Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sex

Why We Have Sex

We want to create an emotional connection or test our sexual compatibility.

Key points

  • People are motivated to confirm or assess level of romantic commitment, have fun, create an emotional connection, and test sexual compatibility.
  • Women tend to focus on commitment. Men, more so than women, are driven by the fun motive.
  • Straight people tend to prioritize commitment. Sexual minorities tend to adjust their sexual behavior according to the specific context.
Roman Chazov/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Chazov/Shutterstock

Young adults decide to have sex for a variety of reasons—and these reasons can be discerned if we ask either directly in person or anonymously in online surveys. Although incentives for engaging in sex likely varies over the life course, especially from childhood through puberty to the young adult years, researchers have created a litany of motivations for having sex that largely focus on the adolescent and, especially, the young adult years. The primary ones noted by this research include expressing commitment to each other and the relationship, enhancing flexibility in deciding whether to have sex based on the current level of commitment to each other, and enriching pleasure through recreational sex.

Spencer Olmstead and colleagues replicated and expanded these findings with a large sample of young adults. Their extension was to address two additional questions: Are there additional major types of sexual motivations beyond these three? Does the prevalence of each motivator vary based on an individual's biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, educational background, and college attendance?

Their sample of young adults (18 to 25 years of age) completed an online survey. Two-thirds were white, heterosexual, and female. One-half were in a committed relationship, the others were single; one-half attended college, the others did not. Although this population of young adults is clearly not representative of their generation, they do contribute to our knowledge base. They were asked, among other online questions, “When you ‘have sex’ with another person, what meaning does that hold for you?” Additional questions included the number of different hookups (casual sex) during the past 12 months and the number of lifetime sex partners.

Consistent with previous research, the most frequent motivating types for engaging in sex were, in order, Committers, Flexibles, and Recreationers. In addition, two other groups were identified: Connecters, participants who wanted a connection (usually emotional) but not necessarily a commitment with their sex partner, and Testers, participants who sexually engaged with partners to test their sexual compatibility before determining whether to pursue a committed relationship.

More women than men were Committers and more men than women were Recreationers—consistent with traditional gender scripts. That is, “men are more willing to engage in sexual activity when the opportunity arises whereas women act as ‘gatekeepers’ and are more focused on relational sexual activity.”

More straights than sexual minorities were Committers, and more sexual minorities than straights were Flexibles and Testers. The authors suggested this might have been because sexual minority individuals have more flexible beliefs around sexuality. That is, they are more likely than straight young adults to adjust their sexual behavior, meaning, and expectations based on the specific context of the sexual encounter.

Ethnicity/race and whether one was in college were less influential regarding the meanings ascribed to sex and commitment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on average, those in the Committers group had fewer hookups and lifetime sexual partners than all other groups.

My Take

I appreciate the effort to bring nuance to our understanding of sexuality and romance. Certainly, pursuing “types” of almost anything—especially when the topic is as personal as sex and romance—is seductive. However, in the real world of interpersonal relationships, reasons and meanings for engaging in sex are rarely so simplistic. I would guess that the vast majority of the 669 young adults have at one time or another been in several of the five groups or in multiple groups at the same time. Perhaps the motivation was in real life or in their fantasy world, or for a moment or a day in time. How long do they stay in their group? Will group membership evolve over their lifetime, especially as they age into the responsibilities of adulthood? Will it depend on their personality or social circumstances or on a particular person of interest? The authors are fully aware that much still needs to be known—and this study is a great impetus for future research.

Facebook image: Roman Chazov/Shutterstock

References

Olmstead, S.B., McMahan, K.D., & Anders, K.M. (2021). Meanings ascribed to sex and commitment among college-attending and non-college emerging adults: A replication and extension. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50, 2435–2446. doi:10.1007/s10508-021-02042-4

advertisement