Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Sex and happiness
What is the relationship between sexual behaviour and happiness?
Overview[edit | edit source]
Books have been written about sex since the invention of written language. While every new generation likes to believe they've learned and experienced more than every generation before them, sexual activity has been a prime part of peoples'lives for an extremely long time. Even relatively repressed cultures have written a lot on the subject. And one of the running themes in writing about sex has been how to improve your sex life - how to increase your own or a partner's happiness, for example - or how a specific level of sexual activity can improve the rest of your life as well.
Imagine a couple named Jim and Sara who have just decided to commit to each other. Would Jim and Sara be happier if they had no sex until they were married, or if they didn't wait? Would they be happier in an open relationship with other sexual partners, or exclusive to each other? Would they be happier with themselves back when they engaged in casual sex before meeting each other, or now that they're engaged in sex primarily with each other? Would they be objectively happier than couples engaged in unusual or uncommon sexual behaviour?
This chapter aims to answer questions about the relationship between sexual behaviour and happiness using psychological theory and empirical research. It will attempt not only to identify sexual attitudes and behaviours which increase overall happiness, but also to explain why they do, and how to apply that knowledge to everyday life.
Definitions[edit | edit source]
To begin with, we need to make a distinction between sexual behaviour and physical intimacy:
Physical intimacy is any form of touch which none of the participants consider sexual (hugging, holding hands, cuddling, etc.). This varies by culture and background - what one person might consider sexual, sensual, arousing, or inappropriate in public venues may be entirely normal and acceptable in other parts of the world. As an example, kissing on the cheek is considered a neutral greeting in many European countries, whereas other cultures consider kissing exclusive to physical attraction.
Sexual behaviour, for the purposes of this chapter, is defined as behaviour one or both of the participants consider to be sexual or an element of foreplay. Again, this varies by culture and background, and cultural or religious differences in the acknowledgement or treatment of sex will only be discussed as they relate to individual happiness and emotional well-being.
Happiness is multi-faceted and can refer to general mood, positive affect, a general and stable personality trait, a temporary feeling of elation, or a more permanent feeling of contentment. It can be induced by a single uncontrollable event, by a single conscious choice, by a pattern of good things occurring, or by positive results achieved from hard work and/or luck. The literature usually defines happiness as frequent experience of positive emotions, rare experience of negative emotions, and a high satisfaction with life (Dogan, Tugut, & Golbasi, 2013). An unhappy person may experience temporary feelings of happiness after sex, but likely won't experience any permanent change in their day-to-day mood. So the question here isn't an academic one of "how does sexual climax create euphoria', but instead how various areas of sexual behaviour can contribute to long-term general happiness.
Theory[edit | edit source]
Self-determination theory posits that an individual's behaviour is largely self-determined; that is, behaviour cannot solely be explained through biological needs and conditioning. One of the foundations of the theory is that, in order to foster emotional well-being and satisfaction with life, a person needs to fulfil inherent psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We need to feel free and capable of making our own choices, able to accomplish our goals to our satisfaction, and cared about by others. One of the reasons sex is considered a biological need despite not being necessary for immediate survival is that it taps into all three of these psychological imperatives. In an ideal situation, we choose when, where, and who to have sex with; we seek out knowledge and experience so that we can become more competent in sex; and we use sex to develop close bonds with our partners. According to self-determination theory, if any of these three is missing from the equation, emotional well-being and satisfaction suffer.
We're not always consciously aware of this, of course. No one sits down and says "I want sex tonight because it will fulfil my need for autonomy". The desire for sex consciously manifests itself in the sex drive, otherwise known as the libido, and the libido is affected by much more than simply psychological needs. The frequency and intensity of a libido varies from person to person and, to an extent, in between genders . It's affected by hormone levels, social conditioning, situation, and individual differences in personality . The material in this chapter is not a one size fits all solution. Think of it instead as another step on the journey to competence.
Sexual behaviours: Contributions to happiness[edit | edit source]
There are a wide variety of both detrimental and healthy sexual behaviours one can engage in. Just as no two people in the world are exactly alike, no two behaviours will have the exact same psychological impact from person to person. All of the effects of the behaviours and lifestyles mentioned in this chapter will be further modified by cultural perceptions, internalised misgivings, social support or a lack thereof, gender stereotypes, personality and individual differences, and upbringing. Having said that, empirical research has identified some enduring patterns that can positively affect a person's general happiness and satisfaction with life.
