Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Promiscuity motivation

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Sexual motivation and promiscuity
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.

Introduction: What is promiscuity?[edit | edit source]

Promiscuity (also known as short-term mating) can be defined by two key aspects. First and foremost, the term refers to an individual's engagement in sexual activities with multiple individuals during the course of their life. However, many individuals now engage in such behaviour without being deemed 'promiscuous'. Thus, it appears that the definition goes beyond the number of people an individual has sexual contact with.

The term 'promiscuous' refers to a complicated combination of short-term mating with multiple partners, without engaging in an exclusive or monogamous relationship with these partners (Markey & Markey, 2007). Whether this type of behaviour is acceptable or not appears to be a matter of personal opinion. While one person may view it as sex with more than a certain number of partners within one's lifetime, others might define it as engaging in sexual practice with multiple partners within days, weeks, or months of each other.

Much of the literature on this topic incorporates sexual promiscuity into a category labelled 'risky sexual behaviour' (Hoyle, Fejfar & Miller, 2000; Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008). This is most likely due to the increased risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy that are often associated with casual sex (Hoyle et al.). It is possible that psychological issues and interpersonal issues may also result from promiscuous behaviour. Thus, researchers over the past several decades have attempted to uncover what motivates sexual promiscuity.

This chapter explores the motivation behind sexually promiscuous behaviour. In particular, the influence of personality and gender will be examined, and several theories behind motivation for this type of behaviour will be explored. You are encouraged to think critically about the application of each theory to promiscuity, as you may find some more applicable to others.

Physiology of Sexual Motivation[edit | edit source]

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs- note that sex is allocated as a primary/physiological need.

Before considering the factors involved in the motivation of promiscuous sexual behaviour, it is important to first address the issue of sexual motivation on a more general level. More specifically, we must ask ourselves the question- why is it that people are driven to engage in sexual behaviour in the first place? The answer lies, in part, in our physiological make-up.

Sex is thought to be one of our most basic physiological needs. According to Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, these physiological needs must be fulfilled before other needs can be addressed (Deckers, 2010). In this respect, the fulfillment of sexual needs is important not only for continuation of the species, but for maintaining personal well-being. While an individual can still technically live without sex, there are theorists who claim we are naturally driven to engage in sexual behaviour.

Hull's Drive Reduction Theory[edit | edit source]

The drive reduction theory is based on the premise that physiological deprivation drives us to behave in particular ways (Deckers, 2010). For instance, a starving rat will press a lever to obtain a food pellet in order to return to a comfortable physiological state. Similarly, a person in need of sexual satisfaction will most likely participate in some sort of sexual behaviour to reduce that physiological need. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the drive for sex is better met by short term mating than by long term mating. In other words, an individual who has sex with a long term partner has just as much chance of meeting their needs as someone who engages in short term mating. Thus, while the drive reduction theory can be used to explain sexual motivation in general, other factors must influence people to become promiscuous.

Attachment Theory and Sexual Promiscuity[edit | edit source]

The theory of attachment was first proposed by Bolby in 1977, and focuses on the affects of the parent-child relationship (Giugliano, 2003). The theory is founded on the premise that the relationship one has with their parents during childhood impacts on the kind of relationship they will have with others in the future (McLeish, Paetzold & Rholes, 2010). Attachment style begins to form during early childhood, and are determined primarily by the child's proximity to the attachment figure.

According to this theory, a person who experienced an adequate relationship with their parental figure during childhood is more likely to experience secure attachment during adulthood. This kind of attachment is thought to lead to positive close relationships with other individuals (Giugliano, 2003). As secure attachment is linked to healthy relationships, trust, and reciprocity, people with this attachment style are generally inclined to seek out monogamous relationship. For this reason, sexually promiscuous behaviour is not strongly linked to individuals with secure attachment.

On the other end of the spectrum, individuals who experience poor parental attachment during childhood tend to have difficulty forming secure attachments in adulthood (McLeish et al., 2010). As a result, these individuals are likely to experience anxiety and insecurity, and may also lack self esteem. Such individuals may become inclined to partake in short-term relationships with multiple partners to temporarily fill the void that poor attachment has left in their lives.

It is believed that individuals with poor attachment will have difficulty entering/maintaining long term monogamous relationships. Research has also indicated that short term sexual encounters are more likely to be undertaken by people with poor attachment compared to secure attachment. For instance, results of a study conducted by Walsh (1995) demonstrated that promiscuous behaviour was more prominent in individuals who claimed to have experienced weak parental attachment during childhood (as cited in Giugliano, 2003).

