Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Pleasure and sexual motivation

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Pleasure and sexual motivation:
What is the role of pleasure in sexual motivation?
Parodyfilm.svg[ Multimedia link goes here Multimedia presentation (3 min)]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Sex is recognised as a physiological need; hence it is essential for human survival. It is often overlooked as an incentive for behaviour, however it has existed since before humans and will even continue to exist after the extinction of the human race. Sex is an instinct which drives a species to procreate and it is also considered to be of hedonic nature, which is characterised by pleasure. According to Schultz (1998), hedonic motivation refers to individuals being motivated to approach pleasure and avoid pain, thus sexual pleasure is considered to be a vital motivating factor in individuals participating in sexual activity.

Focus Questions[edit | edit source]

What is sexual motivation?
What is the source of pleasure?
What is the link between pleasure and sexual motivation?

Sexual motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 1-Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Sexual motivation is the desire to gratify our sexual needs and it entails any process that drives an animal to seek out and attend to sexual contact. It is recognised as a basic need and this is apparent as it is even placed on the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs alongside air, water and food (Maslow, 1943). Unlike other physiological needs such as eating, the deprivation of sex has no deleterious effects on the animal, however it does regulate our sexual arousal levels (Agmo, 1999).

History[edit | edit source]

From an evolutionary perspective our motivation for sexual activity stems from our need to produce offspring through human mating. Sex is a prerequisite for evolution as it results in genetically varied offspring which is a process known as natural selection. Charles Darwin proposed natural selection as an aspect of his Theory of Evolution, and it refers to the process by which organisms reproduce characteristics and traits that give them an advantage in survival and adapting to the changing environment. Although evolution does contribute to copulatory behaviour, it is isn’t the only motive that impels individuals to engage in sexual activity. Humans now invest in contraception, hence disassociating sex from reproduction, indicating that there are other motivations involved in sex.

The first theory for sexual motivation was proposed by Beach (1956),and consisted of two factors which include the sexual arousal mechanism (SAM) and the intromission and ejaculation mechanism (IEM). This theory only applied to men and sex was believed to be initiated by the SAM as well as the presence of a suitable partner, which served as an incentive for the male. The first study that elucidated that sex was an incentive was conducted by Moss (1924), who showed that male rats were willing to cross an electrified grid in order to mate with a receptive female. Following this study, many other studies illustrated that males were willing to perform specific tasks to gain access to responsive females, thus showing that sex is an incentive. Warner(1927),illustrated that these finding were applicable to females as well.

Another theory for sexual motivation was proposed by Hardy (1964), and this was known as the Appetitional Theory of Sexual Motivation. Hardy(1964), recognised that stimulation of the genitals and orgasms were pleasurable, hence any stimuli that was associated with these properties would activate sexual motivation. As this theory disregarded physiological factors, Whalen (1966), reintroduced Beach's theory(1956), however changed the SAM to arousal and the IEM to arousability (Agmo, 1999).

These theories all failed to include the entire sequence of events involved in sexual activity and the most appropriate theory used to explain sexual motivation as well as other motivations was proposed by Bindra(1974). According to this model, an individual is aroused by an incentive stimuli and approach behaviour is activated, which then functions as an incentive until sexual reflexes take over (Agmo, 1999).

Brain, hormones and pheromones[edit | edit source]

The brain controls all functions of the body and this includes motivation. The hypothalamus is a small area below the thalamus that is responsible for all physiologically motivated behaviours. According to Kaplan (1995) the hypothalamus plays a crucial role in indicating that there is a physiological deficit and as sexual instinct is localised in the hypothalamus, it is evident that it is a physiological need. Animal research also shows that structures such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are also fundamental parts of the brain involved in sexual motivation as damage to these parts has resulted in a decrease of motivation(Everett, 1990).

Furthermore, the brain is responsible for the release of gonadal hormones which are central motivators for sexual activity. Both genders produce hormones secreted by the endocrine system and these include estrogens, progestins and androgens (Hokanson, 1969; Leger, 1992). Hormones are produced by specific tissues known as glands and they are sent out into the bloodstream in order to send chemical messages. Testosterone is the primary male hormone which is produced within the testes and it is central for regulating sperm production as well as sexual motivation, According to Garelick & Swann( 2014) testosterone manages transmission between the amygdala and the preoptic area (MPOA) which is important for sexual motivation as it moderates the male response to female pheromones. Furthermore Agmo (1999) states that lesions made to the MPOA have eliminated sexual activity in male rats, this also insinuates that testosterone impacts sexual motivation. Oestrogen is the primary sex hormone in women and it is increased during fertility as its function is to maintain the reproductive system. The increase during fertility is functional evolutionally as females are motivated to have sex due to higher chances of getting pregnant.

Another physiological aspect of sex is pheromones which are subliminal odours secreted by specialised glands and they communicate unique chemical messages to the brain (Wyatt, 2017). A study conducted by Wisman & Shirira(2020) suggests that men are sensitive to pheromones of sexually aroused women and this increases their sexual motivation. Although this study alongside other studies supports the phenomenon that pheromones stimulate sexual arousal, these are not conclusive as these studies do not involve control groups.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Who proposed the theory of evolution?

