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Sex as Transaction, Communication, or Romantic Love?

Perspectives on sexual experience can vary widely.

Key points

  • Evolutionary psychology shows us that mammals are hard-wired to mate for pleasure and procreation.
  • Humans can discuss sexual experiences and agree to an extensive range of variations, including the nature of relationship(s) that include sex.
  • Awareness of the role of sexuality can facilitate conscious choices of partners, behaviors, arrangements, even motivation.
/photo by permission from David Griff
Rodin's The Kiss in Paris
Source: /photo by permission from David Griff

I once had a middle-aged patient who believed he required visits to prostitutes as well as an ongoing sexual relationship with his wife in order to satisfy his personal urges, desires, perceived needs. By having those relationships that were purely transactional — he provided money, and his partners provided services he requested, he effectively separated his most intense pleasures from a need to provide anything beyond financial support. He was doing business, exchanges.

Granted, there are nonmonetary forms of transactional relationships — for example, sexual availability traded for fulfilling the other person’s sexual needs as well as one’s own; being a presentable partner at events while the “buyer” pays for the “trophy,” or swapping sexual favors for support of an extended family. The underlying relationship remains grounded in trades, whether perceived as “fair” or not.

In contrast, what Clark and Mills labeled “communal” relationships (compared to exchange ones) target the well-being of the dyad (or larger group). The agreement is that those involved meet the needs of the others, especially needs that can only be met through relationships — perhaps for comfort, closeness, friendship, selfless love.

“Romantic love,” grounded in physical passion, is a communal relationship, addressing the welfare of the couple, acknowledging that a new entity, a “we,” formed between two people. Details can vary broadly when partners are both fully on board with modifications, but the primary role of sex as a means of providing pleasure and understanding and as a tool for communication is central.

Today, however, people do not need to be stuck in primitive patterns that no longer serve their growth and development. Influenced by maturation from within as well as experiences and environmental influences from without, perspectives can change, including perceptions of one’s sexuality and how it is addressed.

Source: ArtTower/Pixabay

Eventually, my patient developed a friendship with a colleague that evolved into one with intense physicality. His new partner was unable to tolerate his visits to prostitutes. As their friendship and caring for each other grew and their sexual relationship provided ever greater intimacy, she eventually explained that she needed him to turn to her for what he felt was missing and forsake the power and freedom he felt in his commercial dealings.

For the first time in his life, he was sufficiently attached to another human being that he realized that his behavior was hurting her. He did not want to hurt the woman who brought him so much joy. He agreed to try to control his impulses and redirect his desires. Eventually, he succeeded.

In time, he and his wife amicably divorced. He became able to physically devote himself fully to his lover. As he learned to acknowledge, examine, and own his feelings of grief, guilt, rage, fear, and deprivation, he became able to see their origins in his earlier experiences and let roots dug during his past stop directing his happiness in the present.

He grew to know more and more parts of himself. As he integrated levels of his being, his relationship deepened into a completeness of passion, friendship, and devotion that he had never known. Taking care of his partner became an extension of taking care of himself.

Pixabay ID 13107714
Source: Pixabay ID 13107714

Sex is a complicated experience. As Maggie Jones described in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Joys and Challenges of Sex After 70,” expressions of one’s sexuality can evolve, both growing and diminishing in intensity, allowing one to age in a multitude of rewarding ways that older generations might not have thought possible.

In an earlier post, I chronicled research documenting “Benefits of Sex After 50,” offering a collection of ways in which sex can enhance one’s life from the cellular to the spiritual level across an entire lifespan.

Consistent with what my patient experienced, as the seven layers of his experience became integrated, his affection for and attachment to his midlife partner grew. By trading breadth for depth, he learned to make room for romantic love as a source of nourishment, allowing his dependence on his own sense of biological urges and fantasies as well as ego grounded in the sense of worldly power to be supplanted by respect, joy, and a sense of security based on knowing what is possible.

Copyright 2022 Roni Beth Tower


Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1993). The difference between communal and exchange relationships: What it is and is not. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 684-691

Clark, M. S., & Monin, J. K. (2006). Giving and receiving communal responsiveness as love. In R. J. Sternberg & K. Weis (Eds.), The new psychology of love (pp. 200-223). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.