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Why People Have Sex

Although open to debate, the desire for sex has been identified as one of the basic human needs, along with air, water, food and sleep. A person cannot survive without air, water, food or sleep, but a person can survive without sex. However, if we all stopped having sex today, humans would disappear in a short period of time. As a species, we cannot survive without having sex. The desire for sex is wired into us: it is the reason why there are more than 7.5 billion human beings on the planet.

Having sex is a common human experience. Most people will have sex in their lifetime, and research indicates that a majority of university students will have had sex before they graduate. Despite sex being so common, the multitude of reasons why people have sex has not been well established.  However, research reported in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior has explored these reasons. The authors have identified 237 distinct ones. These are divided into 4 main categories, each of which is further divided into several subcategories. Below is a quick summary.  If you are interested you can review the complete list.

Physical Reasons

  • Stress reduction: e.g. “I wanted to release tension”, “I thought it would relax me”, “It seemed like
    good exercise”, “I thought it would make me feel healthy”
  • Pleasure: e.g. “I was ‘horny’”, “It feels good”, “I was sexually aroused and wanted the release”, “I
    wanted to achieve an orgasm”, “I was in ‘the heat of the moment’”
  • Physical desirability: e.g. “The person had an attractive face”, “The person wore revealing
    clothes”, “I saw the person naked and could not resist”, “The person was a good dancer”
  • Experience seeking: e.g. “I was curious about sex”, “I was curious about what the person was like
    in bed”, “I wanted to act out a fantasy”, “I wanted to lose my inhibitions”

Goal Attainment Reasons

  • Resources: e.g. “I wanted go get a raise”, “I wanted to have a child”
  • Social Status: e.g. “It would damage my reputation if I said no”, “I was competing with someone
    else to ‘get the person’”, “Someone dared me”, “I wanted to impress friends”
  • Revenge: e.g. “I was mad at my partner so I had sex with someone else”, “I wanted to break up
    another’s relationship”, “I wanted to make someone else jealous”
  • Utilitarian: e.g. “The person had taken me out for an expensive dinner”, “I thought it would help me
    to fall asleep”, I wanted to defy my parents”, “I wanted to get a favor from someone”

Emotional Reasons

  • Love and commitment: e.g. “I wanted to express my love for the person”, “I realized I was in love”
  • Expression: e.g. “I wanted to say ‘I’m sorry/thank you/goodbye/I’ve missed you’”

Insecurity Reasons

  • Self-esteem boost: e.g. “I wanted to feel powerful”, “I wanted the attention”, “I wanted to feel
    attractive”, “I wanted my partner to notice me”, “I wanted to gain ‘control’ of the person”
  • Duty/pressure: e.g. “I felt obliged to”, “I felt guilty”, “It was expected of me”, “I wanted to be nice”, “I
    wanted him/her to stop bugging me about sex”, “I felt like I owed it to the person”
  • Mate guarding: e.g. “I wanted the person to love me”, “I wanted to keep my partner from straying”

Reasons for Having Sex and Health...What’s the Link?

This may seem like an interesting piece of research, but what does it have to do with health? After all, the Healthy Living section of our website is all about health. The link is that recognizing why you have sex helps identify values and beliefs related to sex: two important factors that contribute to health.

Identifying the reason(s) why you smoke, eat a diet high in fat (or calories), or avoid regular physical activity reveals information about your values and beliefs with respect to these behaviours. Similarly, identifying why you have sex is an important piece of information that reflects your values and beliefs about sex.

Values and beliefs about health are key to adopting health-enhancing behaviours. If your health is important to you (i.e. you value it) and you believe that what you do will bring better health---such as eating well, being physically active, getting a good night’s sleep and practicing safer sex---then you are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

Many of the reasons for having sex identify values and beliefs. For example, the reason “I wanted to be popular” reveals that the person values being popular and believes that having sex with someone will make them popular. The person who states “I wanted to prevent a breakup” likely believes that having sex with the person would prevent a break up, and they likely value being in this relationship.

When these beliefs are combined with other beliefs, safer sex practices might be jeopardized. For example, if the reason a person is having sex is because they “wanted to ensure that the relationship was ‘committed’”, and one (or both) of the couple also believes that commitment is demonstrated by having sex without using a condom, then to show that they are committed the partners may decide to not use condoms. Or if an individual’s reason to have sex is that they “didn’t want to disappoint the person” and that individual’s partner would also be disappointed if they used condoms, then using condoms would also be unlikely.

Some beliefs can open the door to health enhancing opportunities, while others may close them. Therefore, another reason to examine your sex-related beliefs is that maybe sex isn’t the best way to get what you want. For example, the “Goal Attainment” category presents many reasons to have sex that could be achieved by other, more effective means.

Having sex is not the only way, or the most effective way, to “end the relationship” (try talking to your partner), “to feel more powerful” (try setting clear goals and using your strengths to achieve them), “to get a raise” (try doing your job well), or “to gain access to that person’s friends” (try being yourself, being kind, listening, balancing giving and taking etc.).

Some of the reasons to have sex might not even lead to a person getting what they want.  Will having sex with someone guarantee that you will “prevent a breakup” or “keep your partner from straying”?

Finally, some of the reasons are just not favourable to health. To have sex “to hurt an enemy”, “to be used or degraded”, “to humiliate the person”, or “to make someone else jealous” are not healthy ways of relating to others.

Having sex can be a pleasurable and satisfying part of one’s life. However, having sex can also have a negative impact on physical health (e.g. getting a sexually transmitted infection or having an unwanted pregnancy) or emotional health (feeling guilt/shame or experiencing depression from terminating an unplanned pregnancy).

Exploring why you have sex provides insight into your sex-related values and beliefs, which can promote a healthy approach to sexuality.

 

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