Traditional relationships / marriage[edit | edit source]
Committing sexually to one person, whether recognised legally through a marriage licence and equivalent or through mutual agreement between partners, is traditionally regarded as the 'goal' of dating. As a result, particularly with marriage, many young adults believe that once they commit to someone, they've achieved their goal and can breathe a sigh of relief, so to speak. Once a goal is achieved, there's no longer any reason to grow, to experiment, to learn, or to put forth effort.
In fact, research has consistently shown that people who continue to grow, experiment, learn, and put forth effort even in sexually monogamous relationships routinely report high levels of relationship and life satisfaction. For example, a study of over 200 Turkish women conducted by Dogan, Tugut, and Golbasi (2013) found that quality of, and satisfaction with, a woman's sexual life significantly predicted greater life satisfaction and general happiness (explaining 25% and 19% of the variance respectively). The researchers concluded that the effects might have been even higher if cultural and social taboos didn't make sex so emotionally difficult for women.
A different study found that sexual happiness and satisfaction is best understood through the partner rather than the individual in question (Fisher, Donahue, Long, Heiman, Rosen, & Sand, 2015). Specifically, it was partners' reports of the individual's health and sexual performance which best predicted the individual's overall satisfaction with their sex life. In addition, the study found evidence supporting the idea that sexual happiness does not occur in a vacuum - that the act itself only contributes a fraction to total sexual happiness, while another significant predictor is compatibility with the partner. The results suggest that one trusted and compatible partner results in greater satisfaction and happiness than multiple unknown, untrusted, or incompatible partners.
Sexual quality and frequency aren't the only relationship predictors of emotional well-being, however. Physical intimacy within romantic relationships can be just as important, as was discovered in a study which surveyed over a thousand heterosexual couples across five countries (Heiman, Long, Smith, Fisher, Sand, & Rosen, 2011). The same study found that the effect of physical intimacy was much stronger for men than for women, which has interesting implications for gender stereotypes in western cultures - or perhaps is a result of gender stereotypes in western cultures, as men frequently don't allow themselves the health benefits of frequent cuddling. This doesn't necessarily mean all gender stereotypes are damaging, however - Konrich, Brines, and Leupp (2013) examined the longstanding belief that in modern-day egalitarian relationships men who do housework are "rewarded" with more sex, and found no evidence for that claim. Instead, they found that both partners in relationships which followed more traditional gender roles reported more frequent sexual encounters (though it should be noted that quality of and satisfaction with the sexual encounters in question was not considered).
The benefits of monogamous sexual relationships for day-to-day life have also been well-documented. A study by Demir (2010) showed that, for people who weren't in a committed romantic relationship, the quality of relationships with family and friends significantly predicted general life satisfaction, as might be expected. In contrast, people who were in a committed romantic relationship saw almost no effect on life satisfaction from relationships with friends, but that higher quality of the romantic relationship actually helped mitigate conflict in all relationships.
Sexual experimentation within a committed relationship also has a positive effect on general well-being, though it seems when communication about sexual needs and desires breaks down, married adults are more likely to engage in outside solutions such as pornography - and indulging in pornography is strongly correlated with initiating affairs, less reported satisfaction with marriage, and decreased overall happiness (Doran & Price, 2014). In addition, married men who indulge in porn are less likely to be happy with more frequent sex (Doran & Price, 2014). It's possible this is because unrealistic scenarios presented in pornography can set up unrealistic expectations, but it's equally possible the correlation found in the study goes the opposite way - that married couples who are already unhappy for unrelated reasons are more likely to indulge in porn in order to 'compensate' or to satiate an unfulfilled need. Cultures which provide early, ongoing, and thorough sex education may see a lessened effect of porn on their sexual satisfaction and general well-being.
Open relationships[edit | edit source]
This is all well and good, but what about open relationships where partners emotionally commit to each other, but mutually agree to take advantage of opportunities for casual sex elsewhere? Does their mental health or their relationship suffer?
According to one very recent study, the answer is no. Rodrigues, Lopes, and Pereira (2016) built on confirmations of what many might refer to as common sense - that cheating on a partner in a relationship has negative relationship outcomes. However, it's also been found that when two partners mutually agree on an open relationship, then engaging in casual sex has no effect on the outcome of the relationship. The study in question examined these findings in relation to online dating, and found that the online aspect did not predict negative relationship outcomes as long as both partners agreed beforehand on either sexual monogamy or an open relationship. In other words, open communication with your partner is vital to long-term happiness in a relationship.
This is not to say open relationships are better than commitment for one's mental health or overall happiness -- just that if the option is a viable one for both partners in a relationship, then no adverse health or relationship outcomes have been found.
