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Sex makes the world go around. At least, it plays a significant part in dating and relating. Granted, there are natural variations in sexual expression and "appetite". But, despite what some perspectives might argue, many men and women, of various ages, cultures, and sexual orientations all are motivated to (at least occasionally) say yes to sex.

The problem, however, is that each partner may want sex for different reasons. Each may have a different motivation for saying "yes". When those specific motivations are not addressed and underlying needs are not met, sex either doesn't occur - or ends up being dissatisfying. A classic example is the woman who has sex as an expression of "love and commitment", being disappointed when she finds her partner has had sex for only "pleasure". Or, the man who has sex as an expression of his "desirability and passion", only to be disappointed that his partner was motivated only by his "resources and social status".

In an effort to help you avoid such disappointments (and, if you want, persuade your partner into bed), below I will discuss the research on sexual motivation. You will learn why people say yes to sex. You will also learn to spot these motivations - and avoid them, or capitalize on them, as you please. In the end though, I will leave the decision about which motivations are "right" and "wrong" for you individually. I'm just reporting the facts...and helping you reach your own goals.

Why Humans Have Sex

A notable study on sexual motivation was a collaborative work in the 2007 Archives of Sexual Behavior by Cindy Meston (a clinical psychologist and sex researcher) and David Buss (an evolutionary psychologist). Meston and Buss (2007) surveyed men and women, in two studies, about the reasons why they had sex. In the first study, participants reported 237 unique reasons for saying yes to sexual activity. In the second study, those 237 reasons were categorized into four large groups, and 13 sub-groups.

So, according to Meston and Buss (2007), people generally say yes to sex for the following reasons:

Emotional Reasons:

  • Love and Commitment - to feel connected, to bond, to express love, and to intensify a relationship.
  • Expression - to express an emotion to a partner, such as "thank you" or "I missed you".

Physical Reasons:

  • Pleasure - to feel good, have fun, and experience orgasm.
  • Stress Reduction - to relieve frustration, anxiety, and stress.
  • Physical Desirability - to be sexual with someone who is attractive and desirable physically.
  • Experience Seeking - to see what sex is all about, act out a fantasy, or have an adventure.

Goal Attainment Reasons:

  • Resources - to obtain something, such as a job, money, or even a child.
  • Social Status - to be popular, impress friends, or enhance a reputation.
  • Revenge - to get back at a partner, make someone jealous, or "rebound" from a relationship.
  • Utilitarian - to get out of doing something, test compatibility, or even change the conversation.

Insecurity Reasons:

  • Self-Esteem Boost - to feel better, powerful, attractive, or get attention.
  • Duty/Pressure - to fulfill an obligation, expectation, or duty.
  • Mate Guarding - to get a partner to stay, to promote faithfulness, or prevent a break-up.

Individual Differences

Meston and Buss (2007) also note several differences in motivation for sex among various groups. Men, for example, were significantly more likely than women to (at least report) having sex for physical, insecurity, or goal-attainment reasons. However, both men and women were equally likely to have sex for emotional reasons.

The authors also found differences in sexual motivation depending on Sociosexual Orientation - the extent to which someone is comfortable with sex outside of a monogamous relationship (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). Both men and women with a high (unrestricted) orientation were motivated by the range of reasons for engaging in sex - and were more likely than low (restricted) orientation to have sex for physical, goal attainment, and insecurity reasons. In contrast, low (restricted) orientation men and women primarily had sex for love and commitment only.

What This Means for Your Love Life

To find (and potentially influence) your date or mate's motivation for sex requires a two-part process:

1) Find out their general Sociosexual Orientation - Do they think sex without love is wrong? Have they had a low number of sexual partners, particularly few one-night stands? Are they usually in monogamous relationships? If so, then they will tend to have a low (restricted) orientation. In this case, they will primarily be having sex for love and commitment. They will mainly choose to have sex with you out of feelings of connectedness, bonding, closeness, affection, and love. This goes for both men and women. So, turn on the charm and make a connection - knowing that if they have sex, it is most likely for love.

2) Assess the motivation for the Unrestricted - Figuring out why someone with high (unrestricted) sociosexual orientation wants to have sex is a bit more complex. It could be for a whole host of reasons. But, your best bet is to listen carefully. Listen closely to how they talk about past relationships. Pay attention to the complements they give you as well. Keep the categories above in mind and note when things match up. If they say you are attractive - they might be motivated by physical desirability. If they say they were sometimes jealous of an ex - then mate-guarding might be an avenue to explore. Perhaps they pay attention to people of wealth or fame - so resources or social status are their thing. With a little practice (and the categories above), you will be identifying sexual motivations very easily. Then it is just a matter of walking away (if you're not interested) or giving them what they want (if you are).


Some people have sex primarily for love and commitment. Others run the range of motivations. It is important to tell the difference, particularly as they relate to your own love life goals. Find someone to match what you want and what you're willing to give to find satisfaction (both in and out of the bedroom). Provide the right motivation, and you could have a passionate night or a long-time love. The trick is having a keen eye for the categories above - and being persuasive :)

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Until next time...happy dating and relating!

Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor

Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor


  • Meston, C.M. & Buss, D.M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 477-507.
  • Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 60, 870-883.

© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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