes Sexuality of Men and Sexuality of Women, both published around 1950. This basically flipped the bird to a lot of the conventional wisdom surrounding sex, including the amount of pre-marital sex going on, affairs, masturbation and the female orgasm.

Since then, it's been a downhill slope and a recent study at the University of Texas by two guys, Meston and Buss (who is our sexual strategies guy) in 2007 revealed that students could identify 237 separate reasons that people have sex. 237! And what they found were all of these could be explained by one or more of four underlying motives:

  1. Emotional - the sex is about communicating love and commitment.
  2. Physical  - the sex is about that awesome feeling and satisfying our innate hunger for pretty people
  3. Pragmatic - the sex is a tool, used to fulfil a purpose. Maybe to make babies. Maybe to get revenge on a cheating partner. Or maybe, as the movies would have us believe, to get that promotion. You get the idea.
  4. 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.

So there you go. That's the 'why' for sex. At least at a general level. How do those motives feel to you? True enough, most likely. I'm not surprised; since those first, ground breaking books were published our society has come a long way in terms of sexual openness (for better or worse). But there's a subtext in those motives. The subtext is that some people are using sex in a context of love and family; the traditional view of sex. On the other hand, others are using it as a tool; abandoning the sentimental notions attributed to it. So which is it? Is sex mostly motivated by those who'd use it as a tool, or does it still hold some sentimental, emotional value for most of us?

Well, to start with, just under 25% of people still believe in traditional view that premarital sex is wrong. So as much as we may be 'pragmatic' and 'insecure' about sex, there's still close to a quarter of the population who try to save that 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 split (as it is so often) by gender. As Susan Hendrick and her colleagues found in 2006, men are far more in favour of casual and premarital sex than women. Indeed, men have a far greater ability to separate emotions and sex, where women tend to link sex with love and commitment (something we talk about here). This is something that holds up across culture and time.

They might be offended by our short shorts and the shirtlessness but realistically, we probably still feel the same about sex. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Atchley (Flickr). They might be offended by our short shorts and the shirtlessness but realistically, we probably still feel the same about sex. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Atchley (Flickr).

Despite this, sex is still something we all seem to hold dear in some ways. A study of 2000 young'uns in 1979 by DeLamater and MacCorquodale (I know right? What's with some of these people's names) showed that boys and girls 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 18 (although another study in 2007 suggested girls were also averaging around 17). 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 a lots of reasons, it still holds it's value for us. Unlike our sexualised culture might have us believe, people are still reasonably conventional about it. What do you think? Is this sort of sentimentality outdated? Or should we try and get back to tradition and treat sex with a bit more respect? If you want to know more about sex, check out our article on one major way men and women get turned on differently (and why it matters). Or, learn what makes a fabulous first impression so you can get more of that sexy, sexy sex (if you're single - The Dirt Psychology in no way condones extra-marital, extra-monogamous or extra-terrestrial sexy, sexy sex). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of Kena Sen (Flickr).

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.