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Heterosexual Sex in the 21st Century Can Be a Partnership

It's about reproductive and non-reproductive sex.

It’s time for a new perspective on the sexual relationship between heterosexual women and men. Reproductive sex has historically been codified in the context of marriage. The introduction of widely available contraception and abortion in the mid-20th century opened the door for men and women to pursue sex for non-reproductive purposes such as intimacy, novelty, ritual, and sheer physical pleasure.1

The recent overturning of the federal protection for the right of women to have an abortion for an unintended or unwanted pregnancy brings the history of both reproductive and non-reproductive sex into focus. Let’s take a look at where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go in the 21st century.

Where We Have Been: How Reproductive Sex and Non-Reproductive Sex Became Transactional

The Industrial Revolution brought about the replacement of agrarian societies by a new order defined by industrial capitalism, which ushered in the separation of the sexes into different silos of experience in which women became ‘homemakers’ and men became ‘wage-earners’.2 Caring for each other was understood in terms of gender—wives were caretakers and husbands were good financial providers.

In psychological theory, the idea that men and women are defined by their different roles in marriage gave rise to the ‘social exchange’ theory of marriage in which marital contributions by husbands and wives are “exchanged” such that each maximizes his or her benefits and minimizes the individual costs.3 The popular concept for this kind of ‘exchange’ relationship is transactional.

The theory of the capitalist market is based on the idea that everyone acts in their own self-interest. Self-interest was translated in the middle of the 20th century into the psychological theoretical construct of ‘need’, i.e. we are not motivated by our own ‘selfishness’; we are motivated by our ‘needs’ in general including a ‘need’ for sex.4 This general ‘sexual need’ was interpreted as a ‘need’ to have sex performed in a particular manner. For example, one might have a ‘need’ for a certain frequency of sex, or any number of ways sex can be performed. Such self-identified preferences gained the status of ‘male’ sexual needs and ‘female’ sexual needs, which were ‘exchanged’ in a theoretically ‘fair’ transaction.

The Transaction Was Never Fair

Neither reproductive nor non-reproductive sex in a transactional marital relationship was going to be fair because until the 1970s, biological science was based on the “male norm," which refers to the fact it is the male body that has been studied.5 The model of sexual experience that prevailed is called the “linear model of sexual response” adopted by Masters and Johnson that was assumed to apply to both men and women.6 This model describes sexual experience as beginning with sexual desire that leads to sexual arousal, which is experienced in our genitals and leads to pursuit of a sexual event leading to orgasm.

This model, of course, corresponds most closely with men’s experience but not that of women, which has led to at least 30% of women being diagnosed as having “low sexual desire”. And, a study of 50,000 people, 95% of heterosexual men reported usually or always experiencing orgasm during sex while only 65% of heterosexual women experience an orgasm.7

More recent research on the sexual experience of both men and women questions the ‘linear model of sexuality’.8 This research indicates that female desire emerges out of the physical experience of genital arousal. And for women, this genital arousal is clitoral arousal, not vaginal arousal, which the linear model theorized to be the site of genital arousal for women. In studies using measures of clitoral arousal, researchers found that clitoral response to sexual stimuli does correlate with self-report of being sexually aroused. This suggests that vaginal lubrication serves to get women prepared for arousal rather than show direct sexual arousal, which is demonstrated by clitoral engorgement.

We can no longer view sexual experience between men and women as a ‘fair’ transaction.

Where We Are Now: Sex for Pleasure Is Codified

The right to an abortion codified in Roe V. Wade in 1973, along with the previously granted right to contraception, created the opportunity for sexual equality between men and women.9 Men and women were theoretically equal in their right to have sex for pleasure and for procreation. They both saw sex as a transaction that gave them both pleasure. However, men got both pleasure and "baby-making rights" while women got pleasure and "baby-making responsibilities."

