Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Mating Motives: Hook Up Orgasms and Relationship Mercy Sex

Motives are key for understanding both hookup and relationship sex.

A new sex study has been receiving much media attention recently, including mentions in the New York Times and on network TV. According to findings presented by the evolutionary biologist Justin Garcia of Indiana University, women have fewer orgasms during hook ups than during sexual encounters in the context of a relationship. The study results converged with those from previous studies, notably an oft-quoted online questionnaire survey recently published by researcher Paula England, a sociologist at New York University. England’s work, which included thousands of students from multiple universities, found that only forty percent of women experience orgasm in their last 'hook up' encounter compared to seventy-five percent who experienced an orgasm in their last relationship sex episode. Taken together, these findings appear to suggest that despite well publicized changes in sexual mores among young women and their increasing tendency to accept and even initiate hook up sex, at the end of the day (or night) the sex they are having is still not equal, at least in the context of orgasm.

Beyond the technical discussion about how the fluid, blurry definition of the term ‘hook up’ limits scientists’ ability to collect reliable and valid ‘hook up’ data, much of the debate surrounding these findings has focused on the question of how to interpret them.

On one side is the claim, which often carries moralistic undertones, that the root problem resides in women’s inherent difficulty to really enjoy sex without commitment, outside the stable, safe and intimate confines of a (traditional, monogamous) relationship. Indeed, feelings of security and emotional closeness are important to many women in facilitating the processes of turning on and letting go that lead to orgasm.

On the opposing side stands the argument that the problem resides not so much in the nature of women, but rather in the etiquette of men, and in their failure to provide their female partners with the level of physiological stimulation necessary for orgasm. Indeed, according to the data, men in 'hook up' encounters engage in less foreplay with their partner, feel less committed to bring her to orgasm, are less likely to perform oral sex, and are less communicative and aware of the woman’s sexual needs and preferences.

A third argument holds that, on a deeper level, maybe there is not really a problem at all. After all, an orgasm may not be the only (or main) reason to have sex. In fact, orgasm is easier, safer, faster, and cheaper to experience alone via masturbation. Researchers Cindy Meston and David Buss of the University of Texas in Austin showed several years ago that there are hundreds of reasons for the decision to initiate or agree to sex, including (but not limited to) feelings of compassion, boredom, or the desire for revenge. Moreover, women generally report satisfaction in sex even without orgasm (and those who experience one orgasm in a sexual encounter usually leave many additional possible orgasms on the table, given that all women are potentially multi-orgasmic). Perhaps the assumption that sex must always end in orgasm to be considered good or healthy is in itself at fault.

Researcher Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, in a Slate magazine interview, suggested in this vein that those who rush to see problems in the ‘orgasm gap' may themselves be the problem. Why pressure women to orgasm? Why blame men for a lack of skill? According to Herbenick, the human need for touch and connection is not embodied in orgasm alone.

It is a point well taken. The tendency to apply one simplistic standard to the evaluation of complex phenomena and of entire populations is problematic, and not only with regards to sex. The tendency to measure success by wealth alone, for example, is equally problematic. By this measure, Albert Einstein was less successful in his life than Al Capone. Maybe it's better to let people decide for themselves how they wish to measure, evaluate and experience their relationships and their sexual lives, rather than make the sexual encounter a tournament for the orgasm championship. One size does not fit all, and one reason—even a good one such as an orgasm—does not motivate or interest all of us all the time.

Either way, the heated discussion of the motives of hook up partners, though fascinating, is not proportional to the size of the phenomenon itself. Young people’s casual sex is indeed a more titillating topic than married sex; it sells more magazines, gets more eyeballs on the TV screen, and lights up the imagination. But most of the sex that happens at any given moment around the world happens between partners in steady, intimate, long-term relations. Married people have more sex than singles. Thus, questions about what motivates sex in relationships are as, if not more, important than questions about the motives of hook up partners.

Relationship research, it turns out, has begun to shed light on these questions. Well-regarded theories in the psychology of motivation posit that human behavior in general can be divided helpfully into two categories: approach motivated behavior and avoidance motivated behavior. Approach motivation is expressed in action that seeks a positive consequence. Avoidance motivation seeks to prevent a negative outcome. This basic distinction has been applied to the study of relationship sex. In this context, approach sex seeks to achieve a positive result such as physical pleasure or intimacy with a partner. Avoidance sex aims to neutralize relationship conflict or eliminate bad feelings, like guilt—“mercy sex” in the bedroom vernacular. According to studies in recent years, individuals who frequently engage in approach sex report more positive emotions and satisfaction in their relationships; those who rely on avoidance sex experience more negative emotions and conflicts in their relationships. Studies to date, however, have been limited by their narrow self-focus, examining the experiences of the participants themselves, without examining the impact their sexual motives may have on their partners.

An interesting article published this year by the researcher (and fellow Psychology Today blogger) Amy Muise at the University of Toronto and her colleagues sought to address this point. Muise and her coauthors have followed over 150 married or cohabiting couples and asked them, in two separate studies each spanning several weeks, to complete daily diaries about their relationship, the level of passion and sexual satisfaction, and their reasons for having sex. Analysis of the findings showed that approach sex positively affects not only the initiator but also the partner. Avoidance sex, conversely, adversely affects the feelings of the partner, even though the partner 'got sex' and could ostensibly be expected to feel good about it.

The researchers also found that the days where the couple had sex, regardless of motive, were better than days without sex. From these findings they concluded that while approach sex is better than avoidance sex, the latter is better than no sex, at least in the short run. The long term may be a different story. At follow-up four months later, couples that depended mainly on avoidance sex experienced a decline in the quality of their relationship and their satisfaction. Avoidance sex, it appears, may work as a tactic, but fails as strategy.

In addition, the researchers found that sexual desire mediates the link between sex motives and relationship satisfaction. In other words, the main reason that approach sex leads to improved relations and avoidance sex leads to satisfaction decline is that sexual motives affect feelings of desire, which in turn influence satisfaction. People participating in approach sex experience greater sexual desire, which in turn enhances relationship satisfaction. Sexual desire is the active ingredient in the mix, love cocktail's alcohol.

This model suggests that couples may be able to increase their satisfaction in the relationship by managing their sexual motives. Those who concentrate on maximizing the amount of approach sex while minimizing avoidance sex will experience more passionate sex, and more satisfaction in their relationship over time.

Whether the same approach-avoidance dynamics and consequences that characterize relationship sex hold for hook up sex is a question that, to my knowledge, still awaits further research.

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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