Gender differences and Sexual Promiscuity[edit | edit source]

Research on promiscuity has demonstrated that there appears to be a gender difference in short term mating. According to Perlini and Boychuk (2006) males are more likely to pursue short-term sexual relationships than females. While some theorists attribute this difference to evolutionary or biological factors, others suggest that perhaps social norms and upbringing are responsible for this difference.

Evidence suggests that men tend to be more sexually promiscuous than women.

Sexual Strategies Theory[edit | edit source]

Human mating is considered to be strategic and innate; taking place in a way that is thought to resolve adaptive problems (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). The sexual strategies theory is an evolutionary theory that posits that men and women psychologically process sex differently. While men and women both possess the potential to engage in sexually promiscuous behaviour, men have adapted in such a way that they are considered to be more oriented towards such behaviour (Schmitt, Shackelford & Buss, 2001) The sexual strategies theory argues that this is due to three factors:

  • Males tend to desire short-term relationships more.
  • Males tend to consent to sex after a shorter period of time compared to females.
  • Males show a greater desire for multiple sex partners.

It is argued by sexual strategy theorists that while men and women will conduct themselves similarly when it comes to choosing partners for long term mating, they differ in short-term mating strategies in several key ways (Schmitt et al., 2001). However, the theory is often misinterpreted in such a way that people think it suggests that all men wish to engage in short term mating. According to Schmitt et al. this is not the case. Rather, the theory suggests that men will simply be more likely to engage in such relationships than women.

Investigating Desire, Number of Partners and Time Before Consent[edit | edit source]

Buss and Schmitt (1993) conducted empirical research to test the accuracy of the hypotheses of the sexual strategies theory. To investigate the desire for short-term mating, a seven point scale identifying the extent to which short term mating was being pursued was administered to 148 participants (75 men and 73 women). The results of this portion of the study demonstrated that men were seeking short term relationships more so than women.

Part two of Buss and Schmitt's (1993) experiment examined gender differences in preference for multiple partners. The same participants were asked to identify how many sexual partners they would like within a given period of time (e.g. next month, during the next 6 years, during a lifetime etc). It was found that men reported a greater number of desired sexual partners than women for every time frame suggested.

Finally, to determine whether men consent to sex more quickly than women, participants were asked over what period of time would have to pass before consenting to sex. Results showed that men would generally consent to sex as early as one week after meeting the potential mate (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Women, on the other hand, were much less inclined to jump into a sexual relationship less than a month after meeting a potential mate.

The results of this study supported the three main hypotheses of the sexual strategies theory. From this, it can be interpreted that gender influences the motivation to engage in short term mating. However, at this point it does not seem entirely clear why men are more inclined to behave promiscuously. Much of the research on gender thus far seems to address how men and women differ in short term mating without addressing why such variance exists. Thus, further research into the reasons behind such gender differences is necessary to truly understand gender's role in the motivation behind sexual promiscuity.

Gender Bias[edit | edit source]

It is possible that one of the reasons males tend to engage in promiscuous behaviour more frequently than females is that society finds it a more acceptable behaviour for men to undertake. Dankoski, Payer and Steinberg (1996) discussed the role that gender bias within society plays in promiscuity. Their focus was on sexual behaviour in adolescence; with a particular interest in male promiscuity.

Dankoski et al. (1996) claimed that adolescents were significantly influenced by gender stereotypes and the influence of peers when it came to sexual practice. They suggested that males tend to hold/adhere to traditional gender stereotypes more so than adolescent females. Adolescent boys therefore experience greater pressure to engage in sexual activity, and are virtually permitted by society to engage in sexually promiscuous behaviour; with the general attitude that 'boys will be boys' allowing them to get away with it.

Contrary to males, there appears to be a societal expectancy that female adolescents save sexual behaviour for 'serious' relationships (Dankoski et al., 1996). These societal norms or values could be what motivate men to remain generally more promiscuous than women. It is possible that these societal expectations carry on into adulthood, with women possibly experiencing internal guilt or external ridicule for acting promiscuously. Men, on the other hand, may continue into adulthood with the understanding that it is more socially acceptable for them to have casual sex with multiple partners.

