Why do human beings have sex? Surprisingly few scientists have bothered to study this question, likely because it’s one that seems to have an obvious answer: humans have sex for pleasure and for reproduction. But are humans really that simple? Not exactly. In fact, research has found that people report hundreds of distinct reasons for “getting it on!” In this article, I’d like to take a look at some of the most and least common reasons reported for having sex and consider the ways in which they’re similar and different across men and women.
Specifically, let’s consider the results from a recent series of studies conducted by Cindy Meston and David Buss. In their first study, they recruited a sample of 444 men and women aged 17-52 from college classes and the local community in Austin, Texas. Participants were presented with the following open-ended response question: “Please list all the reasons you can think of why you, or someone you have known, has engaged in sexual intercourse in the past.”
Afterward, the researchers put together one large list of reasons in which those that were identical or very similar were combined. The end result was a list of 237 different reasons for sex! Clearly, people aren’t just having sex because it feels good or because they want to make babies.
In a second study, a sample of 1,549 college students were provided with the list of all 237 reasons and, for each one, they were asked to indicate how many of their previous sexual experiences could be attributed to that reason on a scale ranging from 1 (none of my sexual experiences) to 5 (all of my sexual experiences). Below are the 10 most common reasons for sex reported by women and men.
What you can see in the table above is that men and women are pretty similar when it comes to their motivations for sex. In fact, eight out of the top ten ranked reasons were the same! The major difference was that “I realized I was in love” and “I was swept up in the heat of the moment” made the women’s list, while “I wanted an orgasm” and “I wanted to please my partner” made the men’s list. Related to this, the only other difference was that women appeared to rank reasons dealing with love and affection higher than men, while men ranked reasons dealing with feeling good and having fun higher than women.
Next, let’s take a look at the 10 least common reasons for sex reported by women and men.
Again, we see in this table that men and women are pretty similar. Seven out of the bottom ten ranked reasons were the same. I should point out that although some of the reasons listed here are pretty disturbing (e.g., “I wanted to spread a sexually transmitted disease,” “I wanted to punish myself”), all of them were very, very rare. The average endorsement rating for each item that appeared in the bottom ten was 1.04 or less for women and 1.12 or less for men. When you consider that 1 was the lowest possible response on the scale, it tells us that very few people are having sex for these reasons.
Men and women are clearly more similar than different when looking at the most and least commonly reported reasons for sex. However, for the reasons that appeared in the middle of the list (i.e., things that only motivate people occasionally), a number of sex differences emerged. The nature of these differences were such that men were more likely to report sex for physical reasons (e.g., “The person was too sexy to resist”), because sex would improve their social status (e.g., “I wanted to brag to my friends about my conquests”), and because they just had an opportunity for sex (e.g., “The person was available”). In contrast, women were more likely than men to report sex for reasons such as “wanting to feel feminine” or because they “realized they were in love.”
As you can see, human sexual behavior is motivated by a lot more than just pleasure and reproduction. People have sex for an incredibly wide range of reasons. Certainly, there are some important differences in what motivates men and women to hop into bed; however, the reasons that propel us to “get busy” most frequently are actually quite similar across the sexes.
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To read more about this research, see: Meston, C. M., & Buss, D. M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 477-507.
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