Why We Have Sex

Psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss of the University of Texas, Austin, asked nearly 2,000 people why they had sex and assembled a list of 237 reasons.

Strangely, a few had sex “to get rid of a headache.” It’s No. 173. Aren’t headaches an excuse to avoid sex?

Other reasons include exercise, revenge, a sense of duty, adventure, an ego boost, desiring a gift, drunkenness, to keep warm, so my partner won’t have an affair, wanting a child… the list goes on, ranging from, “So my husband will put out the trash” to “It’s the closest thing to God” (perhaps explaining shrieks of “Oh God!”).

While evolutionary psychology claims women are more likely to have sex to get resources, men were actually more likely to do this. Men were also more likely to have sex to gain status. But then, women often lose status when they have sex, becoming “loose” sluts, whores or skanks…

This one’s interesting: Men were more likely to have sex because “the person demanded it.” Is that because men are more inclined to have sex for any reason, anyway?

Regardless of the reason, the researchers found that men were more likely to cite it, except for “expressing love” or “realizing I was in love.” I suspect women were also more likely to have sex to avoid taking out the rubbish. Consider that 84% of women admitted they’d had sex so her guy would do household chores or to put an end to sex-nagging. Older women were especially likely to have sex from a sense of duty. It’s what a wife does, they felt.

The good news? Men and women ranked the same reason most often: being attracted to the person. Actually, most of the top 10 were the same for each gender, including expressing love, being sexually aroused and having fun.

The psychologists placed the motivations into four general categories, as laid out in the New York Times:

  • Physical: “The person had beautiful eyes” or “a desirable body,” or “was a 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.”
  • 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.”
  • 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.”

It is remarkable to see how often the motivations for sex lie outside of the pleasure of sex, itself.

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I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 7, 2012, in gender, men, psychology, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Which came first, the sex or the reason to have sex? Neuroscience tells us that actions are (usually) initiated before we think about them. It’s after the action that we come up with the explanation (usually a really good explanation which really holds water–is consistent with a person’s past or ‘patterns’).

    Cool piece. Thought provoking. Thank you.

    • I was thinking I might be addressing that point in the next sex-post(next mon) but I’m not sure it’ll fit. But the USD study http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8992519/Sex-gets-better-with-age-say-scientists.html addresses your point, if I understand the question here. In that study the older women’s sex drive was low, but they enjoyed sex when they engaged in it more than when they were younger. Seems they were motivated by a desire for intimacy and connection with their partners more than being motivated by sex, but once they began engaging, they really got into the sexual experience. On some level this point will show up in that post.

      I find that USD study interesting because in my own experience when I have felt really close to my partner and he wants sex, I may not be in the mood at the time, but if he is someone who I am really close to — I’m talking soul mate close — and I want to feel bonded with, I can get into it even though my sex drive wasn’t part of my motivation– Bonding with him was.

      On the other hand, I have been with other boyfriends who I didn’t feel especially close to, and I had sex with them only because I felt like I was supposed to because he was my boyfriend (I had yet to learn more about personal empowerment). Those times, I didn’t enjoy the sex at all. It was just boring. Like, “When will this be over?” Most women in our culture need to feel emotionally close to the person they have sex with in order to enjoy it. So I can relate because I’m like most women when it comes to this.

  2. It was refreshing to read that most men actually care for the women they have sex with because unfortunately, especially in younger age groups, the goal of too many men is just to get laid, no feelings involved. Of course, reasons for having sex are all over the board and vary with every person, but I think the biggest reason there are conflicting feelings towards sex is because partners are not usually on the same page. Each partner is looking for something different and since men seem to have a simpler expectation, they are more satisfied, leaving women unsettled.

  3. interesting article. but i do think that age group that they did this study on, influences the reasons for having sex for both the men and women. I can’t really picture any man claiming that they had sex only because “the person demanded it.” like it says on the article:
    Men were more likely to have sex because “the person demanded it.”
    I feel like this would contradict the whole gaining status idea by men becoming submissive and obeying women; but then again, this is part of research doesn’t apply to everyone. Ultimately, all the found reasons to why people may have sex are valid points.