Personality and Sexual Promiscuity[edit | edit source]

The notion that personality plays an important role in one’s sexual motivation is now well established. With regards to promiscuity, much of the literature on personality appears to focus on the influence of one’s temperament and specific personality traits. In particular, a large body of research has been conducted in the attempt to identify correlations between specific personality factors and sexual risk taking behaviour (including promiscuity).

Psychobiological Perspective- PEN Model[edit | edit source]

One of the more prominent theories of personality relevant to promiscuity is the Psychoticism-Extroversion-Neuroticism (PEN) model. Originally proposed by Eysenck, this model states that there are three biologically based ‘super-factors’ or ‘super traits’ underlying each person’s personality (Egan, 2009; Hoyle et al., 2000). This model thus posits that three major personality traits underlie behaviour (psychoticism, extraversion and neuroticism), and these traits stem from a person’s physiological make-up.

Each of the super traits is composed of a distinct set of sub-traits. Psychoticism, for instance, is based on lower level facets such as aggression, apathy, egocentricity and coldness (Egan, 2009). Biologically speaking, this particular super trait is thought to be influenced by testosterone levels as well as neurotransmitter abnormalities and low cortical arousal (Egan; Hoyle et al., 2000). Much of the biological influence on this trait is therefore related to the physiology and function of the brain.

Results of a study conducted by Eysenck in 1976 suggested that sexual promiscuity is more likely to occur in someone who has high (as opposed to low) levels of psychoticism (as cited in Hoyle et al., 2000). It could therefore be assumed, on the basis of this model, that perhaps a person who demonstrates low cortical arousal or neurotransmitter abnormalities would be more likely to become sexually promiscuous. Such conclusions cannot be made on the basis of this study, however, as only personality traits (as opposed to biological exploration) were studied.

Extraversion (in the PEN model) essentially refers to one's level of sociability, assertiveness and general 'liveliness'. This particular super trait has been linked to one's level of cortical arousal. People that are thought to be highly extraverted are posited to naturally have a lower level of cortical arousal, and thus they seek out external forms of excitement to increase their internal arousal (Egan, 2009). This particular trait is generally linked to increased likelihood of promiscuous behaviour, and this will be discussed in further detail later within this chapter.

The third super trait within the PEN model is Neuroticism; a trait stemmed in emotional stability. Neuroticism is thought to be biologically influenced by the sympathetic nervous system (Hoyle et al., 2000). A highly neurotic individual will have less control over their emotions; with a tendency to have a more negative outlook than people with low levels of neuroticism (Egan, 2009).

Warm vs Cold[edit | edit source]

Over the years psychologists have conducted a great deal of research in the hope of identifying aspects of personality that may predispose individuals to certain behaviour (Markey & Markey, 2007). In regards to sexual motivation, it appears that personal temperament is one aspect of personality that is thought to influence sexually promiscuous behaviour. Research thus far has suggested that it is the people who score on the extremes of personality traits and temperament that tend to be more inclined to have sexual relations with multiple partners (Hutson, 2007).

Particularly warm/cold individuals have a greater tendency to be promiscuous

One study with particularly interesting findings regarding temperament was conducted by Markey and Markey (2007). The study investigated the interpersonal factors that underly sexually promiscuous behaviour, in an attempt to uncover specific personality traits that might predict short-term mating behaviour. Interpersonal style and sexual promiscuity were examined within a sample of 210 adults through using the IAS-R (Interpersonal Adjective Scale) and the BHBI (Bentler's Heterosexual Behavioural Inventory). It was found that people who scored relatively high on interpersonal dominance were more likely to be sexually promiscuous than those with lower dominance scores. Markey and Markey (2007) suggested that one possible explanation for this finding is that perhaps dominant people are less inclined to be shy when it comes to initiating and engaging in sexual encounters. Thus, such individuals may be more inclined to seek out sexual partners, rather than waiting for someone else to initiate sex. As one aspect of extroversion is 'assertiveness', similar explanations could be made for the link between high extroversion and promiscuity.

Possibly the most interesting finding from the study by Markey and Markey (2007) was that individuals that were identified as having a temperament that was either particularly warm or cold were more promiscuous than those who did not score to an 'extreme' for this trait. The researchers offered a few suggestions as to why this might be the case. One possible explanation for cold individuals is that perhaps they avoid more intimate/monogamous sexual relationships due to a fear of rejection or mistreatment. This explanation makes sense in terms of motivation to engage in short-term mating encounters, as the individual can continue to fulfill their physiological need while maintaining interpersonal distance from the individuals they have relations with.

