What motivates you to have sex? If you ask around, you’ll undoubtedly find a large number of answers to this question.
Consider this: A decade ago, sex researchers Cindy Meston and David Buss asked hundreds of college students to think about all of the potential reasons that they and others they know have had sex before. In the end, they received 237 different answers. These ranged from wanting to experience pleasure and because you felt horny (two of the most commonly reported reasons for getting it on) to wanting to punish yourself and hurt somebody else (two of the least common reasons for having sex).
Meston and Buss’ research received a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but it suffered from a limitation common to most studies of human sexuality in that the vast majority of participants were young students of psychology. This raises the logical question of how sexual motivations might vary for men and women across different stages of life. For example, how do seniors’ reasons for sex compare to those of college students? Do men’s and women’s sexual motivations change as they age?
A new study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine sought to answer these questions. A team of researchers in Belgium and the Netherlands recruited a sample of 4,655 people online, who were given the list of sexual motivations generated by Meston and Buss and asked to indicate how often they’d had sex for each of these reasons. On a side note, I should mention that the 237 reasons originally identified by Meston and Buss were reduced to 140 after redundancies and overlap were eliminated.
The group of people who participated in this study was quite diverse, ranging in age from 13 to 83. Across all ages, most were in relationships and, among those 18 and older, most were college educated.
When it came to people’s reasons for having sex, there was a lot of commonality across both gender and age. In fact, three of the top four reasons were the same for men and women across the lifespan: “It’s fun,” “It feels good,” and “I wanted to experience the physical pleasure.” In other words, more often than not, most of us are having sex because of the way it makes us feel—and that seems to be pretty damn good.
More from Tonic:
While there wasn’t much variability at the top of the list, certain gender and age differences become apparent if you move a bit further down. Notably, women endorsed emotional reasons (think love and commitment) and insecurity reasons (boosting one’s self-esteem or not wanting your partner to break up with you) more often than men. By contrast, men endorsed physical reasons, such as wanting to decrease stress or because they simply thought their partner was physically attractive or desirable, more often than women.
Except for adolescents, these gender differences seemed pretty stable across the lifespan, from college students to adults to seniors. In other words, it didn’t appear to be the case that men and women grew more similar in their sexual motivations with age.
This is interesting because the researchers had expected to find that as men get older (and especially as they entered long-term relationships) that emotional reasons would become more important to them; however, this isn’t what they found. In fact, if anything, it seemed to be the opposite—college-age men were actually more motivated than older men to have sex for reasons pertaining to love and commitment.
It’s also worth noting that, as age increased, the tendency to report having sex for physical reasons (like thinking the other person is hot) and utilitarian reasons (like wanting to improve your sexual skills or to get a favor from a partner) decreased for men and women alike. This tells us that sex seems to serve somewhat different purposes for us as we age.
Consistent with this idea, the researchers found that while sexual frequency and satisfaction tended to decline as people got older, they actually rated sex as a more important part of their lives. So even though sex might not happen as often or be quite as good when you’re older due to changes in health conditions, this doesn’t necessarily mean sex becomes a less meaningful part of your life—in fact, it actually seems to become more meaningful over time.
It’s important to note that the differences observed across the lifespan could be due to aging-related changes, but it’s also possible that we’re seeing evidence of generational differences. Due to changing gender roles and norms, it may be that young men today will place more emphasis on emotional reasons for sex as they get older compared to men from generations past.
While men were more likely to report sex for physical reasons and women for emotional reasons overall, I should repeat that the factors that topped the list for men and women of all ages were largely the same and had to do with enjoying yourself and experiencing pleasure.
Pleasure, therefore, seems to be the core sexual motivation for almost all of us no matter our gender or where we are in our lives, which tells us that we all have a lot in common when it comes to why we pursue sex.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and creator of the blog Sex and Psychology. His forthcoming book is entitled Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.