Your partner may come up with a dozen excuses to say "Not tonight, dear, I have a ____," but how many reasons can the two of you name for wanting to have sex?
One? Two? Twenty? How about 200? Some college students have cited as many as 237 different reasons for having sex.
From pleasure to procreation, insecurity to inquisitiveness -- today's reasons for taking a roll in the hay seem to vary as much as the terms for the deed itself. A 2010 Sexuality & Culture review of sex motivation studies states that people are offering "far more reasons for choosing to engage in sexual activity than in former times." And we're doing it more often too. It’s a stark contrast from historical assumptions, which cited only three sexual motive: To make babies, to feel good, or because you're in love.
Today, sexual behaviors seem to have taken on many different psychological, social, cultural, even religious meanings. Yet, some sexologists say, at the most basic level, there is only one true reason people seek sex.
Wired for Sex
"We are programmed to do so," sex therapist Richard A. Carroll, associate Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor says. "Asking why people have sex is akin to asking why we eat. Our brains are designed to motivate us toward that behavior."
The idea that humans are hard-wired for sex reflects an evolutionary perspective, according to University of Hawaii psychology professor Elaine Hatfield. "Evolutionary theorists point out that a desire for sexual relations is 'wired in' in order to promote species survival," she says. "Cultural theorists tend to focus on the cultural and personal reasons people have (or avoid) sex. Cultures differ markedly in what are considered to be 'appropriate' reasons for having or avoiding sex."
What's Your Motive?
Why do you seek sex? Motivations generally fall into four main categories, according to psychologists at UT-Austin who asked more than 1,500 undergraduate college students about their sexual attitudes and experiences:
- Physical reasons: Pleasure, stress relief, exercise, sexual curiosity, or attraction to a person
- Goal-based reasons: To make a baby, improve social status (for example, to become popular), or seek revenge
- Emotional reasons: Love, commitment, or gratitude
- Insecurity reasons: To boost self-esteem, keep a partner from seeking sex elsewhere, or feeling a sense of duty or pressure (for example, a partner insists on having sex)
The Difference Between the Sexes
Generally speaking, men seek sex because they like how it feels. Women, although they very well may also derive pleasure from the act, are generally more interested in the relationship enhancement that sex offers. Researchers describe these differences as body-centered versus person-centered sex.
- Body-centered sex is when you have sex because you like the way it makes your body feel. You aren't concerned with the emotions of your partner.
- Person-centered sex is when you have sex to connect with the other person. You care about the emotions involved and the relationship.
"Men often start out being body centered," says University of Hartford adjunct psychology professor Janell Carroll. "But that changes later on. As men reach their 40s, 50s, and 60s, their relationship becomes more important."
Richard Carroll has been counseling couples with sexual issues for more than two decades. "Women actually become more like men over time in that often, early on, sex is about initiating, developing, strengthening, and maintaining relationships, but in a long-term relationship they can actually focus on pleasure."
Despite these general observations, research also suggests that there has been a big convergence in sexual attitudes among men and women in recent years. In 1985, Janell Carroll and colleagues found that most college-aged males had casual sex for physical reasons without emotional attachments. She repeated many of the same study questions to a new audience in 2006.
"Instead of men and women being at opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, they are now coming together," she says. "More women might be having sex for physical reasons, but many more men were more likely to say they had sex for emotional reasons."
20 Reasons People Have Sex
Stressed out? Have sex. Stress reduction is one of the leading reasons Americans, particularly men, say they have sex, Richard Caroll says. The review, published online in Sexuality & Culture, shows other most frequently cited reasons for having sex include:
- Boosting mood and relieving depression
- Enhancement of power
- Enhancement of self-concept
- Experiencing the power of one’s partner
- Feeling loved by your partner
- Fostering jealousy
- Improving reputation or social status
- Making money
- Making babies
- Need for affection
- Partner novelty
- Peer pressure or pressure from partner
- Reducing sex drive
- Sexual curiosity
- Showing love to your partner
- Spiritual transcendence
Why Study Sex?
Understanding why people seek sex is not always a simple task. Most studies have involved college undergraduates, a "sample of convenience" for university researchers but one that is often very limiting. Young men and women typically haven't been in very committed relationships and are in the process of discovering their sexuality. Their answers to "why do you have sex" are often greatly tied to the image of themselves and their social relationships, says Richard Carroll. This can change over time.
But such knowledge can improve a couple's sex life.
"Understanding these differences in motivations is very important. It helps us understand what's going on in the sexual relationship and treat sexual disorders. Very often, you find the source of the problem can be traced to the particular motivation," Richard Carroll says.
If you need help, you can find a qualified sex therapist in your area through organizations such as the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapist (AASECT) or The Society for Sex Therapy and Research.