Casual sex[edit | edit source]
It may not be surprising that casual sex without emotional attachment has a tendency to lead to adverse emotional well-being outcomes. Roughly 19% of the men in a sample of over 3000 American university students reported having casual sex in the month before taking a survey, compared to about 7% of the women in the sample; the resulting study found a negative correlation between casual sex and well-being, and a positive correlation between casual sex and psychological distress, results that were consistent for both genders (Bersamin, Zamboanga, Schwartz, Donnellan, Hudson, Weisskirch, ... & Caraway, 2013). The study suggests that emotionally unattached casual sex among emerging young adults can elevate risk for adverse mental health outcomes.
Foreplay[edit | edit source]
The amount of time spent on foreplay has been shown to have a strong, positive association with self-reported sexual satisfaction from both men and women (Laumann, Paik, Glasser, Kang, Wang, Levinson, Moreira, Nicolosi, & Gingell, 2006). This is true as an individual measure, but it's especially true when combined with frequency of sex - a lot of sex along with a lot of foreplay prevents boredom and helps ensure satisfaction for both partners.
Sub-communities[edit | edit source]
There are many psychological benefits to engaging in desired lifestyles, as long as open and honest communication occurs between partners. People who participate in BDSM, for example, frequently display self-awareness of how their self-identified BDSM role (dominant or submissive) fits into their personalities and, more importantly, how it doesn't; they maintain solid identities outside of an 'assigned' sexual role (Hébert & Weaver, 2015). This seems to result in both sexual satisfaction and enhanced general life happiness for both genders. In fact, since the risks of a BDSM lifestyle require careful consideration, discussion, and preparation, the resulting satisfaction is a product of autonomous decision-making as well as trust in a partner approached on equal footing.
Of course, social perceptions of these sub-communities built up by media - especially media that's avoided proper research or even talking to someone engaged in the lifestyle - can and do have negative effects. Cultural bias and misapprehensions can create unrealistic expectations or even a feeling of obligation, both of which can negatively impact a participant's emotional well-being. A prime example is Fifty Shades of Grey, which paints a very inaccurate picture of the BDSM lifestyle.
Sex work / prostitution[edit | edit source]
This section will focus mainly on women in sex work industries. While male sex work absolutely exists and has many of the same risks, pitfalls, and negative effects, there isn't very much research on the subject simply because it isn't as pervasive an option for desperate men as it is for desperate women.
Two different studies have looked at sex workers in Nicaragua and have both found that, even compared to other groups living in abject poverty in the same country, sex workers had one of the lowest means of life satisfaction ever reported (measured through the Satisfaction with Life scale, or SWLS) (Cox, 2012;2011; Cox, Casablanca, & McAdams, 2013). Cox (2012;2011) cautions that the SWLS, which is a scale predominantly used in first-world countries, may not have been fully relevant to many of the participants in question, but the results can also be explained through a lack of social support. Social support is an important predictor of lifetime happiness in nearly any cultural circumstance, and female sex workers in many developing countries receive little social support. This potential explanation was supported by a later study which thematically analysed interviews with Nicaraguan sex workers and found several running themes consistent with poor upbringing and virtually nonexistent support (Cox, Casablanca, & McAdams, 2013). The exact identified themes included early family conflict, birth of multiple children, and dire economic issues both individually and nationally.
The women interviewed in the aforementioned study had, on the whole, been forced into sex work without much choice in the matter. But because autonomy is an ingrained psychological need, what would happen if sex work was legitimised and women within the industry provided with the same health insurance benefits and support as any other recognised workplace? In Ancient Egypt, prostitution was very widespread and considered healthy and life-affirming for everyone involved (though it should be noted that historians disagree on whether or not women in the industry were paid). Sex work, far from a last desperate resort, was venerated and considered closer to the divine than many other careers available to young women of the time. While we can't travel back and survey ancient Egyptians about their happiness levels, we can surmise that women wouldn't have freely chosen these roles without a good reason.
Social considerations[edit | edit source]
It's impossible to talk about sexual happiness without discussing social stigmas, social schemas, and social expectations, especially in countries where sex education consists of forcefully advocating full abstinence. There are differences not only between cultures in the perception of sex, but between genders as well. Engaging in sexual activity which objectively increases psychological happiness, but which your culture or your gender identify as degrading and demeaning, can have long-term and damaging effects on mental health and emotional happiness.
Fifteen young women were interviewed on the sexual double standard for women in casual sex, and then those interviews were analysed thematically. Although the women consciously expressed that they believed women and men were equal in many aspects of sexual reputation, three running themes in their interviews emerged; the unacceptability of casual sex for women, what 'marks' a slut, and how a woman's sexual reputation is more tied to her identity than a man's sexual reputation is tied to his. Moreover, this sexual double standard affected how the interviewed women talked about other women, and how the threat of a negative reputation silenced many women's desires to discuss their experiences even with each other (Farvid, Braun, & Rowney, 2016).
