Exploring Why We Have Sex

By Melby, Todd | Contemporary Sexuality, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Exploring Why We Have Sex


Melby, Todd, Contemporary Sexuality


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"Please list all the reasons you can think of why you, or someone you have known, has engaged in sexual intercourse in the past."

With this open-ended query, a pair of psychology professors at the University of Texas at Austin began exploring an area of sexuality most researchers have ignored.

In "Why Humans Have Sex," published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Cindy M. Meston, PhD, and David M. Buss, PhD, cite 237 reasons why men and women copulate.

Meston leads the UT-Austin's Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory and Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, is the author of several books, including The Evolution of Desire: Strategies for Human Mating.

"Why have sex? Most [researchers] think the answer is obvious," said Buss, in an interview on WNYC Radio in New York. "It's not even worth asking." But when Buss and Meston examined the scientific literature, they found little data on the topic.

"There's not a lot of research on this," said Cynthia A. Graham, an associate research fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender and Reproduction. "People write about the functions of sex, but there's not a lot of empirical data on why."

So Meston and Buss set out to discover the reasons. During a five-year period, they conducted two studies. The first asked participants to list reasons for having intercourse and the second asked participants to rank the reasons found in the first survey.

The most popular reasons are also among the most obvious: "I was attracted to the person," "I wanted to experience the physical pleasure," "It feels good," "I was 'horny," and "It's fun." Those explanations made the top 10 lists for both men and women.

A variety of nonromantic reasons appeared on the list. That's something earlier studies hadn't found.

"I wanted to give someone a sexually transmitted disease," "I wanted to hurt my enemy," "Someone dared me" and "I was slumming" were among the reasons people listed for having nonromantic intercourse.

"Sex produces the greatest ecstasies, but also great agonies," Buss said. "It has a dark side. There is coercion. There is obligation. There is sexual regret. We have many examples in our study of people who have sex and are profoundly scarred by it."

In their literature review, Meston and Buss found two previous studies on the subject, both of which focus primarly on sex within the context of a relationship:

* "Reasons for having and avoiding sex: Gender, sexual orientation, and relationship to sexual behavior," by B.C. Leigh, published in 1989 in the Journal of Sex Research, 26, 199-209.

Leigh found eight reasons why people have sex: "pure pleasure, to express emotional closeness, to reproduce, because a partner wants it, to please a partner, to make a conquest, and to relieve sexual tension."

* "Individual differences in the experience of sexual motivation: Theory and measurement of dispositional sexual motives," by C.A. Hill and L.K. Preston, published in 1996 in the Journal of Sex Research, 33, 27-45.

Hill and Preston listed seven reasons why people have sex: "to feel valued by a partner, expressing value for a partner, obtaining relief from stress, nurturing one's partner, enhancing feelings of personal power, experiencing a partner's power, experiencing pleasure, and procreating."

Research methodology

Although "Why Humans Have Sex" is a single paper, it actually includes two studies the researchers conducted.

In Study 1, Meston and Buss surveyed 444 people (ages 17-52) who were psychology students or "community volunteers" participating in other studies at the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory. These men and women were asked why they engaged in sexual intercourse.

These 444 people generated 715 reasons. The authors eliminated reasons that appeared to be duplicates, narrowing the list to 237 reasons. …

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