Four Fascinating Things I Learned About Sex At A Sex Research Conference

I recently returned from the Sexuality Pre-Conference, held just prior to the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Atlanta, Georgia. I had the chance to see an incredible set of talks and what I’d like to do in this post is briefly walk you through four of the most interesting things I learned by attending this meeting.

1.) Dr. Paul Vasey’s research reveals that in cultures with third gender males (such as the fa’afafine of Samoa), these males frequently compete with females when it comes to having sex with cisgender men (a phenomenon known as intersexual competition). In fact, in a study of women in Samoa, nearly half of them reported engaging in such competition, doing things such as actively concealing their mates from fa’afafine, enhancing their appearance so as to be more sexually desirable, or offering sexual inducements to their partners (like trying new and/or different sex acts) in order to keep them from pursuing sex with fa’afafine. The presence of these third gender males also seems to increase the base rate of bisexuality among cisgender males—Vasey reports that it’s actually harder to find men in Samoa who only have sex with women than it is to find men who have sex with both women and fa’afafine.

2.) People don’t seem to be very good at remembering how much sex they’ve had. While that’s not really surprising, what is interesting is just how discrepant people’s memories are from their actual experiences. In a study by Malachi Willis in which data on people’s sex lives were gathered each day for one month via their smartphones, the results revealed that people had sexual intercourse six times on average. However, at the end of the study when people were asked to retrospectively estimate how many times they’d had sex over the last month, the average response was 12! In other words, people remembered having sex twice as often as they actually did—and that’s why we need to be cautious about the conclusions we draw whenever we ask people to estimate the frequency with which they engage in a given behavior (sexual or otherwise).

3.) Research by David Frederick finds that the factors that predict sexual satisfaction are largely the same for lesbian and heterosexual women, as well as for gay and straight men. That said, there were some important differences in people’s sex lives based on their sexual orientation. For example, heterosexual women reported having sex more often than lesbians, while lesbians reported having longer sexual sessions, reaching orgasm more frequently, and having more oral sex. Likewise, straight men reported having sex more often than gay men, but gay men reported engaging in more acts of sexual variety and having more oral sex.

4.) Engaging in BDSM produces some interesting psychological effects. One study from the Science of BDSM lab at Northern Illinois University found that participating in an extreme BDSM ritual was linked to entering altered states of consciousness, as well as increases in altruism. Another study found that when submissives obeyed instructions from a dominant partner, it actually increased their willpower (a reverse ego-depletion effect). This was fascinating because, intuitively, you might expect that following orders would tax one’s self-control resources, thereby lowering their willpower; however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

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Image Source: 123RF/Anastasia Ivlicheva

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