Sexual Advances in Romantic Relationships
New research examines how responses to advances affect satisfaction.
Posted Oct 16, 2020
Sexual advances or sexual initiations refer to actions intended to communicate the desire for sexual activity with another person.
While sexual advances in some situations, such as at work, could be considered sexual harassment (or even sexual assault) and damage relationships, sexual advances in romantic relationships can have positive benefits. But what kinds of benefits? And for whom?
In an article published in the August 2020 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, Kiersten Dobson and colleagues examine when and how sexual advances in romantic relationships can positively affect the couple’s sexual and relationship satisfaction.
Sexual advances and sexual activities
We engage in sexual activities for many reasons, such as to have fun, feel good, or show affection.
Of course, not all sexual activities result in sexual satisfaction. However, when sexual satisfaction does result, it may lead to relationship-related benefits, like increased bonding, commitment, and relationship satisfaction.
Past research indicates that romantic pairs make or receive sexual advances more frequently than they actually engage in sexual activity. Indeed, one of the most common sources of disagreements in relationships is about the frequency of sexual activity. Previous research has found the refusal of sexual advances is correlated with lower sexual satisfaction, and with lower relational satisfaction (mostly in men).
Other research has revealed that when the person who rejects the sexual initiation provides reassurances—offering other forms of physical contact, making sure the person's romantic partner still feels loved and attractive—relationship satisfaction (but not sexual satisfaction) remains relatively high.
The present research by Dobson and co-authors assessed how sexual initiations in romantic relationships influence not just sexual satisfaction but also relationship satisfaction.
The study of relationship and sexual satisfaction
The final sample consisted of 115 heterosexual romantic couples (average age of 31, with a range of 19-64 years old) in Canada who were living together. They had been together, on average, for seven years (a range of five months to 26 years). Approximately 42% were dating, while 58% were either engaged, common-law married, or married.
Participants were asked to fill out a number of surveys related to sexual and relationship satisfaction. Among the questions asked were whether each member of the couple had made a sexual advance toward the other and if this had led to sexual activities.
What did the results show?
Having one’s sexual initiation attempts accepted was linked with same-day increases in both relationship and sexual satisfaction. It was also associated with sexual satisfaction for up to 24 hours after the sexual initiation. This phenomenon may be what has been called a “sexual afterglow effect,” or the “lingering sexual satisfaction following sexual activity” (p. 595).
On the other hand, the refusal of a person's sexual advance was related to lower sexual satisfaction for the person during that day and decreased sexual satisfaction for up to 48 hours later.
Another question the researchers addressed was whether rejecting one’s romantic partner would result in guilt, but this was not the case. In fact, receiving a sexual advance, regardless of whether it was accepted or refused, resulted in greater satisfaction for the receiver. Why?
Perhaps because receiving a sexual advance makes one feel desired, which is a positive experience. Indeed, people who received a sexual advance, regardless of whether they rejected or accepted the sexual offer, experienced more sexual satisfaction during the day and for up to 72 hours later.
Takeaway: Receiving and making sexual advances
Overall, these findings suggest the following:
- There are significant benefits to making a sexual advance that is accepted; nevertheless, when the sexual offer is refused, the negative effects appear to last longer than the benefits of an accepted sexual suggestion.
- Due to these risks, individuals who are less confident in their partner’s acceptance of their sexual proposal might miss “opportunities to bolster intimacy, closeness, and satisfaction,” as the authors note.
- Last, receiving a sexual advance is linked with feeling more desired and attractive. In the present study, whether the sexual advance offer was accepted or rejected, the receiver felt greater sexual satisfaction.
P.S. It is important not to misinterpret the findings of this study: Just because this study identified benefits of accepting sexual advances, it does not follow that one needs to accept sexual proposals. Being forced to comply with the sexual advances of one’s partner is not the same as receiving his or her advances willingly.