The Fundamentals of Sex
From attraction to action, sexual behavior takes many forms. At least for humans, this most basic of activities is anything but basic. As the pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey put it, the only universal in human sexuality is variability itself.
Human interest in sex is not a matter left to chance but more a built-in imperative; survival of the species depends on it. Although sexual desire may wax and wane over the life cycle, depending on life demands and relationship satisfaction, the decks are stacked in sex's favor, as a passport to bonding, to intimacy, to pleasure, and even to human growth and healing.
People normally engage in sexual activity for any number of reasons—to feel alive, to maintain a vital aspect of human functioning, to feel desirable and attractive, to achieve closeness, to please a partner they love. Bodies and interests change over the course of time, and the complexities of physiology and psychology mean that most people experience a sexual problem at some point in their lives. Although sex can be one of the most difficult topics for partners to discuss, it's one that also stands to draw couples closer together.
The moral and political implications of sex vary greatly from culture to culture, and even within cultures and over time; still, there is agreement on one certainty: It's why we're alive today and what future generations depend on.
How Does Desire Emerge?
Desire is part biology, part psychology, often as subtle as it is predictable, and takes shape differently in men and women. For men, arousal typically precedes desire. But for women, desire precedes arousal, in response to physical intimacy, emotional connection, and an atmosphere free of distractions and everyday concerns.
Scientists are continuously exploring the interplay of biological influences, such as neurohormones that suppress or enhance desire, and psychological influences, such as emotions and relationships. Smell plays an often subtle role in attraction; research shows that women are attracted to mates whose natural body odor (sometimes referred to as pheromones) signals a genetic profile distinct from their own.
Low sexual desire is a common occurrence, among both sexes, and often it can be resolved by regularly exchanging affection and conversation outside the bedroom as well as in it, making sufficient time for each other and for sex, and addressing conflicts within a relationship.
What Leads to Arousal?
The pleasure of sex arises from many factors including the release of neurochemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, which flood the system during orgasm, as well as the sense of connection communicated by touching, massaging, and cuddling.
Given the enormous variability in activities that people find arousing, there is no one way to be sexual. Men are especially stimulated by visual imagery, and about 90 percent of young men report using pornography with some regularity, sometimes because they lack a partner or don't know how to bridge the differences in sexual appetite and interest that can occur between partners in the absence of discussion of their sexual pleasures, and sometimes for convenience..
Many people engage in behaviors that were once perceived as atypical, such as dominance play and anal intercourse. Researchers know that flexibility in sexual repertoires is healthy and generally enhances relationships; they regard a specific behavior as problematic only when it creates harm or distress for one or both partners or when the behavior is compulsive—that is, it becomes the only means of arousal.
"Sex addiction" is a label often used to suggest excessive interest in sex, but studies show it may be more related to the moral or religious environment in which a person lives.
How Does Sex Change Over the Lifespan?
Sexual behavior changes over time as a reflection of age, experience, and one's relationship. And the trajectory of change may vary between men and women.
Women may encounter difficulties in navigating cultural attitudes about sexual behavior and promiscuity as they first explore their sexuality; age brings confidence and skill at communication that can enhance sex life. Young men often have concerns about performance, penis size, or premature ejaculation—and anxiety is no friend to performance for either men or women. Men often experience challenges with arousal and erectile dysfunction as they age.
Couples tend to report that their sex life is most robust when they are in their 30s and 40s, but sex life is often most deeply rewarding for older partners. People can enjoy satisfying sex throughout the lifespan if they make adjustments for the many changes that time brings; that can mean relying less on penile penetration and more on massage, whole-body touching, and oral sex.
What Are the Different Sexual Disorders?
Since sexuality varies so widely, most behaviors, preferences, and quirks are encompassed in healthy sexual activity. Sexual behavior only shifts into a disorder when it leads to significant distress, threatens to harm others, or becomes compulsive.
Sexual disorders are a diverse collection of experiences and conditions. Erectile disorder, also called erectile dysfunction, is a chronic inability to get or maintain an erection. A paraphilia—which includes conditions such as pedophilia and fetishistic disorder—is when a person’s sexual arousal depends on fantasizing about or engaging in atypical or extreme sexual behavior.
Sexual Desire Disorder is lacking any drive for sex over a prolonged period. Orgasmic Disorder may be diagnosed when a woman is not able to reach orgasm, and Genito-Pelvic Pain or Penetration Disorder refers to experiencing extreme pain during penetrative sex.
For more information on symptoms, causes, and treatments for each disorder, visit our Diagnosis Dictionary.