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Why do women have sex?

September 8th, 2009

Dr Petra

The papers have been full of a new study, based on a book by Cindy Meston and David Buss that asks ‘Why Women Have Sex’. The coverage has been fairly reactionary, not particularly critical. It has focused, for the most part, on the negative reasons women have sex.

Why do women have sex? To relieve boredom, to win favours, or to stop a headache – Daily Mail

Boredom, pity, relief and to cure a migraine – the real reasons why women have sex – The Telegraph

Women have sex to relieve boredom – Metro

The majority of initial media coverage continued the popular stereotype that deep down women aren’t really all that sexual, but will manipulatively use sex to get what they want. As the story spread the focus shifted to be slightly more questioning (but not in a particularly helpful way) with the conclusion that this research has shown women aren’t particularly sexual, that sex is inevitably mundane for most women, and that women’s magazines have been remiss to push for a more sexy agenda for ladies.

Well, I just felt sorry for him – Independent
He bought dinner. I was bored. He’ll do the chores. The unromantic truth about why women sleep with men – Daily Mail

While it’s good to question the aspirational treatment of sex in the media, sadly these features haven’t really done this. Instead the majority of all coverage has suggested sex either women aren’t sexual and/or in long term relationships their sex drives diminish (whereas men’s do not). Predictably the features are all stacked up with references to hormones and evolution that seemingly haven’t been fully understood by the journalists writing them.

Perhaps that’s because most of the stories seem to be a rehash of a press release to promote a forthcoming book. Certainly as you scan through the headlines and features you can’t help noticing the same themes coming up word for word. And while the book is referred to as if it’s been read, it hasn’t been released yet, so the coverage is entirely based on a press release. Which seemingly no journalist bothered to check.

If they had, they might have discovered this wasn’t quite a story of research identifying why all women have sex. A couple of years ago the authors of the book published a study called ‘why humans have sex’. It was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour and is free to read here. In this study 400 people were asked to state why they had sex. This list was collapsed into 237 reasons, and then 1500 participants rated these reasons in relation to their sexual behaviour. The participants were all undergraduate students, studying psychology, who completed the research in order to gain course credits.

This research identified many factors why people had sex – which ranged from relieving boredom to curing a headache (more details in the paper linked above). The researchers got a lot of press coverage on this story with papers shouting about how there were 237 reasons for us to have sex.

While the study was certainly interesting it wasn’t without its limitations in terms of design, participants and analysis. At the time the media was criticised for not being particularly questioning about the research. You can read my take on the study here plus an excellent analysis of the paper and media coverage by Cory Silverberg here.

The results from the 2007 study (why humans have sex) seemed remarkably similar to findings from this current research (why women have sex). Although when the original paper was published the media response was ‘woo, aren’t there loads of reasons we have sex’. Whereas the current focus has been much more negative, yet resigned to the idea that sadly women have dismal sex lives for all the wrong reasons.

It is unclear (because the book’s not out yet) whether the book is based on a sample of 1000 women entirely different from those in this 2007 study, or whether they are the same participants. In which case this is not a report about why women have sex, but a report based on some reasons given for having sex by undergraduate, female, psychology students, who are mostly white and all doing the research in exchange for a course credit. In fairness the research in the press now may be based on a different sample, but it would have been helpful if a journalist had spotted this and asked questions – who were the women in the study and are they representative of the rest of us?

It’s reasonable to say we have sex for a variety of reasons, some positive, some not so good. But the reports on this latest research and the 2007 study failed to make clear issues of duration and distress. A one-off negative experience could devastate some people, but not others. A continued sexual experience which seems negative to outsiders but is not seen as such within the relationship may not be as problematic as we assume. Without asking people the context in which these sexual activities happen, how they feel about them and the impact it has on relationships, it’s impossible to really make sense of the data.

Although men are not presented within the media coverage of this current study, there is an ever present subtext of women in relation to men – that women are innately less sexual, suffer more miserable sex lives, and go along with dismal relations. Yet the 2007 study suggested that men can also have sex for negative reasons. And nobody covering this story thought to question whether men also experienced some problems – or how they felt about sex being portrayed in such a way. After all if your sex life is based on a partner grudgingly pulling up her nightie and letting you do it because you’ve been rutting away at her leg like a Jack Russell terrier, then this presumably is a problem for all concerned.

Aside from not identifying this study had already been spun in a somewhat different format and asking questions about the research itself, the media offered us very little information about what to do if our sex lives were fitting into a mundane format. Rather than questioning what may be going on in a relationship to lead to sex that’s less than positive, it simply presented a list of negative reasons women have sex as though that was a representative and fixed portrait of female sexual lives.

The study itself, and the media coverage have caused some concern within the sexological community, summarised by Cory Silverberg here. While I’d encourage you to think about why you do have sex, I would be highly skeptical of the media coverage of this particular study. And let’s hold off our assumptions about whether women really do have sex for mundane and miserable reasons until the book comes out and we can identify exactly who was in this research and what the study found.

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