Is Sex Good for Us?

Research seems to have focused on the negative elements of sex since the 1960s.

Posted Dec 25, 2018

Robert Ashworth, Bellingham, WA., - Bellingham Sex Positive Center in Parade, CC BY 2.0, wikimedia
Source: Robert Ashworth, Bellingham, WA., - Bellingham Sex Positive Center in Parade, CC BY 2.0, wikimedia

My guess is that many of us would answer the question "Is sex good for us?" with a resounding “Yes.” Sex is pleasurable, exciting, satisfies needs, is intimate, creates life, and connects us with others. We realize, of course, that sex can also be misused, be a source of infections and diseases, and be used for power. But overall, sex is good — and here I want to exempt asexual individuals from the discussion, because they have a different personal experience.

Despite the positivity of sex, psychologist Dana Rei Arakawa and colleagues noted a disturbing historic fact among Americans: We are “bitterly divided” as to whether sex is a positive experience that gives meaning to life, or whether sex constitutes a political, social, and spiritual danger — not that sex is inherently bad, but that certain sexual behaviors are wrong or hazardous. To evaluate where the balance is and whether that balance has shifted over the past five decades, they assessed how four prestigious sex and medical journals have portrayed sex since the 1960s. Three global options were possible in the research they explored:

  • Positive: focusing on positive attitudes toward sex, sexual desire, sexual fantasy, sexual excitement, sexual pleasure, sex and happiness, orgasm, sex and intimacy, sexual satisfaction, positive and/or healthy relationships
  • Neutral: focusing on neither positive nor negative aspects, such as identity formation, the prevalence of various sexual identities or sexual behavior, or comprehensive sex education
  • Negative: focusing on mental health problems, sexual dysfunction, the dangers of sex, sexual stigma or shame, risky sexual behaviors, STIs, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, homophobia, sexual harassment, the trafficking of women, forced prostitution, biphobia, transphobia, negative attitudes, and sexual violence/abuse

Their findings in the research over the past five decades identified the following conclusions. 

1. Overwhelming attention was given to the negative aspects of sex — nearly 60 percent.

2. Only 7 percent was devoted to positive sex topics.

3. About a third was neutral in their coverage of sex.

4. No increasing trend over time was given to the positive aspects of sexuality.

The authors speculated as to why research focused on the negativity regarding sex — despite the sexual freedom of the 1970s, our increased sex knowledge, the trend toward greater gender equality, and the positive psychology movement. They suggested several possibilities for future investigation: 

1. The American public appears obsessed with the puritanical menaces of sex.

2. Funding for sex research is based more on “alleviating social problems, health problems, or other medical problems than on research devoted to improving human happiness.”

3. Physicians and sex researchers “tend to operate from disease-based models, reacting to what problems are presented by their patients.”

I would include a few additional reasons:

1. The personal experiences of the sex and medical researchers might have been negative. For example, if a researcher was bullied as a gay youth and became depressed and suicidal, they might choose to study the mental health problems of gay youth.

2. Mainstream psychologists and physicians not directly associated with sexual matters have seldom investigated sex from normative perspectives. For example, few developmental psychologists consider the sexual development and trajectories of children and adolescents; rather, the field is dominated by clinicians, public health professionals, disease specialists, and others who focus, by definition, on the negative elements of sex.

I agree 100 percent with the authors' conclusion: “By better understanding what kinds of sexual communities, behaviors, identities, politics, and laws are currently thriving, or those that create a thriving sexual culture, and by examining the more sexually relaxed cultures (of the rest of the developed world), we hope the state of American sexual culture might improve.”

Concretely, what this means to me is:

  • There's less research about the suicides and depression of sexual and gender minorities, and more research about their strengths and unique characteristics and contributions.
  • How sex, with self or others, is healthy, enhances life, and contributes to well-being.
  • Sex education from parents, schools, and other institutions should spend more time with sex-positive rather than sex-negative experiences, behaviors, values, and messages.

If you have your own suggestions, please comment below.

References

Arakawa, D. R., Flanders, C. E., Hatfield, E., & Heck, R. (2013). Positive psychology: what impact has it had on sex research publication trends? Sexuality & Culture, 17, 305–320. doi:10.1007/s12119-012-9152-3

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