Sigmund Freud
Abraham Maslow
Charles Darwin
Dalbir Bindra

What part of the subcortical brain is fundamental to sexual motivation

Basal Ganglia
Reticular Formation

Pleasure[edit | edit source]

Case Study[edit | edit source]

Andrew is at a music festival and is having a great time as he has taken some ecstasy. Hours pass and he notices the effects wear off, however there is still 3 hours of the festival to go. He becomes frantic as he feels like he will no longer be able to enjoy the festival, hence he seeks out more ecstasy to give him that feeling of pleasure and euphoric rush.

Figure 2-Nucleus Accumbens

Pleasure is an integral aspect of our daily lives and it plays a huge role in determining our behaviour as it is a central motivator. This is evident when pursuing rewards, however it also plays a role in individuals engaging in maladaptive pursuits. It has both psychological and physiological elements and the Schacter-Singer theory states that pleasure is an emotion based on arousal and our perception of the stimuli that caused this arousal (Cornelius, 1996).

Humans experience pleasure when exposed to a rewarding stimulus that increases the chemical dopamine within the brain. According to Reeve(2018) the ventral tegmental area manufactures this dopamine and then projects these fibers into the nucleus accumbens, where this is then extended to the prefrontal cortex. As the prefrontal cortex is apart of our cortical brain, it is then experienced consciously as the feeling of pleasure and reward. The inhibition of the dopamine system within humans not only affects reward but it also reduces motivation, drive and spontaneity (Bressan & Crippa, 2005)

Sensory Pleasure[edit | edit source]

Case Study[edit | edit source]

It is a scorching hot day and Erica puts her feet in cold water, which makes her feel really nice.

According to Carlson (1991) there is substantial evidence that the experience of pleasure  is biological as studies have found that through sending electrical impulses to the medial forebrain, the same systems that react to natural reinforcers such as food are activated.

Sensory pleasure entails the pleasure that we perceive due to sensory experiences and it is the physical component of pleasure. It involves chemical, thermal and mechanical stimuli arousing pleasure, however pleasure also involves the individual’s internal state of mind.

Psychological Pleasure[edit | edit source]

Case Study[edit | edit source]

Sophia is reading a book that resonates with her, which is making her feel good and is motivating her to want to continue reading the novel.

Psychological pleasure involves the liking reaction and this is produced by hedonic hot spots within our limbic systems (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013). These hotspots are central areas to our brain’s reward centre and respond to rewarding stimuli. The reward centre consists of the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum and the parabrachial nucleus and they communicate with each other through the dopamine network. As pleasure triggers dopamine release, positive emotions increase which encourages individuals to seek out the feeling of pleasure. It's important to note that pleasure is the affect component of experiencing an emotion and not the emotion itself (Kringelbach & Berridge 2009).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Which neurotransmitter is fundamental to pleasure?


Which part of the brain is NOT involved in pleasure?

Nucleus Accumbens
Ventral Pallidum
Parabrachial Nucleus

Sexual Pleasure and Motivation[edit | edit source]

Evidently, pleasure can govern human behaviour, therefore the pursuit of erotic pleasure plays an undeniable role in sexual motivation. Kinsey (1948) demonstrated that pleasure motivates sexual behaviour as he found that children aged between 2 and 5 years of age touch their genitalia. At such a young age, sexual behaviour would not be due to wanting to reproduce hence the children must experience some form of pleasure. Sexual pleasure is a motivational system that encourages sex while unfortunately altering judgement of perceived risks and decision making ( Ariely and Loewenstein, 2006). Pleasure associated with sex is multifaceted and encompasses physical, cognitive and emotional experiences.  

Desire is stimulated by by attractive and rewarding stimui that are present within the environment. Feeling sexual pleasure is a reward as well as an incentive, hence produces approach behaviours, as well as increases dopamine release amongst the accumbens nucleus. Pleasure during sex is considered a determinant in sexual motivation. The motivation to have sex leads to sexual activity, which then leads to an increase in pleasure and this is a cycle. According to Boul et al.,(2008) the pleasure centres or hedonic hotspots of the brain are activated automatically during sex, however the actual subjective component of pleasure depends on the individual's awareness in relation to the copulatory behaviour. It is important that individuals recognise the subjective component of pleasure as this can further increase the dopamine release during sexual activity, hence increasing motivation.

Moreover, having an orgasm is the ultimate goal within sex and this is a source of intense pleasure as well as fulfilment (Opperman et al., 2014). Female orgasms are typically achieved through clitoral stimulation, as well as oral sex rather than vaginal penetration, this also illustrates that reproduction isn't the only motivator in sexual activity and pleasure plays a huge role.

