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How Do Our Expectations Shape Our Sexual Experiences?

How past experiences and future expectations may influence our sex lives.

Key points

  • New research explores how expectations about the likelihood of experiencing pleasure and connection during sex influences our sexual desire.
  • Having higher expectations of experiencing orgasm and non-orgasmic pleasure had a positive effect on desire for both men and women.
  • However, expecting emotional closeness during sex was found to have the largest influence on sexual desire for men and women.

There are myriad factors that are known to influence our interest in having sex. Take the role of communication with our partner, the messages we learned about sexuality in our formative years, medical illness, trauma, feeling desired, and being sick or stressed, just to name a few.

But there is another important consideration: How much is our sexual desire affected by how much pleasure and connection we experience during sex?

For example, say you and your romantic partner have sex fairly regularly but you don’t typically have an orgasm. How much desire might you have the next time they initiate?

Or, say you don’t typically experience orgasms, but you tend to feel emotionally close to your partner during sex; how much would that impact your degree of sexual interest?

Measuring Expectations and Outcomes

In a new study, recently published in The Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Shari Blumenstock, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute, conducted a two-part study to explore how expectations about sexual pleasure, orgasm, and emotional closeness impacted participants’ perceived desire to engage in various sexual experiences.

The study consisted of two samples: a college campus sample and an online community-based sample, both of which targeted individuals aged 18 to 27 years old. The college-aged sample consisted of 299 participants (141 women, 143 men). The online sample consisted of 150 women and 146 men. The majority were heterosexual (68.7%) and White (68.7%).

In the first part of the study, participants were asked the following question: “If you were to engage in sexual activity with a romantic partner (such as oral sex, anal sex, penile-vaginal intercourse, etc.) how much would you expect to experience the following in general or on average? The items included: orgasm, sexual pleasure (outside of orgasm), and emotional intimacy. Responses were given on a Likert-type scale.

The second part of the study was a vignette experiment in which different descriptions of relationships that included higher or lower expectancies of experiencing orgasm, pleasure outside of orgasm, and emotional closeness were described. Participants were asked to read the vignettes and imagine how much they would be interested in engaging in sexual activity in these contexts on a 6-point scale (with 1 being “extremely unlikely” to 6 being “extremely likely”).

How Expectations Affect Desire

The first question tapped into participants' current, or actual, sexual experiences. Nearly half the men in both the college and online samples (47.2% and 46.7% respectively) reported they believed they would definitely experience an orgasm, whereas only 4.8% of college women and 23.8% of online women expected to definitely experience an orgasm when they engage in sexual activity.

College women reported lower expectations of experiencing pleasure outside of orgasms during sexual activity than college men, whereas the community sample of women reported equally high expectancies of non-orgasmic pleasure as the online sample of men.

Women in both samples were more likely to expect to experience emotional closeness during sexual activity than men across both campus and online samples.

In the experimental study (i.e., when men and women were primed to imagine circumstances different from their actual experiences), men reported higher sexual desire than women on average, no matter what vignette they read.

Expectations of having an orgasm had similar effects on desire for men and women (in other words, both men and women’s desire to engage in sexual activity increased when they read a vignette suggesting an orgasm was more likely to occur versus when it was less likely to occur).

Expectations of non-orgasmic sexual pleasure and emotional closeness were also found to have a stronger effect on sexual desire for women than men.

However, expectations of orgasms alone were less important than overall sexual pleasure experienced. Further, emotional closeness was the strongest predictor for both men’s and women’s sexual desire.

The Takeaway

The findings from this study suggest that the expectations we hold about how emotionally fulfilling and sexually pleasurable sex will be can influence how much sexual desire we experience. However, at least among young adults in this study, expecting to experience pleasure outside of orgasm was more important than whether or not an orgasm was expected to occur and, further, emotional connection was highlighted as the most influential factor for desire for both men and women. This suggests that if we are looking to experience more sexual desire, focusing on general pleasure (versus putting a lot of pressure on having an orgasm specifically) and addressing emotional connection for romantic couples may be helpful interventions for both men and women alike.

References

Blumenstock, S. M. (2021). Expectations and sexual desire in romantic relationships: An experimental investigation of pleasure and emotional closeness expectancies among young adults. The Journal of Sex Research, DOI:10.1080/00224499.2021.1991260

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