Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Sex and emotion

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Emotion and sex
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best."- Woody Allen

Sex is important within society, it is innate and we are biologically programmed to want and need it. We need sex to procreate and to feel close to another human. People do not engage in sex just to start a family, sex can cause very strong emotions and the act of sex can be engaged in due to these very strong emotions. Sexual intercourse is the most intimate behaviour two people can do together. It is important to understand the emotions involved in sex and this chapter will look at the emotions involved in first time sexual intercourse and acts of sex thereafter, how emotions differ between the genders while engaging in sex. It will also look at emotions involved when engaging in risky sexual behaviour, masturbation and sexual dysfunction.

Sex as an emotion[edit | edit source]

Sex is an emotion in motion.”- Mae West

Emotion research is rooted in the study of subjective experience and most people would describe sexual experiences as pleasurable, exciting, enjoyable and stimulating. People often consider sex to be a biological need like hunger, sleep and thirst, however sexual desire is emerging as one of the most typical emotions. An interesting paper by Everaerd, 1988 poses the question “Is sex an emotion?” and if yes, “Is it worthwhile to study sexual experience (arousal, excitement) within the framework of emotion theory?”

However, before we answer the question we must first look at the definition of emotion . Emotion has been studied within many different theoretical approaches, which is said to cause confusion about the definition and different names such as mood, affect and feelings are also said to cause more confusion. Ekman, 1984 defined three core characteristics of emotion-

  • Evolved to deal with basic life tasks
  • Each emotion is specific, i.e. what occurs (in expression) and when it occurs (events that call for the emotion) are different across the emotions (happiness, anger, sadness, etc).
  • For each emotion there are interconnect patterns in expression linked to the situational events.

However, looking at this the definition and characteristics of emotion is still vague and somewhat confusing. Everaerd, 1988 believed that sex based upon Ekmans’s assumptions qualifies as an emotion as it evolved to deal with fundamental life tasks (reproducing), adaptive to when and what occurs and there is coherence for interconnected patterns in expression.

Emotions and sex[edit | edit source]

People do not engage in sex purely to procreate, people engage in sexual behaviour for many reasons including love, pleasure, stress reduction, anger, recognition and to gain power (Browning, Hatfield, Kessler, & Levine, 2000). Sexual encounters are emotional events and it is important to understand sexual motives and emotions to predict sexual behaviour which can be useful in reducing conflict and re-igniting romantic relationships. Nelson (1978) developed a measurement for sexual motives. He stated five reasons for engaging in sex-

  1. Love and affection
  2. Pleasure
  3. Conformity
  4. Recognition –competition
  5. Power

Nelson found that conformity, love and pleasure were the highest rated reasons for people engaging in sexual behaviour (as cited in Browning et al, 2000). However, in a more recent study has found that one of the main reasons that people have sex is because it feels good, and that people who report greater enjoyment also report having sex more frequently (Pinkerton, Cecil, Bogart & Abramson, 2003). However, all people are different and emotions and motivation can vary, in particular it has been noted that males and females experience different emotions during sex. Emotions also vary across the ages, for example adolescents will state different reasons for engaging in sex than older people in a steady and secure relationship, in particular when it is their first time.

Gender differences[edit | edit source]

The First Encounter[edit | edit source]

There is growing awareness and research that many decisions are driven, at least in part, by emotions rather than deliberate and rational choice (Slovic, 2003). During adolescence a number of significant changes in emotions occur in particular negative states such as irritability increase and it has been reported that older girls often report that on a daily basis they aren’t as happy, friendly or cheery when compared to younger adolescents (O’Sullivan & Hearn, 2008). Adolescence is also a time where rapid changes are occurring internally in particular changes relevant to sexuality, this include new social interactions with peers, greater feelings of empathy, less ego-centric thinking and strong emotions such as anger and anxiety (O’Sullivan & Hearn, 2008).

One of the most important decision that an adolescent makes is when to first engage in sex, however, it is not clear what role emotions play in particular which emotions characterise the transition into being sexual active . A study by O’Sullivan & Hearn (2008) attempted to understand what role emotions played in early sexual experiences for adolescent girls. Major findings were that girls who did not expect to engage in sexual intercourse in the near future did not see themselves as ready and would often attribute negative emotions, such as sadness, nervous, disgust and feeling negative about themselves, with such events. The only positive emotion that was found was the feeling of attractiveness; however when later asked about their first sexual experience the girls associated the experience with feelings of happiness, confidence, and feeling positive about themselves. The study explained these results through evolution, where most girls have learnt to except their first sexual experience to be a negative event as they are often warned by mothers that it is a painful experience, that it is associated with negative social and emotional consequences, in particular shame and guilt. Interestingly, it was found that girls are in fact not encouraged to view their sexuality in a positive light (O’Sullivan, Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 2001; Graber, Brooks-Gunn & Galen, 1998). Based on these studies it is easy to see why girls often view their first sexual experience with negative emotions, but after the fact usually with positive emotions as they have learnt for themselves that sex isn’t always associated with such negative events.

