The Motivations Behind Sex: For Me, For You, or For Us?
By Amy B. Brunell (The Ohio State University at Mansfield) and Gregory D. Webster (University of Florida)
The question “Why do people fall in love?” may be one of life’s great mysteries, but what of that closely related, if less romantic, question–Why do people have sex? Is sex motivated only by a desire for physical pleasure or are people’s sexual motives more complex, mixing together the expression of love, pleasing one’s partner, and enhancing the relationship’s intimacy?
We investigated these key questions (Brunell & Webster, 2013) by examining people’s motivations for having sex and whether their motivation for sex was related to their psychological well-being (e.g., their self-esteem and satisfaction with life) and their relationship satisfaction with their partners. We used Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000) as a lens to understand sexual motivation. According to Self-Determination Theory, people can be motivated to behave in ways that they themselves choose, or they can be motivated to behave because of the pressure they experience from others. When applied to sexual behavior, two examples of self-determined behavior are a) having sex with your partner because you find sex to be pleasurable, and b) because you want to share an intimate experience with your partner. On the other hand, sexual behavior would be considered less self-determined when you act out of personal obligation or when you have sex even when you don’t feel like it to make your partner happy.
In general, Self-Determination Theory predicts that we experience a host of benefits when we behave out of free choice rather than pressure. For example, we are better able to meet our psychological needs (such as intimacy and connectedness with others) and feel good about ourselves (Knee, Lonsbary, Canevello, & Patrick, 2005; Ryan & Deci, 2002). When our needs are fulfilled, we also have better relationships (Patrick, Knee, Canavello, & Lonsbary, 2007). Likewise, when the behavior concerns our relationships, our more self-determined behaviors are linked to greater happiness in the relationship (Blais, Sabourin, Boucher, & Vallerand, 1990).
As part of our research on sexual behavior, we conducted three studies. In the first study, participants involved in dating relationships completed questionnaires about their sexual motivation in general, how they felt about themselves, and how they felt about the quality of their relationship. In the second study, participants were asked to keep diaries of their sexual interactions and to report why they engaged in the sexual interactions, and how they felt about themselves and their relationship. In the third study, both partners from a dating couple were each asked to complete a diary every day, which included questions about how they felt about themselves and their relationship; couples also reported their sexual interactions when they occurred. Across these three studies, we found a pattern: self-determined sexual motivation was directly linked to getting one’s psychological needs met, which in turn were positively associated with improved psychological well-being and better relationship satisfaction. Results from the third study showed that self-determined sexual motivation enhanced how people felt about themselves and their relationships, even on days when one did not have sex! Results from the third study also showed that when the men were more self-determined in their sexual motivation, the women felt better about their relationship, probably because the men’s interest in sex was a sign to them that their relationship was on track. These results, taken together, indicate that our sexual experiences are important and have potential consequences for how we feel about ourselves and our relationships with our romantic partners.
Amy B. Brunell is a social psychologist at the Ohio State University at Mansfield. She investigates intimacy and satisfaction in dating relationships as well as narcissism in social context.
Gregory D. Webster (Ph.D., Colorado, 2006) is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida; he has authored or coauthored over 60 articles and chapters. Webster’s brief autobiography can be found in the American Psychologist (2006) and his Social Psychology Network website is http://webster.socialpsychology.org.
Blais, M.R., Sabourin, S., Boucher, C., & Vallerand, R.J. (1990). Toward a motivational model of couple happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1021-1031.
Brunell, A. B., & Webster, G. D. (2013). Self-determination and sexual experience in dating relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 970-987.
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Patrick, H., Knee, C.R., Canevello, A., & Lonsbary, C. (2007). The role of need fulfillment in relationship functioning and well-being: A self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 434-457.
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2002). An overview of Self-Determination Theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E.L. Deci & R.M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination Research (pp. 3-33). Rochester: University of Rochester Press.