Sexual well being: The why might be more important than the how

Couple in bed kissing

By Cindy Mackie

Why you’re having sex might be more important than how you’re having sex. These days there are magazines and online posts telling us how to improve our sex-lives with promises that increased sexual functioning = increased overall well-being. With all these posts telling us how to have sex and how much sex to have, we might forget about why we are having sex. In fact, research has demonstrated that simply going through the motions might not be enough to achieve the benefits of having an active sex life. So, it might be helpful to start thinking about why we are having sex instead of just having sex.

Self-determination theory is a motivation theory that classifies types of motivations along a continuum of autonomy, or in other words, the degree that you’re doing things truly for yourself [1]. Intrinsic motivations are the most autonomous motivations and extrinsic motivations are the least autonomous motivations. Research has demonstrated that intrinsic motivations, or doing things truly for yourself, are associated with more positive outcomes than when you have extrinsic motivations [1].

This theory has also been applied to the sexual context. Examples of intrinsic sexual motivations are having sex because it feels good, because it’s fun, or because you enjoy feeling close with your partner. On the other hand, extrinsic sexual motivations, might be having sex because you feel it’s the “normal” thing to do, or having sex to avoid conflict with a partner.

One study compared sexual motivations between women with sexual difficulties and women without sexual difficulties [2]. They found that the women without sexual difficulties reported more intrinsic reasons for having sex and less extrinsic reasons than women with sexual difficulties. The same study also found greater intrinsic sexual motivations to be associated with more positive outcomes such as greater sexual satisfaction, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, sexual desire, and lower sexual distress. The opposite pattern was found in extrinsic motivations. When individuals had more extrinsic sexual motivations, they also had lower sexual satisfaction, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, sexual desire, and greater sexual distress.

All in all, these findings tell us that sexual well-being might be about more than what you do or how you do-it might be about why you do it.

[1] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268. doi:10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

[2] Gravel, E. E., Pelletier, L. G., & Reissing, E. D. (2016). “Doing it” for the right reasons: Validation of a measurement of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation for sexual relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 92, 164-173. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.015