Unfortunately, there is limited research on male's emotional motives for engaging in first time sexual behaviour, however, one study found that the most common reason was curiosity, followed by ‘just want to’ and only 14% of male participants gave love as the reason for engaging in sexual behaviour (Shope, 1975 as cited in Carroll, Volk & Hyde, 1985). It would be fair to assume that males would not experience the same negative affect before sexual experience as females because they are not exposed to the attitudes about sex being detrimental to emotional and social environments.[factual?] In an interesting study by Simon, Berger & Gagnon (1972) it was found that in first time sexual experiences, 46% of males were not emotionally attached or involved with their partner, however, 59% of women were and planning to marry their first partner, while an additional 22% were in love but did not have marriage on the cards. This meaning that 81% of women in comparison to 54% of men were emotionally attached to their first sexual partner.

It is clear to see from these results that males and females have different emotional reactions and expectations to first time sexual experiences.

The Affective Shift Hypothesis[edit | edit source]

Based on an idea proposed by Symons (1979) that there are gender differences in intercourse related affective changes , Haselton & Buss (2001) proposed the Affective Shift Hypothesis as an evolved solution to avoid commitment. According to the hypothesis men and women have evolved different affective change because they have faced different commitment and problems in the pursuit of sexual strategies. Heslton & Buss (2001) hypothesised the following three things:

  1. Sex Differences in Perceptions of Partners Attractiveness- According to the hypothesis for men, a negative shift in the perceived attractiveness of his partner will help prevent long-term relationships in what was meant to be a short term sexual relationship. More men will report experiencing this negative shift than women as of the benefits of having multiple sexual partners.
  2. Sex Difference in Perceptions of One’s Own Commitment- As the benefits of securing a long-term relationship after sex are greater for women, they are more likely to experience a positive shift in their perception of commitment and love. After sex, love and commitment for a partner will increase in order to secure a long term relationship to provide security, access to resources and paternal care for any offspring.
  3. Differences in Perceptions of Partner Attractiveness within-sex- Men who have had more sexual partners should be more likely to experience a negative affective shift towards their sexual partner when compared to men who have a relatively low number of sexual partners. However, this doesn’t not work the same for women- where all women, not matter the number of sexual partners, will equally experience the negative affective shift.

After testing these hypothesis among undergraduate college students, Haselton & Buss found that men and women do experience different affective changes after first-time sexual intercourse. A few of the results they found are summarised below:

  • Men are more likely to lose sexual interest after a few months
  • Men are more likely to report that the first time they had sex was the best time (this could alternatively be explained by the fact that it was the first orgasm that man had ever experienced and men, in particular young men, are pretty much guaranteed an orgasm during sex).
  • Women reported greater feelings of love and commitment following their first sexual encounter.
  • Men reported perceiving their partners as less attractive following sex for the first time.
  • A follow-up study found that men who had greater number of sexual partners were more likely to report negative affective shift in partner’s attractiveness.

Haselton & Buss believe that these results suggest that short-term mating functions differ between the sexes, where short-term mating for men may help with increasing partner numbers to increase reproductive output while long-term mating helps women secure resources and care for offspring.

Sexual Infidelity v. Emotional Infidelity[edit | edit source]

In all cultures infidelity occurs and it is seen as one of the main reasons for divorce (Shackelford, LeBlanc & Drass, 2000). Infidelity can have destructive consequences, both emotionally and physically. Infidelity is often described as either emotional infidelity which refers to when a person directs love, time and attention to someone other than their partner, or sexual infidelity which is when a person engages in sexual activity with a person other than their partner. Shackelford, LeBlanc & Drass (2000) suggest that men are more saddened in reaction to partner’s sexual infidelity while women get more upset in response to a partner’s emotional infidelity. Schutwohl (2004) explains why the male jealously mechanism (JM) is heightened by partner’s sexual infidelity, while female JM is heightened by partner’s emotional infidelity. It is explained that males are concerned with loss of opportunity to reproduce and are afraid of investing resources into offspring that may not be genetically related. While women are concerned with loss of resources, and a man’s mere sexual infidelity does not always mean the loss of his resources rather this resource threat occurs when he engages in emotional infidelity.

Sexual Dysfunction[edit | edit source]

Sexual Dysfunction, as defined by the DSM-IV-TR, is a disturbance in the process involved in the sexual cycle or by pain associated with sexual intercourse. The sexual cycle is divided into the following phrases, and sexual dysfunction can occur at one or more of these phases.

