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The 237 reasons to have sex

August 6th, 2007

Dr Petra

Recently I blogged about a new Kinsey sex survey that’s asking what having sex means to you. That research is going to look at the different sexual experiences people have.

Now there’s a new study out (due to be shortly published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour) which has asked people to explain the reasons why they have sex.

The study was by a team from the University of Texas where they firstly asked 400 people to say using an open ended question why they’d had sex. Next they collapsed these into 237 reasons for having sex, then they asked 1500 university students to rate how important these motives were.

Some of the reasons include….
“I wanted to feel closer to God”
“I was drunk”
“To get rid of a headache”
“Help me fall asleep”
“make my partner feel powerful”
“burn calories”
*return a favor”
“keep warm”
“hurt an enemy”
“change the topic of conversation”
“It seemed like good exercise”
“Someone dared me”

The researchers narrowed down these 237 statements into four categories:

Physical: “The person had beautiful eyes” or “a desirable body,” or “was good kisser” or “too physically attractive to resist.” Or “I wanted to achieve an orgasm.”
Goal Attainment: “I wanted to even the score with a cheating partner” or “break up a rival’s relationship” or “make money” or “be popular.” Or “because of a bet.”
Emotional: “I wanted to communicate at a deeper level” or “lift my partner’s spirits” or “say ‘Thank you.’ ” Or just because “the person was intelligent.”
Insecurity: “I felt like it was my duty” or “I wanted to boost my self-esteem” or “It was the only way my partner would spend time with me.”

The reason most often ranked as important by men and women was ‘I was attracted to the person’. Phew! Good to know that at least most people have sex because they fancy somebody. The remaining top ten rated motives were also the same for both genders and included wanting to express love for someone, for fun, and because people felt aroused and wanted a sexual release.

In general men were more likely to list reasons as important, although it appears both genders agreed on what were their main motivations for having sex. Notable exceptions were that men were found to be more likely to say they had sex to enhance their reputation and social status (something the researchers claimed to find surprising as they expected this was something women would do more). Males were also more likely to say motivations for having sex included ‘slumming it’, opportunity, and their partner demanding sex. Older women were more likely to agree with statements concerning having sex as a sense of duty.

It’s difficult to see whether these were gendered answers, or just a case of men agreeing with far more topics than women.

The researchers argue both genders also use a strategy they called ‘mate guarding’ – which is illustrated with statements such as ‘I was afraid my partner would have an affair if I didn’t [have sex with them]‘

At the present time I’ve only read press coverage of this paper, not the paper itself, so I’m waiting to see that before I completely judge the research. However there are a number of things we can say about it from what we know so far.

What’s good about this research?

Well, it asks a simple but important question. It may seem obvious to ask people why they have sex, but most sex research to date hasn’t done so. We ask people how often they do it, what they do, who they do it with, and about their sexual problems or health, but we don’t really ask about why they’re having sex in the first place. Clearly having a taxonomy of reasons is useful in itself – and helpful to interpret other sex research.

It also uses an open ended approach so rather than getting people to agree with a predetermined questionnaire the researchers first began by asking people to list all the reasons for having sex they could imagine and then asked participants to indicate whether they felt these reasons were important.

It’s an interesting study as it gets people talking and it makes us think about the reasons why we’ve had sex – and in turn gives us an insight into what sex means for us.

There appear to be just as many gender similarities in respondents as there are differences. Often research of this kind only focuses on difference, and flagging up similarities is an important diversion from this tradition.

Where is this research limited?

First off, the study is mostly based on college students, which means it’s not representative of a wider population and will be subject to bias since college students are often motivated to be in research for reasons that differ from the wider population and may not always give the most accurate feedback.

While they don’t just plump for the ‘men are from mars women are from venus’ approach we so often see in studies of this kind, where they do describe gender differences they appear to do so in a way that suggests there’s no consideration of wider gender politics that not only would have shed more light on the findings, but also would have made them more useful. Given the wide body of evidence around gender and sexual relationships it’s a shame these theories do not appear to have been utilised within this research.

Linked to this is the more general problem of not appearing to understand how their findings apply to the real world. There’s some discussion within media coverage about how respondents views that sex was a form of exercise or means to lose weight was amusing, yet you only have to read women’s magazines to see this is a frequently promoted message. There seems to be a lack of wider understanding of what informed the 237 reasons for having sex which weakens the overall presentation of findings.

Although the research did utilise an open ended question, overall it would have been more interesting to employ more in-depth qualitative techniques to follow up what people meant by their statements. After all it is interesting to know that people were motivated to have sex to express love, to get back at an enemy or because of a bet – but wouldn’t it be much more interesting if we knew the circumstances under which these situations arose?

Added to this is the need for some kind of context. Although people gave 237 reasons for having sex it’s unclear from this research whether these reasons differ in frequency, importance and meaning. For example one would hope that people have sex out of a sense of duty or to keep a partner happy infrequently if at all, but when that happens such sexual encounters will carry with them a lot of negative feelings. One might hope that having sex because someone was desirable, beautiful or because you loved them happened all the time, but it could be just a one off for some respondents.

Knowing the reasons we have sex is only part of the puzzle. We also need to know for each of these different reasons how often they occur and what emotional meanings are given to them.

The researchers have taken an evolutionary perspective to look at the reasons for having sex and explaining ‘mating strategies’. This is of course but one lens to look at behaviour and explain data, and for me I don’t think it’s really adequate for a study of this kind. As respondents were college students they are young and so the idea of ‘mate guarding’ in terms of keeping a partner to oneself may be less relevant than the more upsetting but frequent problems in young people’s sexual relationships.

Often in these situations young people have sex for fear of losing a partner (which is supported by this research) but they do so for fear of losing face with friends, through coercion or pressure from a partner, or due to peer pressure. These could be explained in evolutionary terms, but they could also be explained as unpleasant social factors that need to be challenged rather than just listed as one part of a taxonomy.

Which brings me on to the final limitation of this research. This data could have been a lot stronger (and perhaps the full published paper is). Instead of just a list of 237 motivations and subcategories of reasons to have sex we really need to know whether there are positive or negative reasons for having sex that repeat themselves more for particular groups of people – and under what circumstances these occur. It would have been possible to identify this, but instead it seems we’re left with an interesting list and some fun reasons for having sex to talk about, but whether this takes us much further to understand sexual behaviour is unclear.

You can join in their research yourself by visiting their website where they’re now finding out the reasons people say ‘no’ to sex. It doesn’t mention any ethical approval for their research, however, so you may wish to ask them what ethical coverage they have prior to participation. Currently it seems agreeing to take part by completing the questions is a sign of consent (although if you’re distressed by the research you can call them for support).

Further discussion about the study is going on over at TierneyLab if you fancy debating these findings.

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