Trying to touch on every possible negative effect borne of social stigma would take the space of a large novel. As with other aspects of sex, however, social support can help mitigate some of these negative effects. Joining a support group, becoming friends with like-minded and supportive people, or simply emotionally committing to a supportive partner have all been shown to increase emotional well-being and sexual satisfaction.
Applications in everyday life[edit | edit source]
Ultimately what it all boils down to is that if someone has full choice in how they experience sex, as well as the knowledge and early education to feel competent and safe, then the details of their sex life don't matter as much; their emotional well-being and overall happiness will be statistically higher than those who feel they don't have a choice or lack crucial context from early education. Emotional commitment to at least one sexual partner seems to make a positive difference. Sub-communities such as BDSM or married swinging, when practised safely and with free informed consent from all participants, has no negative effect on emotional well-being or on romantic relationships. The same can be said for sex work as a viable career opportunity rather than as a desperate last resort; cultures which condoned and supported prostitution often linked practitioners to divinity and celebrated fertility. Again, the element of free choice is paramount.
In terms of practical advice which doesn't involve wide-sweeping social change, increasing your amount of foreplay seems to be more important for emotional and sexual well-being than increasing your amount of sex, although those two facts combined also result in the highest reported satisfaction scores. Open relationships aren't inherently better than sexual monogamy according to the research, but couples who mutually agree to remain sexually open do not put their relationship or their happiness at risk .
Would this advice change if you were older? Not necessarily. This is just one of many resources explaining why sexual satisfaction does not have to change with age, and details how sexual activity between people age 70 and older - just like any other active and enjoyable lifestyle - can help enhance emotional and physical well-being.
See also[edit | edit source]
Intimacy motivation (Book chapter, 2016)
Sexual motivation and hormones (a different chapter in this book) (Book chapter, 2016)
References[edit | edit source]
Cox, K. (2012;2011;). Happiness and unhappiness in the developing world: Life satisfaction among sex workers, dump-dwellers, urban poor, and rural peasants in nicaragua. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(1), 103-128. doi:10.1007/s10902-011-9253-y
Cox, K. S., Casablanca, A. M., & McAdams, D. P. (2013). "There is nothing good about this work:" Identity and unhappiness among nicaraguan female sex workers. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(5), 1459. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9390-y
Demir, M. (2010). Close relationships and happiness among emerging adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(3), 293-313. doi:10.1007/s10902-009-9141-x
Dogan, T., Tugut, N., & Golbasi, Z. (2013). The relationship between sexual quality of life, happiness, and satisfaction with life in married turkish women. Sexuality and Disability,31(3), 239-247. doi:10.1007/s11195-013-9302-z
Doran, K., & Price, J. (2014). Pornography and marriage. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 35(4), 489-498. doi:10.1007/s10834-014-9391-6
Farvid, P., Braun, V., & Rowney, C. (2016). ‘No girl wants to be called a slut!’: Women, heterosexual casual sex and the sexual double standard. Journal of Gender Studies, 1-17.
Fisher, W. A., Donahue, K. L., Long, J. S., Heiman, J. R., Rosen, R. C., & Sand, M. S. (2015). Individual and partner correlates of sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife couples: Dyadic analysis of the international survey of relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(6), 1609-1620. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0426-8
Hébert, A., & Weaver, A. (2015). Perks, problems, and the people who play: A qualitative exploration of dominant and submissive BDSM roles. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24(1), 49-62.
Heiman, J. R., Long, J. S., Smith, S. N., Fisher, W. A., Sand, M. S., & Rosen, R. C. (2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(4), 741-753. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9703-3
Kornrich, S., Brines, J., & Leupp, K. (2013). Egalitarianism, housework, and sexual frequency in marriage. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 26-50.
Laumann, E. O., Paik A., Glasser, D. B., Kang J., Wang T., Levinson B., Moreira, E. D., Nicolosi, A., & Gingell, C. (2006). A cross-national study of subjective sexual well-being among older women and men: Findings from the global study of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(2), 143-159.
Rodrigues, D., Lopes, D., & Pereira, M. (2016). “We agree and now everything goes my way”: Consensual sexual nonmonogamy, extradyadic sex, and relationship satisfaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(6), 373-379.
[edit | edit source]
Quizzes to explore your own sex life and how it affects your emotional well-being:
Websites linked in the chapter: