If you think people have sex for pleasure and for procreation, you're right. They also have sex to get rid of a headache, to celebrate a special occasion, to get a promotion and to feel closer to God.
New research published in the August issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior has come up with a list of 237 reasons that motivate people to have sex.
Cindy Meston, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of the paper, said most people assume there are a few simple reasons for having sex: "It feels good, you're in love, or you want to have a child. We found that people are having sex for lots of other reasons."
Knowing that, she said, could boost sex education, help devise more effective strategies for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and lead to improved treatments for people with sexual problems.
"You need to know why people are having sex if you're trying to put into place a safe-sex program," Meston said. "If you assume people have sex because they're in the heat of the moment, then [you tell them to] carry condoms. But if they're doing it for revenge or because they want to enhance their social status, that will require a different strategy."
Meston and co-author David Buss conducted their research in two stages. First, they asked a group of more than 400 students and volunteers to simply list "all the reasons you can think of why you, or someone you have known, has engaged in sexual intercourse in the past." That produced 715 reasons. After deleting identical or very similar entries, the researchers were left with 237.
Some were "pretty shocking," Meston said, such as "I wanted to give someone else a sexually transmitted disease." She said she also was surprised that some people said they had sex because "I wanted to get closer to God."
"Most of the literature shows that religious people have more sexual problems," she said. "But several people endorsed the idea that religion and sexuality were actually closely linked."
In the second stage of the research, they asked 1,500 other students to rate how important each of the 237 reasons was in their own sexual behavior.
The students were asked to indicate how frequently each reason had led them to engage in sexual intercourse in the past, on a scale from 1 for never to 5 for all the time. Those who had not had intercourse (27 percent of the women and 32 percent of the men) were asked to indicate the likelihood that each of the reasons would lead them to have sex in the future.
Men, women share reasons
Most of the students gave the usual reasons for having sex: "I was attracted to the person," "It feels good" and, "I wanted to show my affection" were high on the lists of both men and women. Lesser priorities on both lists were reasons such as, "Someone offered me money to do it," "I felt sorry for the person," "I wanted to punish myself" and, "Because of a bet."
Meston said she was somewhat surprised by the similarities between the genders. Men were more likely to endorse having sex for physical reasons (such as, "The person was too hot to resist") and to boost their social status ("I wanted to brag to my friends about my conquests.") But there was no difference in the emotional reasons, such as, "I wanted to express my love for the person."
"The stereotype that men have sex for physical reasons and women have sex for love -- our data didn't really support that," Meston said. "These young men and women were having sex for physical pleasure and also for emotional attachment, feeling connected to another person."
Meston and Buss said their findings contradict the stereotype that women, more than men, use sex to obtain special favors. In their study, men were more likely to endorse reasons for having sex that involved utilitarian goals ("To get a favor from someone").
Leonore Tiefer, a sex therapist and psychologist at New York University School of Medicine, said the findings did not really answer the question, "Why Humans Have Sex," as the title of the paper asserts.
"It's why Texas students say they have sex," Tiefer said.
Nevertheless, she said, it's "useful to discuss motives, as opposed to just counting."
Meston acknowledged the limitation of her research and said she planned to look at other populations.
"This is just the start," she said. "The next step is to see how these motivators change across time, how they differ between genders across the age range, how they differ by ethnicity."
Another limitation of the study, Meston acknowledged, was that people might have been reluctant to cite socially unacceptable motivations, such as the desire to make money or punish a partner. Conversely, they might have exaggerated their response rates to socially desirable reasons, such as expressing love.
Survey may aid therapists
But she said the survey, dubbed "YSEX?," already could be used to start developing new treatments for people with sexual problems. "Just giving the list to people to check off would give a therapist more to work with," she said.
In addition, Meston noted, people in therapy often are hesitant to talk about sexual experiences they're not proud of. "Learning you're not the only one who has had sex for a stupid reason might bring a bit of relief," she said.
Another benefit could be for people with very low sex drive. A recent landmark survey found that nearly one-third of women aren't interested in sex.
"A lot of people have low desire," Meston explained. "It's not a problem if their partner also has low desire. But if their partner wants to have sex much more often than they do, it could become a problem in the marriage. Some women really resent having sex, because they're not getting physical pleasure.
"If they learn that they're not so unusual -- that not everyone is having sex because it feels good -- they might find another reason that makes them feel less resentful, like 'Oh, yeah, having sex does make me sleep better.'"
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The reasons people give are clustered in four groups:
Physical - My hormones were out of control - I was attracted to the person - It seemed like good exercise Goal-directed - I wanted to get a raise - Because of a bet - I wanted to change the topic of conversation
Emotional - I realized I was in love - I wanted to say 'thank you' Insecurity - I didn't know how to say 'no' - I felt obligated ----------