The Implicit Sexual Desire

Implicit measures can predict a couple's sexual experiences and perceptions.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Sexual desire can be defined as an impulse to engage in sex with a specific person that activates an automatic response of the sexual system (e.g., genital arousal) to a sexually attractive stimulus (e.g., the touch or smell of one’s partner).

Sexual desire is a crucial component of a satisfying and rewarding romantic relationship. It is fundamental in the formation of the relationship, in falling in love, and in developing a stable long-term relationship. Studies show that low or lack of sexual desire can not only lead to a decrease of sexual activity, intimacy, pleasure, and excitement, but also to more conflict, infidelity, or a breakup.

Measuring sexual desire

Over the past few decades, research on sexual desire focused exclusively on self-reported measures of how people feel about their partners in a romantic relationship. For example, questionnaires have asked participants to rate their partners on adjectives such as sexually desirable, hot, and attractive.

However, research on sexual desire in romantic relationships, using explicit measures, showed that people tend to over or underreport their sexual desire due to different factors associated with relationship concerns or impression management, such as:

  1. To preserve the sense of health and security of their relationship. Studies demonstrate that people may overestimate their sexual desire towards their partners to promote the idea of health and security of their relationship. Indeed, explicitly acknowledging low sexual desire may generate negative feelings in partners and potentially damage the relationship. For example, it has been found that committed partners are prone to positive illusions of sexual compatibility and satisfaction to preserve their romantic relationships.
  2. To create the impression that their relationship is strong. People may exaggerate their sexual desire for their partners to create an impression in others that their relationship is strong. Indeed, for most people in contemporary Western society, good sex is believed to be synonymous with a healthy and good romantic relationship.
  3. Uncertainty about the relationship. People may be motivated to deny their sexual desire for their partners because they don't feel secure in their romantic relationships. For example, they may underreport their sexual desire because they feel that their partners are uncommitted.
  4. To avoid negative association with sex. For these individuals, sex is associated with anxiety due to previous negative experiences generating shame, such as sexual abuse or an unwanted pregnancy. They may report less sexual desire to avoid the negative feelings associated with these experiences.
  5. Lack of subjective awareness. People may report feeling little desire for their partners because they lack sexual awareness, the feeling of physiological sexual arousal. For example, studies show that men, compared to women, exhibit a stronger concordance between physiological and subjective sexual awareness.

These factors thus may prevent people from accurately reporting their sexual desire, which in turn, may bias the results of studies aimed at predicting and inferring outcomes in romantic relationships. These measures reflect conscious and controllable evaluations and thus can be influenced by social desirability processes that could prevent people from accurately reporting their judgments and opinions if these could be viewed negatively by others.

How can we measure sexual desire more accurately?

To overcome these limitations, a new study published in Personality and Individual Differences assessed sexual desire with implicit measures, rather than explicit measures. Implicit measures are thought to reflect automatic evaluations that occur outside of someone's awareness and control and are thus less influenced by external factors.

In particular, in their study, de Jong and colleagues used a Sexual Desire Implicit Association Test (SD-IAT), a modified version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), to measure the association strength between the first name of the partner and the concepts “sexually desirable” or “sexually undesirable.” The IAT is a computer-based time-reaction task that assesses the strength between mental associations that are stored in memory.

In the first experiment, de Jong and colleagues investigated the role of the implicit sexual desire in a couple’s everyday sex life and perceptions of partners’ sexual experiences. To this end, they used a dyadic weekly diary conducted over four weeks to monitor the sexual interactions of each romantic couple and correlate them with their implicit and explicit sexual desire.

They found that controlling for explicit sexual desire, partners with higher levels of implicit sexual desire reported greater intimacy and sexual responsiveness during sex. In addition, de Jong and colleagues showed that implicit desire for one’s partner also predicted perceiving higher levels of intimacy, desire, and arousal in one’s partner. That is, implicit sexual desire influenced not only participants’ sexual experiences but also the perceptions of their partner’s desire and intimacy.

In a second experiment, de Jong and colleagues examined the role of implicit sexual desire in inferring potential mechanisms of relationship maintenance by using an attentional disengagement paradigm, a computer task that measured how much time people spent to take attention away from pictures of attractive individuals. Results showed that higher levels of implicit sexual desire predicted faster attentional disengagement from pictures of attractive partners, but only for women.

For men, the pattern was reversed: Higher levels of implicit sexual desire predicted slower attentional disengagement. That is, implicit sexual desire determined how much participants’ attention was attracted to alternative romantic partners.

Interestingly, de Jong and colleagues explain that the gender difference in attentional disengagement found in their experiment suggests that for men “sexual desire for one's partner reflects broader sexual interest; that is, desire for one's partner goes hand in hand with desire for sex in general,” while for women “who are more relationally attuned, particularly with regard to sex, sexual desire is more likely to be focused on her partner.”

This study “is the first research to use implicit methods to assess a particularly sensitive construct [that] has important consequences for couple well-being” and it provides the evidence that “implicit sexual desire predicts people’s experience of sex over and above their explicit reports.” The authors conclude, “We hope that the SD-IAT will be useful for other researchers who study the dynamics of sexuality in romantic relationships.”

Facebook image: Look Studio/Shutterstock


de Jong, Reis, Peters, DeHaan, & Birnbaum (2019). The role of implicit sexual desire in romantic relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 149, 46-56.

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