  1. Desire- fantasises about sexual activity and desire to participate in sexual activity.
  2. Excitement- subjective sense of sexual pleasure and physiological changes that also occur. Changes in males include penile erection and changes in females include vaginal lubrication and expansion.
  3. Orgasm- the peaking of sexual pleasure characterised by release of sexual tension. In males there is the ejaculation of semen and in females there contractions of the wall of the outer vagina.
  4. Resolution- sense of general well-being and muscle relaxation. For males there is a time period where they can’t orgasm or have an erection immediately after the orgasm phase, however, females may be able to respond to stimulation almost immediately.

Sexual Dysfunction can be an embarrassing and detrimental problem for both individuals and couples, being able to understand what emotions contribute to and are felt by those with sexual dysfunction may be able to help treat it.

A study by Nobre & Pinto-Gouveia (2003) looked at reported emotions in sexually dysfunctional men and women and predicted that they would report significantly more negative emotions (in particular those associated with depressed mood) and less pleasure than those who do not suffer a sexual dysfunction. Results supported this hypothesis, men with sexual dysfunction reported higher feelings of sadness, disillusion and fear while women reported feelings of sadness, disillusion, guilt and anger. Both genders reported feelings of less pleasure and satisfaction with sexual experiences when compared to reports from individuals not with sexual dysfunction.

It is clear that emotions related to depression (lack of pleasure, lack of satisfaction, sadness, etc) have a negative effect on sexual functioning in both men and women. It has been said that men and women with sexual problems show cognitive patterns similar to those seen in individuals with depressive disorders (Beck, 1996). It is important to note that this study did not explain the difference in feelings between men and women, while men felt fear women reported anger and guilt, it could be said that men fear losing respect among male counterparts if his sexual dysfunction were to be discovered. Likewise, it could be said women feel guilt as they are not pleasing their partner, however, these assumptions are based on a personal view and further research would be needed to understand the relationship and differences in emotions.

Test Yourself[edit | edit source]


1 The Affective Shift Hypothesis refers to:

A shift in emotions during sex
Male’s sexuality
Gender differences in affective changes after sex.
Female’s sexuality

2 The emotions expressed in those with Sexual Dysfunction are similiar to emotions involved in which other group of mental disorders?

Depressive Disorders
Personality Disorders
Substance-Related Disorders
Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders

3 Men are more likely to get upset about _____ infidelity, while females are more likely to be upset about ______ infidelity :

sexual; sexual
sexual; emotional
emotional; sexual
emotional; emotional

4 True or False: Adolescent males reported the main reason for engaging in first time sex as love:


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Mood and sexual arousal in women

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Browning, J.R., Hatfield, E., Kessler, D & Levine, T (2000) Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 29(2), pp135-153

Carroll, J.L., Volk, K.D & Hyde, J.S (1985) Differences between Males and Females in Motives for Engaging in Sexual Intercourse. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 14(2), pp 131-139

Everaerd, W (1988) Commentary on Sex Research: Sex as an emotion. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 1(2), pp 3-15

Haselton, M.G & Buss, D.M (2001) The affective shift hypothesis: the functions of emotional changes following sexual intercourse. Personal Relationships, 8, 357-369

Graber, J.A., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Galen, B.R (1998) Betwixt and between: sexuality in the context of adolescent transitions. In R. Jessor (Ed.), New Perspectives on adolescent risk behaviour. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nobre, P.J & Pinto-Gouveia, J (2006). Emotions during sexual activity: differences between sexually functional and dysfunctional men and women. Archive of Sexual Behaviour, 35, 491-499.

O’Sullivan, L.F., Graber, J.A., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2001) Adolescent gender development. In J.Worrell (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of women and gender. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

O’Sullivan, L.F., & Hearn, K.D (2008) Brief Report: Predicting first intercourse among urban early adolescent girls: the role of emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 22(1), pp 168-179.

Pinkerton, S.D., Cecil, H, Bogart, L.M & Abramson, P.R (2003). The Pleasures of Sex: An empirical investigation. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 341-353.

Schutzwohl, A. (2004). Which Infidelity makes you more jealous? Decision Strategies in a Forced-Choice between Sexual and Emotional Infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 2, 121-128

Shackelford, T.K., LeBlanc, G.J., Drass, E (2000). Emotional Reactions to Infidelity. Cognition and Emotion, 14(5), 643-659; Simon, W., Berger, A.S and Gagnon, J.S. (1972) Beyond Anxiety and fantasy: The coital experiences of college youth. Journal of Youth Adolescence 1, pp 203-222.

Solvic, P (2003). Affect, analysis, adolescence and risk. In D. Romer (Ed.), Reducing adolescent risk: toward an integrated approach. Thousand Oaks, CA Sage.

External links[edit | edit source]