As one man said, “To be blunt, the most I’ve ever had to do (about reproductive responsibility) is pick up a monthly supply of pills from the drug store on the way home, or just ask, one time, at the start of a sexual relationship, whether my soon to be partner was protected.” He goes on to admit that “as preventing pregnancy goes, that’s been the entirety of my burden—and I’ve reaped the benefits of care-free sex over and over again, for years.”10

The decision coming down from the Supreme Court that took away federal protection for the right to abortion has made us acutely aware that sex is fundamentally how human beings procreate, i.e., reproduce ourselves. Since the Dobbs ruling at least 15 states now ban abortion outright or within a few weeks of conception.11

A recent survey by a national health organization reports that since Dobbs, the management of pregnancy-related medical emergencies has been worse, pregnancy-related mortality has increased, there has been a in requests for sterilization, and doctors' jobs are more difficult and legally perilous, leading to worse outcomes for women.12

While sex ‘exists’ because of its evolutionary role in reproduction, it is also pursued, unobjectionably, for sheer physical pleasure.13 However, the outcome of and accountability for having babies or not having babies falls more heavily on women.

Where We Want to Go: Forming Sexual Partnerships

We can start thinking about men and women having sex for pleasure and/or reproduction in the context of a partnership. Let’s look at what a partnership is in contrast to what a transaction is and what a relationship is. Here’s how Wendy Appel, an organizational consultant with a background in social and cultural anthropology, defines these concepts.14

In a transaction, sex is a one-and-done event or a series of such one-and-done interactions. In a transaction, there is no commitment to each other’s satisfaction or happiness—it is fundamentally a self-interested activity for both people.

A relationship can be described as an ongoing connection that does not require a commitment. Each person in a relationship may have their own expectations of what the relationship means to them sexually, which may not be shared. Breakdowns in the relationship may occur when expectations are not met by either person.

In a partnership, you cooperate with your partner to have sex whether is for pleasure and/or reproduction. You are both interested in your partner’s experience—both self-interested and other-interested.

Partnered sex is negotiated sex. Negotiating sex in a truly partnered sexual encounter is an exploration of what each of you wants each time you have sex. Do you want sex for pleasure? Do you want sex as an intimate relationship encounter? Do you want sex because you are anxious? Do you want sex because you adore your partner? Do you want sex to make a baby?

Having sex is also about whether someone does or doesn’t want to perform a particular sex act. Specific sex acts are also to be negotiated. This is how to achieve mutual consent for the kinds of sex you prefer to have.

Appel’s description of a partnership implies that commitment is a defining characteristic of a partnership. This suggests that we are concerned about our partner’s experience only if there is a long-term commitment. This need not be the case. We can expand the benefits of ‘partnership’ to all our sexual activities. We achieve this by:

  • Being knowledgeable about current ideas of male and female sexuality.
  • Being willing to negotiate all aspects of our sexual encounters.
  • Being willing to be accountable for the outcomes of our sexual encounters.
  • Being aware that both men and women are responsible for the unintended consequences of our sexual activities.
  • Being aware that one unintended consequence of sex can be a pregnancy.

As we go forward in the 21st century, let’s decide that whether we are engaging in sex that is for pleasure and/or procreation, we are interested both in our own experience and the experience of our partner. We are interested in the outcome of our sexual activity for both partners. And we understand that both men and women are fully accountable for their sexual activities.


1. Moore, J.G. “Is Sex Ultimately for Reproduction or Pleasure?” Ask Philosophers. November 10, 2005.

2. Finkel, J.J., E.O. Cheung L.F. Emery, K.L. Carswell, and G.M. Larson. (2015) “The Suffocation Moel: Why Marriage in America is Becoming and All or Nothing Institution.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. DOI10.1177/

3. Cherry, K. “Understanding Social Exchange Theory in Psychology. Verywell Mind. May 8, 2023.

4. Wallach, M.A. and L. Wallach. Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness: The Error of Egoism in Theory and Therapy. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman 1983.

5. Chivers, M.S. and L.A. Brotto. (2017). Controversies of Women’s Sexual Arousal and Desires.” European Psychologist. 22(1), 5-26.

6. Mintz, L. “The Orgasm Gap and Why Women Climax Less then Men. The Conversation. August 15, 2023.

7. Chivers and Brotto

8. Aronowitz, N.W. “The Feminist Pursuit of Good Sex.”The New York Times. February 16, 2018.

9. Gillman, S. “It’s Not About Babies, It’s About Sex.” The Good Men Project. July 7, 2022.

10. Bellware, K. and E. Guskin. “Effects of Dobbs on Maternal Health Care Overwhelmingly Negative, Survey Shows.” The Washington Post. June 21, 2023.

11. Bellware and Guskin.

12. Ask Philosophers.

13. Appel, W. “Want Success? Know the Difference Between Relationship and Partnership.” Forbes. September 27, 2017.

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