Understanding Human Ambivalence about Sex: The Effects of Stripping Sex of Meaning

Article excerpt

Birds do it, Bees do it, Even educated fleas do it ...

Cole Porter

Despite its potential for immense physical pleasure and the crucial role that it plays in propagating the species, sex nevertheless is sometimes a source of anxiety, shame, and disgust for humans, and is always subject to cultural norms and social regulation. We (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000) recently used terror management theory (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) to lay out a theoretical framework to explain why sex is so often a problem for humans beings. We argue that sex is threatening because it makes us acutely aware of our sheer physical and animal nature. Although others (e.g., Freud, 1930/1961) have also suggested that human beings are threatened by their creatureliness, following Rank (1930/1998) and Becker (1973), we suggest that this motivation is rooted in a more basic human need to deny mortality.

Consistent with this view, Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, and Solomon (1999) showed that neurotic individuals, who are especially likely to find sex threatening, rated the physical aspects of sex as less appealing when reminded of their mortality and showed an increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts when primed with thoughts of the physical aspects of sex; no such effects were found among individuals low in neuroticism. If this framework is to provide a general explanation for human discomfort with sexuality, two critical questions must be addressed: (a) under what conditions would people generally (independent of level of neuroticism) show such effects, and (b) what is it about sexuality that leads to these effects? The present research was designed to address these questions by investigating the role of concerns about creatureliness in the link between thoughts of physical sex and thoughts of death.

Terror Management Theory and Research

Building on the ideas espoused by Ernest Becker (e.g., 1973), terror management theory (TMT; e.g., Greenberg et al., 1986) begins with a consideration of how humans are similar to and different from other animals. Humans share with other animals a collection of inborn behavioral proclivities that serve ultimately to perpetuate life and thereby propagate genes, but can be distinguished from all other species by more sophisticated intellectual capacities. One byproduct of this intelligence is the awareness of the inevitability of death--and the potential for paralyzing terror associated with this awareness. TMT posits that humankind used the same sophisticated cognitive capacities that gave rise to the awareness of the inevitability of death to manage this terror by adopting symbolic constructions of reality, or cultural worldviews (CWV). By meeting or exceeding the standards of value associated with their CWVs, humans elevate themselves above mere animal existence and attain a sense of symbolic immortality by connecting themselves to something larger, more meaningful, and more permanent than their individual lives.

In support of this view, over 100 studies (for a recent review, see Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997) have shown that reminding people of their own death (mortality salience or MS) results in attitudinal and behavioral defense of the CWV. For example, MS causes experimental participants to dislike (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1990) and aggress against (McGregor et al., 1998) individuals who disagree with participants' views. Research has also shown that MS leads to increased estimates of social consensus for culturally significant attitudes (Pyszczynski et al., 1996), heightened conformity to cultural standards (Simon et al., 1997), and greater discomfort when performing behavior that violates cultural standards (Greenberg, Porteus, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1995). Further, the effects of MS are specific to reminders of death: thoughts about giving a speech, taking or failing an exam in an important class, experiencing intense physical pain, being socially excluded, or becoming paralyzed do not produce the same defensive responses as do thoughts of one's own mortality (e. …