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  5. Why we have sex is a loaded question. There are so many answers depending on the person you are asking. As a 20 year old in college I should be having sex for the pleasure since I am not married with a husband who doesn’t do the household chores. Surprisingly I have had sex for other reasons then pleasure which to me is sad. I feel in your youth sex should be about the pleasure and nothing else because before we know we will be married trying to get our spouse to do chores around the house.

  6. Alexander Ghanma

    This article blew my mind. I personally love studies that are done with main focus on sex. My favorite part was

    —> “Physical: “The person had beautiful eyes” or “a desirable body,” or “was a 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.”
    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.”
    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.””

    It was interesting to see that women and men wanted to have sex because of the same reasons for the most part. I was under the impression that men were just “dogs” and wanted to always have sex just to have it. The statistic that 84% of women wanted to have sex so that men could do house chores was hilarious. It’s like a give and get process. Women train men to be obedient like dogs. Tell a dog to go potty and bribe them with a treat. Same concept.

  7. You do a great job and I am inspired by your thought provoking blogs.

  8. I think it is admirable that you are trying to help both men and women see how slut- shaming negatively impacts a women’s sexuality, but is it enough? I believe education regarding sexuality and sexual pleasure needs to begin early. I remember in high school being in a class called Sex Education. In those days the Drivers Ed teacher who was also the football coach taught the class. I know times have changed and children are being taught at a younger age but is the curriculum in the sex-education classes any better today? The focus is either on abstinence, or for those who become sexually active, educating them regarding the use of contraception and the practice of safe sex. Maybe the onus is on parents to educate both their sons and daughters about things like sexual pleasure, body awareness, and intimacy. I have one of each and retrospectively I’m not sure I did a very good job in this area. As a society we hear so much about safe sex that we often forget to teach our children that sexual behavior is a healthy part of growing up. Mothers teach your sons that it is NOT shameful for a woman to be sexual or to participate in her own sexual pleasure.

  9. I find your choice of the word “interesting” a little intriguing. I think it is pretty common for women to have sex for non-pleasure reasons. First let me qualify that statement. The women I know and interact with socially and professionally have given various reasons for having sex and many of them were for non-pleasure. I once found myself amidst a group of women in there 60s in long-term marriages that were discussing their sex lives right after Viagra became a household name. They were angry with a physician friend of theirs who had given all their husbands free samples of the drug. These women said their husbands now wanted sex all the time. Some of them said they would pretend to be asleep others said they acquiesced to get it over with and one woman went as far as to tell me she never turned her husband down because she did not want him going anywhere else for sex. I was newly married and she urged me to do the same. It’s possible these women have never had sex outside of marriage or sex for purely pleasurable reasons, but are they to blame? Men are taught to reach for their sexuality and experiment and women who do the same are labeled sluts. How do we encourage women to value their own sexual pleasure with out fear of being labeled?

    • Interesting. Thanks for the input.

      On your question, a lot of feminists including me, are trying to help both men and women see how slut-shaming (among other things) negatively affects women’s sexuality.

  10. When I first got married I was so messed up because of CSA. I didn’t get that sex could even be pleasurable and was afraid during sex. I wanted it, got horny and all of that, but when it came to actually doing it, well.

    After about 20 years of marriage a shrink prescribed venlafaxin – efexor depot. Holy cow!!! What a revelation! Now I get the whole sex thing and our marriage has changed radically. Sad that it took so long, but hey the past is the past and I’m having fun (and so is my husband).

  11. I think the question “why we have sex” depends on the age of those being questioned. I would be curious to know the ages of the 2,000 people Meston and Buss questioned. I think age influences the answer. Age needs to be considered to accurately answer this question. I have been married 20 years and can honestly say I have never had sex so my husband would do household chores or take out the garbage. In all fairness, I have never suggested sex in exchange for chores so maybe it works. I am sure if you ask newlyweds this question their answers would be very different. I would predict that younger people would have sex for the pleasure of sex itself, while older couples may have a different agenda besides simple pleasure.

    • They sampled from a range, and didn’t distinguish answers by age. You have a point, though I find it intersting that people have sex for non-pleasure reasons.

      Participants were 203 men and 241 women ranging in age from 17 years to 52 years who were recruited from upper and lower level psychology classes, graduate classes in psychology, and from community volunteers who were participating in several other ongoing studies in the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas.

      Click to access why%20humans%20have%20sex%202007.pdf

  1. Pingback: Cannot Change the Past – trigger alert « humanitysdarkerside

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