Another possible explanation for the finding that extremely warm/cold individuals are more promiscuous related directly to their interpersonal values. Markey and Markey (2007) suggest that cold individuals simply might just not care about the wellbeing of others, and thus have sexual encounters with whomever they want because they do not regard possible consequences to others as relevant. On the other end of the spectrum, warm individuals might consider sexual encounters as a positive act for other people, and thus have sexual relations with multiple individuals as an act of kindness or love (Markey & Markey, 2007).

Influence of the 'Big Five' on Sexual Promiscuity[edit | edit source]

One of the most intensely researched aspects of personality is the 'Five Factor Model' or 'The Big Five'. This particular model asserts that there are five universal facets of personality; these being extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism (Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008). Each of the five main traits are characterized by a series of distinct sub-facets.

Much of the research conducted on the motivation of promiscuity has investigated correlations between specific facets of the big five and sexually promiscous behaviour. The literature focusing on this aspect of promiscuity has suggested that there does appear to be a link between three of the five factors (extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness) and promiscuity.

Extraversion[edit | edit source]

Extraversion (as previously mentioned within the PEN model)is a personality trait representing an individual's sociability, liveliness and the general need for external excitement (Egan, 2009). It has been argued that extraversion is a principle component in explaining why people partake in certain sexual behaviours. Research on Personality and promiscuity thus far has indicated that, of the 'big five', extraversion is the strongest predictor of sexually promiscuous behaviour.

Various cross cultural studies have identified extraversion as a motivational factor for promiscuity in Western countries. Specifically, findings from most of the research on this matter demonstrate that extraverted individuals tend to partake in promiscuous behaviour more than introverts (Markey & Markey, 2007; Schmitt, 2004). It is thought that one of the reasons for this is that extraverts require more external excitement and novelty than introverts (Schmitt, 2004).

A cross cultural study was conducted by Schmitt (2004) to investigate the impact of the big five personality traits on sexual promiscuity. Over 16 000 participants across 10 world regions responded to a survey that measured the big five traits and sexually risky behaviours (such as promiscuity and infidelity). Results of the study demonstrated a relationship between promiscuity and extraversion for western countries (such as the Americas, Europe and Oceania) (Schmitt). Given the extent of this particular piece of research, it does seem fairly safe to say that extraversion is a personality trait that may predispose people to become promiscuous.

Sensation seeking[edit | edit source]
sensation seeking is the most strongly linked personality trait to promiscuity

Sensation seeking is a trait that essentially acts as one's drive to continually find external stimulation and novelty within the environment (Zuckerman, 1994). While it is a sub-trait of extraversion, sensation seeking has also been linked to low agreeableness and low conscientiousness. Given the combination of these three factors, it is no wonder that this particular trait has been strongly associated with sexually promiscuous behaviour (Hoyle et al., 2000; Markey & Markey, 2007; Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008).

The concept of sensation seeking essentially answers the question- why do people pursue multiple partners when they could get sexual gratification from monogomy? The answer, according to Zuckerman (1994), is Novelty. It is true that one's biological drive for sex could be satisfied through intercourse with a single partner. However, individuals that have a high level of sensation seeking do not get enough cortical arousal from monogamy. Thus, sensation seekers are motivated to have short term sexual encounters with multiple partners because each situation is new and exciting (Zuckerman, 1994).

Agreeableness and Conscientiousness[edit | edit source]

While agreeableness and conscientiousness have been identified as possible factors influencing promiscuity, they evidence for these traits is not as strong as it is for extroversion (Schmitt, 2004). Research has suggested that a person low in agreeableness or conscientiousness is more likely to act promiscuously than an individual that is high in these traits (Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008). However, as this finding does not appear to be consistent, further research is required for these particular traits.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Sexual promiscuity is characterized as sexual relations with multiple partners in the absence of exclusivity. What motivates someone to become promiscuous is likely to vary based on the situation, however several factors make a person more likely to engage in short-term mating. According to the drive reduction theory, in order for the individual to be driven to engage in sexual behaviour in the first place, they must feel some level of physiological deprivation. After this point, various factors can influence that person to be sexually promiscuous.

The attachment theory suggests that individuals who experienced poor relationships with their parental figures during childhood are more likely to engage in promiscuous behaviour in adulthood as a form of temporary relief from the anxiety associated with poor attachment. If an individual had a secure attachment to their parental figure, however, they will most likely be less motivated to engage in short-term mating. Alternatively, some theorists believe that one's gender is a primary factor in promiscuous behaviour.

Finally, it is evident that certain personality traits seem to play a key role in promiscuity motivation. Specifically, individuals who are high in extraversion and low in agreeableness/conscientiousness are far more likely to engage in short-term mating that individuals who are introverted or high in agreeableness/conscientiousness. It also seems that individuals who are particularly warm or cold in temperament are more likely to be promiscuous than those with an in-between temperament.

To conclude, it appears that the motivation behind promiscuity is rather complex. While the above mentioned factors have been strongly linked to such behaviour, this does not mean that these factors will guarantee a promiscuous outcome. Moreover, it is entirely possible that various other factors, such as individual differences and beliefs, play a role in the motivation of promiscuity.

Key Terms[edit | edit source]

Extraversion Hormones Motivation Neuroticism Psychoticism Promiscuity Sensation Seeking Short term mating

See also[edit | edit source]


1 What is Promiscuity

Sexual relations with multiple partners without explusivity
Sexual relations with more than one partner
Abstaining from sex
Sex with another person while already in a monogamous relationship

2 Which of the following is a common misinterpretation of the sexual strategies theory

Men desire short term relationships more than women
Men consent to sex sooner within relationships on average
All men will inevitably opt for short term relationships
Men show a greater desire for multiple sex partners than women

3 According to the attachment theory, which of the following is likely to lead to promiscuity

Secure attachment as a child
Poor attachment as a child
Average attachment as a child
There is no link between parental attachment and promiscuity

4 Which of the following is not considered one of Eysenck's 'Super Traits'?


5 Which of the 'big five' traits is the most likely to predict promiscuity


References[edit | edit source]

Buss, D., & Schmitt, D.P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: an evolutionary perspective of human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

Danokoski, M.E., Rosemary, P., & Steinberg, M. (1996). Broadening the concept of adolescent promiscuity: male accountability made visible and the implications for family therapists. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 24, 367-381.

Deckers, L. (2010).Motivation: Biological, psychological, and environmental. Boston: Pearson Education.

Egan, V.(2009). The big five: Neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness as an organisational scheme for thinking about aggression and violence. Personality, Personality Disorder, and risk of Violence: An Evidence-based Approach.

Giugliano, J. R. (2003). A psychoanalytic overview of excessive sexual behaviour and addiction. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 10, 275-290. doi: 10.1080/107201603902689979

Hoyle, R.H., Fejfar, M.C., & Miller, J.D. (2000). Personality and sexual risk taking: A quantitative review. Journal of Personality, 68, 1203-1231. doi: 10.1111/1467-6494.00132.

Hutson, M. (2007). Spread the love. Psychology Today, 40, 32-33.

Markey, P.M., & Markey, C.N. (2007). The interpersonal meaning of sexual promiscuity. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 1199-1212. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.02.004

McLeish, M.A., Paetzold, R.L., & Rholes, S.W. (2010). Adult attachment and exploration: Linking attachment style to motivation and perceptions of support in adult exploration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32, 196-205.

Perneli, A.H., & Boychuk, T.L. (2006). Social influence, desirability and relationship investment: The effects of resourcefulness and sexual permissiveness. Social Behaviour and Personality, 34, 593-602.

Schmitt, D.P. (2004). The big five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity. European Journal of Personality, 18, 301-319. doi: 10.1002/per.520

Schmitt, D.P., & Shackelford, T.K. (2008). Big five traits related to short-term mating: From personality to promiscuity across 46 nations. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 246-282.

Schmitt, D.P., Shackelford, T.K., & Buss, D. (2001). Are men really more oriented toward short-term mating than women? Psychology, Evolution & Gender, 3, 211-239. doi:10.1080/14616660110119331

Zuckerman,M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading

Gender and Promiscuity: Schmitt, D.P., Shackelford, T.K., & Buss, D. (2001). Are men really more oriented toward short-term mating than women? Psychology, Evolution & Gender, 3, 211-239. doi:10.1080/14616660110119331

Personality and promiscuity: Schmitt, D.P. (2004). The big five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity. European Journal of Personality, 18, 301-319. doi: 10.1002/per.520