Gender differences[edit | edit source]

Case Study[edit | edit source]

Samuel and Christina are both at the age of consent and they have sexual intercourse at a party. The both attend school the next day to find out that everyone has heard about their sexual activity. Samuel is praised, while Christina is publicly humiliated and shamed.

Culture determines what gender behaviours are appropriate and prescribes different “sexual scripts” for men and women, hence there are gender differences when pursuing sexual pleasure. Early influences have constructed the notion of sexual activity for men as physically pleasurable and for women as a necessity for reproduction (Bollerud et al.,1990).The most influential hormone that is linked to sexual motivation is testosterone, which is relevant to both genders, however men produce more, which highlights why men are more sexually responsive (Kinsey studies (1948; 1953) Leroy (1993) also proposed that messages such as “masturbation is unnatural in girls” has instilled guilt amongst women as well as inhibited their own perspective of pleasure during sex.  Furthermore, the objectification of women has indicated that women are recipients of male sexual desires and this has discouraged women from pursuing sex for pleasure.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Sexual motivation refers to the motivation that encourages copulatory behaviours and it is considered a basic physiological need amongst humans. Pleasure refers to feeling good and this plays a critical role in sexual motivation as it is a primary motivator which is associated with physiological and psychological processes. Although humans are motivated to have sex in order to reproduce and not become extinct, humans also engage in sexual activity as it is pleasurable, enjoyable and it is fun. Sexual pleasure is subjective to all individuals and individual sexual scripts, as well as preferences are always changing. It is important that we recognise and accept sexual pleasure as a primary motivator for the purpose of opening potential avenues for personal satisfaction. Societal beliefs constrain sexuality and it is also important that we move away from these beliefs in order for people to discover themselves and pursuit pleasure amongst sex.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Agmo, A. (1999). Sexual motivation—an inquiry into events determining the occurrence of sexual behavior. Behavioural Brain Research, 105(1), 129–150.

Agmo, A. (2011). On the intricate relationship between sexual motivation and arousal. Hormones and Behavior, 59(5), 681–688.

Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 87–98.

Beach, F.A. (1956). Characteristics of masculine sex drive. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1-31. University of Nebraska Press.

Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2013). Neuroscience of affect: brain mechanisms of pleasure and displeasure. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3), 294–303.

Bindra, D. (1974). A motivational view of learning, performance, and behavior modification. Psychological Review, 81(3), 199–213.

Bollerud K.H., Christopherson S.B., Frank E.S. (1990) Girls' sexual choices: Looking for what is right. Making connections: The relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School, Harvard University Press, Lexington, MA

Bressan, R. A., & Crippa, J. A. (2005). The role of dopamine in reward and pleasure behaviour - review of data from preclinical research. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111(s427), 14–21.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory : an evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204–232.

Carlson, N. R. (1991). Physiology of behaviour: 4th Ed. Boston: Ally/Bacon

Cornelius, R. R. (1996). The Science of Emotion: Research and Tradition in the Psychology of Emotions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Davidson, J. K., Darling, C. A., & Norton, L. (1995). Religiosity and the sexuality of women: Sexual behavior and sexual satisfaction revisited. The Journal of Sex Research, 32(3), 235–243.

Everett, B. J. (1990). Sexual motivation: A neural and behavioural analysis of the mechanisms underlying appetitive and copulatory responses of male rats. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 14, 217–232.

Garelick, T., & Swann, J. (2014). Testosterone regulates the density of dendritic spines in the male preoptic area. Hormones and Behavior, 65(3), 249–253.

Hardy, K. R. (1964). An appetitional theory of sexual motivation. Psychological Review, 71(1), 1–18.]

Hokanson, J. E. (1969). The Physiological Bases of Motivation. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kaplan, H.S. (1995). The Sexual Desire Disorders. Dysfunctional regulation of sexual motivation. New York: Brunner and Mazel

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2009). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of pleasure and happiness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(11), 479–487.

Leger, D. W. (1992). Biological Foundations of Behavior: An Integrative Approach. NY: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

Leroy, M. (1993). Pleasure: the truth about female sexuality // Review [Review of Pleasure: the truth about female sexuality // Review]. Calgary Herald (Index-Only). Postmedia Network Inc.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Moss, F. A. (1924). Study of Animal Drives. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 7(3), 165–185.

Opperman, E., Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Rogers, C. (2014). “It Feels So Good It Almost Hurts”: Young Adults’ Experiences of Orgasm and Sexual Pleasure. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(5), 503–515.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (Seventh edition.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Schultz, W. (1998). Predictive Reward Signal of Dopamine Neurons. Journal of Neurophysiology, 80(1), 1–27.

Whalen, R. E. (1966). Sexual motivation. Psychological Review, 73(2), 151–163.

Wisman, A., & Shrira, I. (2020). Sexual Chemosignals: Evidence that Men Process Olfactory Signals of Women’s Sexual Arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(5), 1505–1516.

Wyatt, T. D. (2017). Pheromones. Current Biology, 27(15), R739–R743.

External links[edit | edit source]