Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Emotion and sex

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Emotion and sex:
How do emotions affect sexual behaviour?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Sex and Emotion

What are emotions? And how do they influence our sexual behaviour? We have sex for a number of reasons such as reproduction, pleasure, biological and psychological factors. So, can our emotions affect our sexual behaviour? Can they cause us to want more sex or less? Intuitively, one might predict that positive emotional states would facilitate sexual response, while negative emotions would inhibit sexual response. However, research on the topic of emotions and sexual response has produced a more complicated picture.

The aim of this book chapter is to explore theory and research about the relationship between emotions and sexual behaviour. This chapter will examine how negative and positive emotions can influence sexual arousal and desire, how emotions have been linked to sexual dysfunction, and some of the gender differences in how our emotions influence our sexual behaviour. Readers will hopefully gain further insight into the role that different emotions can play in sexual behaviour.

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Emotions are multidimensional, as they are subjective, biological, purposive and social phenomena (Izard, 1993). Emotions are subjective internal explicit states as they make us feel a particular way such as disgusted or joyful (Reeve, 2009). They serve as biological reactions that prepare our bodies for adapting to different situations (Reeve, 2009). They are purposive, as emotions such as anger may motivate us to defend ourselves (Reeve, 2009). Emotions are also social phenomena as we communicate our emotions to others through facial expression, posture, and tone of voice (Reeve, 2009).

Each individual experience emotions in a different way to others (Reeve, 2009). Emotions serve an important purpose in our lives and influence us in many ways, from the clothes we choose to wear to the music we listen to on a particular day and the way we interact with others around us.

Influence of emotions on sexual arousal and desire[edit | edit source]

The influence that our emotions can have on our sexual arousal and desire has been widely researched and it has been consistently found that both negative and positive emotions can have a significant impact on our sexual arousal and desire (Burleson, Trevathan & Todd, 2007; Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2008).

Figure 2. Sexual arousal

The role of negative emotions[edit | edit source]

The role of negative emotions upon sexual arousal has varied and suggests that there is complex relationship between emotions and sexuality (Graham, Sanders, Milhausen & McBride, 2004). Negative emotional states have been found to have a negative effect on both sexual arousal and desire for both men and women. Anger and stress have been found to reduce sexual arousal for men and women (Beck & Bozman, 1995) as well as mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and the emotions related to them (Burleson et al., 2007; Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003).

Graham et al. (2004) found that the effects of negative mood varied on women’s sexual arousal based on the particular mood they reported, the reasons for the negative mood, and other contextual factors. Female participants reported that if they were feeling depressed or angry that it inhibited or reduced sexual arousal, whereas participants experienced enhanced and heightened sexual arousal when anxious or stressed. However, participants reported mixed results in regards to anxiety as it was found to inhibit arousal in some participants and enhance arousal in others. Female participants also reported that when feeling anxious they were more likely to engage in masturbation than be interested in sex with a partner, as it served as a means of distraction and relieved their mood rather than having to focus on their partners as well (Graham et al., 2004). Many studies have investigated the link between anxiety and sexual arousal and have found that anxiety can have different effects on sexual arousal in men and women (Burleson et al., 2007; Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003). Research has been shown that anxiety can have a negative impact upon sexual desire in both men and women (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003). In contrast, however, it has been found that anxiety can have a neutral or facilitative affect upon sexual desire and arousal, especially for females (Burleson et al., 2007; Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003). It has been suggested that the reason as to why anxiety can have a facilitative effect could be due to the fact that engaging in sexual behaviour can serve as a means to reduce stress and anxiety or increase positive feelings and improve mood (Burleson et al. 2007). If orgasm is also reached, the hormone oxytocin is released which is associated with stress relief and positive social interactions.

Depression has been significantly linked to lower levels of sexual arousal and desire (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003; Wolchik, Beggs, Wincze, Sakheim, Barlow & Mavissakalian, 1980). A lack of positive affect (emotions related to depressive mood) was found to negatively correlate to sexual desire in both men and women (Wolchik et al., 1980). Nobre and Pinto-Gouveia (2003) conducted a study in which they assessed what factors play a role in the sexual arousal of males. The results of the study showed that those participants who experienced and reported having a low positive affect during sexual activity, was significantly linked to lower sexual arousal levels both physically (erectile levels) and subjectively (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2003).

Figure 3. Sexual desire

The role of positive emotions[edit | edit source]

Positive emotions have been found to have a facilitative effect on sexual arousal and can increase sexual desire. It has been found that those who reported feeling an increase of positive feelings and that their positive mood was higher than usual, was associated with greater physical affection towards partners the following day and with more interest and engagement in sexual activities (Burleson et al., 2007). Studies have shown that positive emotions, in men and women, is linked to an increase in sexual interaction (Janssen, Macapagal & Mustanski, 2013) and is a strong predictor of sexual arousal and consistently linked to sexual desire (Peterson & Janssen, 2007). It has been suggested that women are more likely to express themselves sexually when experiencing a positive affective state (Warner & Bancroft, 1988).

Positive emotions have been found to be significantly related to both subjective and physiological sexual arousal in men (Koukounas & McCabe, 2001; Mitchell, DiBartolo, Brown & Barlow, 1998). The evidence for the facilitative effect of positive emotions on female’s sexual arousal and desire has been mixed. For example, it has been found that positive emotions were linked to subjective sexual arousal but not physiological (Laan, Everaerd, Van Bellen & Hanewald, 1994) and positive emotions have also been found to positively relate to both subjective and physiological arousal (Heiman, 1980). Even though the evidence is mixed, there is some support for the idea that positive affect can facilitate subjective and genital sexual response in men and women.

Emotions and sexual dysfunction[edit | edit source]

Emotions have been found to influence our sexual functioning. Masters and Johnson (1970) suggested that negative emotions contribute to the etiology of sexual dysfunction.

Depression or a lack of positive affect has been strongly linked to sexual dysfunction in both men and women (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2008). Nobre and Pinto-Gouveia's (2006) study showed that men who experienced a lack of positive affect or negative affect during intercourse, was associated with erectile dysfunction. Anxiety also affects sexual functioning. Research conducted on both females and males with a sexual dysfunction found that anxiety had a facilitative effect on sexual arousal for females, but had a negative effect on sexual arousal for males (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006).

Studies have shown that men and women who are sexually dysfunctional express more negative emotions or show a lack of positive affect in response to sexual stimuli as compared to individuals who are sexually functional (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006) and that individuals who are sexually functional express more positive emotions in response to sexual erotica and thoughts, which was found to be positively correlated with sexual arousal (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2006).

Nobre and Pinto-Gouveia (2008) found that those who have a sexual dysfunction, as compared to those who were sexually functional, reported that they felt significantly more negative than positive thoughts during sexual activity. This was found for both men and women; males expressed feelings of sadness, fear, disappointment and experienced less pleasure, whereas females reported feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, disappointment and a lack of satisfaction (Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia, 2008).

Love and sex[edit | edit source]

"Love and sex are inextricably linked, with love as the basis for much of our sexual interaction, and sex as the medium of expression for much of our loving" (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1987).

Figure 4. Couples who are in love have sex more frequently and try new sexual experiences.

Love is a powerful affective process, which serves as a motivator for human behaviour including sexual behaviour and activities (Kaestle & Halpern 2007). Our feelings of love for our partners have been linked to our sexual behaviour and have been shown to increase sexual desire (Kaestle & Halpern, 2007). Studies have shown that when we express positive emotions related to love, in regards to our partners we are more likely to be more open to trying new sexual experiences and engage in sexual behaviour with them more frequently (Kaestle & Halpern, 2007; Ridley, Ogolsky, Payne, Totenhagen & Cate, 2008).

It has also been found that feelings of love improve and make sex more physically pleasurable for women. Love increases satisfaction for women and feelings of love for one’s sexual partner can increase a female’s sexual agency and feel less inhibited and are more willing to explore their sexuality (Penn State, 2014).

Stress and sex[edit | edit source]

Every day we may all experience stress which may cause us to become more irritable, anxious and experience distressing thoughts. Stress can also make us feel physically and psychologically drained. Stress has also been found to both facilitate or inhibit sexual behaviours.

Figure 5. Daily hassles and stress can have an impact upon our sexual behaviour.

Studies have shown that stress can increase the need or want for sex as sex can serve as a way to relieve and reduce stress and can reduce our sexual desire and drive (Ein-Dor & Hirschberger, 2012; Graham et al., 2004). In Graham et al.'s (2004) study on women’s sexual arousal they found mixed results on women’s responses to the effect that stress can have on their sexual behaviour. A number of women reported that stress could lead to heightened arousal and that they engaged in sex in order to relieve the tension and stress, whereas other participants reported that stress reduced their ability to become aroused.

In Ein-Dor and Hirschberger’s (2012) study on the relationship between sex and stress, they found that there was an association between stress and higher sexual desire for both men and women. However, male participants were more likely than female participants to engage in sexual intercourse after having a relatively stressful day (Ein-Dor & Hirschberger, 2012). It has been suggested that the reason as to why men engage in sexual behaviour more than women when stressed could be due to that men’s sexual desire is influenced by internal factors, so they may rely on physical intimacy as a stress reliever as opposed to the explanation that women’s sexual desire is influenced by their interpersonal environment, therefore they may be able to reduce stress through emotional closeness and support rather than just sex.

However, stress can also have a negative impact on people's sex life. Research has shown that people who experience chronic stress, such as serious illness, are less likely to want to have sex as sex can then cause them to feel more stressed (Kim, Bursac, DiLillo, White & West, 2014). For example, someone who is taking care of a chronically ill child may find the idea of sex extremely stressful as sex would be taking up time and energy that they may want to use towards caring for the sick child.

Even though men were more likely to have sex after having a stressful day, it was still found that for both men and women that sex served as a stress alleviator (Ein-Dor & Hirschberger, 2012).

Emotions and risky sexual behaviour[edit | edit source]

Depression and a negative affect have been linked to risky sexual behaviour. It is believed that depression may lead to risky sexual behaviour as it impairs cognitive function and decreases impulse control. Studies have suggested that depressed adolescents and young adults are the most likely to engage in risky sex (Mazzaferro et al., 2006 as cited in Averett & Wang, 2012) and young women with an elevated depressed mood are more likely to be sexually active and engage in casual sex, they are also more likely to have sex without a condom and engage in oral sex.

Bancroft, Janssen, Strong and Vukadinovic (2003) found that participants were more likely to have risky sex if they felt depressed, because of their need for intimacy, self-validation, or a desire to improve their mood.

Gender differences[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Gender differences

First sexual experience[edit | edit source]

Our first sexual experience is an important event in our lives in which our emotions can play a role. Research has shown that there are some major differences between male and female emotional reactions in regards to their first sexual experience (Sprecher, 2014).

Males are found to typically display positive attitudes and express that their first sexual experience was pleasurable, and females display more negative attitudes and generally feel guilty and do not experience as much physical pleasure as the males reported (Sprecher, 2014). These differences could be explained due to males typically feeling more physical satisfaction as they are more likely to orgasm, and it is seen as socially desirable for males to lose their virginity (Sprecher, 2014). Whereas female’s sexuality is heavily regulated by social standards which see females virginity as a thing that should be protected and saved until marriage. These social pressures can cause females to feel ashamed or guilty for engaging in sex and they may associate negative feelings with sex (Graham et al., 2004; Sprecher, 2014).

These social norms which regulate female sexual behaviour influence our attitudes and emotions in regards to how we feel about sex. If females are made to feel guilty about engaging in sex they may be less likely to have sex for the first time at a young age, or if they feel guilty or experience negative feelings after their first sexual experience this may influence their future sexual behaviour. If they associate sex with negative emotions they may have sex less and not enjoy it as much due to feelings of guilt and other negative emotions (Mosher, 1979).

Affective shift hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The affective shift hypothesis suggests that there are gender differences in our emotional changes following intercourse, which explains why men are less willing to commit to long-term relationships, as these emotional changes or affective shifts influence our sexual behaviour (Haselton & Buss, 2001). The affective shift hypothesis suggests that men and women have developed different affective changes due to the difference in commitment and reproduction strategies (Haselton & Buss, 2001).

Figure 7. The Affective Shift Hypothesis (Haselton & Buss, 2001) explains how our emotions affect our sexual behaviour based on gender differences.

According to this hypothesis the reason as to why men may be less likely to prefer long-term relationships and committing to one sexual partner is because our ancestral men who were able to leave a relationship after sexual intercourse, before any investment is made, would have been more successful in the short-term mating strategy (Haselton & Buss, 2001). The short-term mating strategy suggests that their reproductive success was connected to the number of women they could impregnate (Haselton & Buss, 2001). The affective shift hypothesis suggest that men experience a negative affective shift and perceive their partner as less physically attractive once they have sexual intercourse with them, which may motivate men to end the relationship and avoid commitment.

Women, however, risk more investment as a result of sexual intercourse, so those who were able to find a committed and invested man would have been more reproductively successful (Haselton & Buss, 2001). Women are also most likely to conceive one child at a time and are only able to produce relatively few children in their lifetime as compared to men (Buss, 2007), so there would not have been as great of a need for them to have multiple sexual partners and they needed to be more selective when choosing mates (Haselton & Buss, 2001). Women therefore should experience a positive affective shift following intercourse, which increases their feelings of love and commitment towards their partner, and the motivation to pursue long-term relationships.

Based on the affective shift hypothesis Haselton and Buss (2001) predicted the following:

  1. Sex differences in perceptions of partner’s attractiveness: negative affective shifts for men may prevent them from becoming involved in long-term relationships that were only meant to be short-term. Men are more likely to experience negative shifts as it is more beneficial for them to have more mates.
  2. Sex differences in perceptions of one’s own commitment: women who experience positive shifts will have increased feelings of love and commitment. They will seek long-term relationships to have access to paternal care and more resources for her children. Women are more likely to experience positive shifts in order facilitate pursuit of the greater benefits in maintaining a long-term relationship.
  3. Differences in perceptions of partner attractiveness within-sex: men who have higher numbers of sexual partners are more likely to experience negative shifts than men who have lower numbers of sexual partners. Women with many sexual partners should be as equally likely to experience a negative shift as those with less sexual partners.

The results from Haselton and Buss’ (2001) study found that:

  • Women experience more feelings of love and commitment following first-time sex.
  • Men reported their partners as less physically attractive and sexy following first-time sex.
  • Women who had greater sexual partners did not have different affective changes compared to women with fewer partners.
  • Men who have greater sexual partners experience more of a negative shift, whereas men with fewer partners and a greater interest in long-term relationships experience more of a positive shift.

Research limitations[edit | edit source]

Research on the links between emotions and sexual behaviour has been helpful in improving our knowledge on the role of emotions and further exploring human sexual behaviour. However, there are some are major limitations as a majority of the research has been quite limited and the results vary greatly, or are inconclusive. Most studies rely on self-report techniques, in which participants provide details on their emotions and sexual behaviour. Use of self-report techniques can have flaws as there are issues with recall error, self-bias error and a reliance on the respondent’s understanding of a question (Graham et al., 2004; Janssen et al., 2013; Kaestle & Halpern, 2007). Although studies have confirmed associations between emotions and sexual behaviour, their roles or direct influence on sexual behaviour remains poorly understood. Future research would be beneficial in order to find out how exactly emotions influence our sexual behaviour.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This book chapter explored research and theory about how our emotions influence our sexual behaviour. Research has shown that negative emotions can decrease our sexual desire and arousal, and can also lead to sexual dysfunctions. Whereas positive emotions and love can increase our desire for sex and motivate us to engage in sex more frequently and try new sexual experiences. The affective shift hypothesis also looked at gender differences in how our emotions can affect our sexual behaviour. It is clear that our emotions have an impact upon our sexual behaviour but the results have been very mixed and varied from individual to individual and further research is needed to clarify the exact roles of different emotions on our sexual behaviour. Hopefully, from reading this chapter, you now have a greater knowledge of what types of emotions affect our sexual behaviour, how and why they have an influence and some of the gender differences in how our emotions can influence sexual behaviour.

Quiz[edit | edit source]


1 Q1. According to the affective shift hypothesis men avoid committing to one sexual partner because?:

(a) because of short-term mating strategy
(b) they view their sexual partner as less attractive after first time sex
(c) because they get bored of having sex with the same person
(d) all of the above
(e) a and b

2 Q2. Depression has been found to have what effect on males sexual arousal?:

(a) increase arousal subjectively
(b) increase arousal both subjectively and physically
(c) decrease arousal both subjectively and physically
(d) decrease arousal physically

3 Q3. Anxiety has what effect on those with a sexual dysfunction?:

(a) facilitates arousal in both men and women
(b) facilitates arousal in women
(c) facilitates arousal in men
(d) inhibits arousal in both men and women

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Averett, S. L., & Wang, Y. (2012). Identification of the Effect of Depression on Risky Sexual Behaviour: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 102(3), 570-574. doi: 10.1257/aer.102.3.570.

Bancroft, J., Janssen, E., Strong, D., & Vukadinovic, Z. (2003). The Relation Between Mood and Sexuality in Gay Men. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 32(3), 231-242. doi: 10.1023/A:1023461500810.

Beck, J. G., & Bozman, A. W. (1995). Gender differences in sexual desire: the effects of anger and anxiety. Arch Sex Behav, 24(6), 595-612. doi: 10.1007/BF01542182.

Burleson, M. H., Trevathan, W. R., & Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa? Exploring the Relations Among Sexual Activity, Physical Affection, Affect, and Stress in the Daily Lives of Mid-Aged Women. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 36, 357–368. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9071-1.

Buss, D. M. (2007). The Evolution of Human Mating. Acta Psychologica Sinica. Vol 39, No. 3, pp. 502-512.

Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sexual Healing: Daily diary evidence that sex relieves stress for men and women in satisfying relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(1), 126-139. doi: 10.1177/0265407511431185.

Graham, C. A., Sanders, S. A., Milhausen, R. R., & McBride, K. R. (2004). Turning On and Turning Off: A Focus Group Study of the Factors That Affect Women’s Sexual Arousal. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 33(6), 527-538.

Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2001). The affective shift hypothesis: The functions of emotional changes following sexual intercourse. Personal Relationships, 8, 357-369. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00045.x.

Heiman, J. R. (1980). Female sexual response patterns: Interactions of physiological, affective, and contextual cues. Archives of General Psychiatry, 37, 1311–1316. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1980.01780240109013.

Hendrick, S. S., & Hendrick, C. (1987). Love and sex attitudes: A close relationship. In W. H. Jones & D. Perlman (Eds.), Advances in personal relationships: Vol 1 (pp. 141-169). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Izard, C. E. (1993). Four Systems for Emotion Activation: Cognitive and Noncognitive Processes. Psychological Review, 100(1), 68-90.

Janssen, E., Macapagal, K. R., & Mustanski, B. (2013). Individual Differences in the Effects of Mood on Sexuality: The Revised Mood and Sexuality Questionnaire (MSQ-R). Journal of Sex Research, 50(7), 676-687. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.684251.

Kaestle, C. E., & Halpern, C. T. (2007). What’s Love Got to Do with It? Sexual Behaviors of Opposite-Sex Couples Through Emerging Adulthood. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 39(3), 134-140. doi: 10.1363/3913407.

Kim, K., Bursac, Z., DiLillo, V., White, D., & West, D. (2014). Stress race and body weight. Health Psychology, 28, 131-135. doi:10.1037/a0012648

Koukounas, E., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Sexual and emotional variables influencing sexual responses to erotica: A psychophysiological investigation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30(4), 393–408. doi: 10.1023/A:1010261315767.

Laan, E., Everaerd, W., van Bellen, G., & Hanewald, G. (1994). Women’s sexual and emotional responses to male- and female produced erotic. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23, 153–170. doi: 10.1007/BF01542096.

Masters, W. H., & Johnson, V. E. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston: Little Brown.

Mitchell,W. B., DiBartolo, P. M., Brown, T. A., & Barlow, D. H. (1998). Effects of Positive and Negative Mood on Sexual Arousal in Sexually Functional Males. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27(2), 197–208. doi: 10.1023/A:1018686631428.

Mosher, D. L. (1979). Sex Guilt and Sex Myths in College Men and Women. The Journal of Sex Research, 15(3), 224-234. doi: 10.1080/00224497909551043.

Nobre, P. J., & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2003). Sexual Modes Questionnaire: Measure to Assess the Interaction Among Cognitions, Emotions, and Sexual Response. Journal Of Sex Research, 40(4), 368-382. doi: 10.1080/00224490209552203.

Nobre, P. J., & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2006). Emotions During Sexual Activity: Differences Between Sexually Functional and Dysfunctional Men and Women. Arch Sex Behav, 35, 491-499. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9047-1.

Nobre, P. J., & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2008). Cognitions, Emotions, and Sexual Response: Analysis of the Relationship among Automatic Thoughts, Emotional Responses, and Sexual Arousal. Arch Sex Behav, 37, 652-661. doi:10.1007/s10508-007-9258-0.

Penn State, 2014. Does love make sex better for most women? ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

Peterson, Z. D., & Janssen, E. (2007). Ambivalent Affect and Sexual Response: The Impact of Co-Occuring Positive and Negative Emotions on Subjective and Phisiological Sexual response to Erotic Stimuli. Arch Sex Behav, Vol. 36, pp. 793-807. doi: 10.1007s10508-006-9145-0.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ridley, C., Ogolsky, B., Payne, P., Totenhagen, C., & Cate, R. (2008). Sexual Expression: Its Emotional Context in Heterosexual, Gay, and Lesbian Couples. Journal of Sex Research, 45(3), 305–314. doi:10.1080/00224490802204449.

Sprecher, S. (2014). Evidence of Change in Men’s Versus Women’s Emotional Reactions to First Sexual Intercourse: A 23-year Study in a Human Sexuality Course at a Midwestern University. Journal of Sex Research, 51(4), 466–472. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.867923.

Warner, P., & Bancroft, J. (1988). Mood, sexuality, oral contraceptives and the menstrual cycle. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 32, 417-427.

Wolchik, S. A., Beggs, V. E., Wincze, J. P., Sakheim, D. K., Barlow, D. H., & Mavissakalian, M. (1980). The Effect of Emotional Arousal on Subsequent Sexual Arousal in Men. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 89(4), 595-598. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.89.4.595.

External links[edit | edit source]