Chapter 9: SEXUALITY

Sex is an important part of many romantic relationships, and the nature and status of our relationships have important consequences for our sexual attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.


Some intriguing and important questions to consider are:

l   What kinds of attitudes do we have about sexuality in and out of relationships?

l   How is sexual behavior affected by one’s relationship status?

l   What relationship factors influence feelings of sexual satisfaction?

l   How do partners communicate with one another about sex?

Attitudes about Casual Sex

l   A substantial shift in our sexual attitudes have occurred over time.

l   During the first half of the 20th century, very few people approved of sex before marriage (Hunt, 1974), however, nowadays people are less restrictive about premarital sex.

l   Most people in the US approve of premarital sex as long as it is within the context of a committed relationship between two people (Sprecher, Mckinney, & Orbuch, 1987).


l   The current feelings we have towards sex have been described as “permissiveness-with-affection” (Reiss, 1967), meaning we believe that some sexual activity among unmarried people is acceptable, if it is within the context of a committed relationship.


l   There are some gender differences between men and women’s attitudes about sex.


l   For instance, men are more permissive in their sexual values and attitudes than women (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1987; Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Snyder, Simpson, & Gangestad, 1986), still, how large the difference is depends on the attitude being measured.

l   Men are more likely to enjoy sex without intimacy, whereas women prefer sexual activities to be part of a psychologically intimate relationship (DeLamater, 1987; Whitley, 1988), although this difference has decreased over time (Oliver & Hyde, 1993).

Love and Lust

l   Suppose you were told about Phil and Nancy who have been dating for six months. Nancy is a psychology major and is not sure about her career plans, while Phil is undecided about his major but plans on going into business after he graduates.

l   Phil and Nancy spend  a lot of time together rollerblading and going to the movies. They both feel strongly attracted to each other and desire each other sexually.


l   As a matter of fact, Phil and Nancy have sex about three to four times a week. What would you answer to the following questions?

l   How much in love are they?

l   How committed?

l   Would you answer differently if they had not been sexually attracted to each other?



Attitudes about Homosexuality

l   Attitudes about homosexuality are more negative than attitudes about premarital sex.

l   In 1996 a survey by the National Opinion Research Center showed that 62% of adult Americans believed that “sexual relations between adults of the same sex” are always or almost always wrong. This is a decrease from the 81% of people who answered in the same way in 1973.


l   Some people have characterized American’s beliefs about homosexuality as homophobic (Fyfe, 1983).

l   More than 50% of Americans object to what they consider to be the “homosexual lifestyle” (Turque, 1992).

l   Gay and lesbian relationships are assumed to be dysfunctional and unhappy by many people (Testa, Kinder, & Ironson, 1987), however, research shows that homosexual relationships are not as different from heterosexual ones than most people might think (Peplau, Veniegas, & Campbell, 1996).



l   Although attitudes about homosexuality are often negative, it does appear that attitudes will continue to become more positive.

l   Recent changes such as high-visibility gay and lesbian characters on Television, the passage of a civil unions bill extending the many of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples aid in improving attitudes about homosexuality.

l   One study found that knowing a lesbian or gay person led to having more positive attitudes towards gay men (Herek & Glunt, 1993).

Cultural Differences in Sexual Attitudes

l   As surprising as it may be, Americans seem more conservative about sex when compared to people of other countries.

l   Compared to 23 other countries, the United States was characterized as a sexually conservative culture (Widmer, Treas, & Newcomb, 1998).

l   Historical, cultural, religious, and political factors likely play a role in why the US is more conservative than so many other countries.


l   Knowing about general trends in sexual behavior allows us to think about whether our own behavior is normal.

l   However, it is important to remind ourselves that there is enormous variability in people’s experiences and sexual behavior that is common is not necessarily more desirable or appropriate than sexual behavior that is less common.

Premarital Sex

l    The average age of first intercourse is about 16 years of age for males and 17 years of age for females, with blacks experiencing sex somewhat earlier than whites or Latinos (Day, 1992).

l    During the 1990s there was a decline in the rates of adolescent sex, with the number of adolescents who never had sex rising 11% from 1991 to 1997 (cited in Christopher & Sprecher, 2000).

l    Research suggests that adolescents decide not to engage in sex for a variety of reasons including,

l   Fear of pregnancy and STDs

l   Moral beliefs about virginity and abstinence

l   Not experiencing love with a partner


l   More women than men state these reasons for not engaging in intercourse, however, men tend to state insecurity and inadequacy (Sprecher & Regan, 1996).

l   Reasons adolescents and young adults give for engaging in sex include:

l   Wanting to express love or affection for a partner

l   Wanting to experience sexual pleasure

l   Giving in to peer pressure

l   Wanting to please their partner

Predictors of Premarital Sex

l   The most important factors that predict engaging in sex are a person’s attitudes and values.

l   Premarital sex is more likely among teenagers who view dating as important and express strong desires for a partner (Newcomb, Huba, & Bentler, 1986).

l   Research has shown that people whose parents had a lower socioeconomic status, who had more difficulties in school and who were more popular in school had an increased risk for becoming a parent outside of marriage.


l   Adolescents who engage in sex at an earlier age place greater emphasis on independence (Jessor, Costa, Jessor, & Donovan, 1983).

l   According to Newcomer & Udry (1987), family structure influences premarital sexual activity differently for boys and girls.

l   Boys become sexually active in response to parental loss after the breakup of the family

l   For girls, paternal absence relates to sexual activity.

Sex in Committed Relationships

l   How often do people in relationships have sex?

l   Sexual frequency depends on several factors.

l   Frequency varies depending on the status of the relationship. For example, unmarried couples who live together have sex about 3 times per week, on average, while married couples have sex about twice a week on the average (Call, Sprecher, & Schwartz, 1995; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994).



l    Age also plays a role in how often people engage in sex.

l    Older people tend to have sex less often than younger people do. This is likely the case because of physical changes associated with age as well as becoming more familiar with a partner and losing sexual interest (Call et al., 1995).

l    Sexual orientation also influences the frequency of sexual activity.

l    Gay men have sex more often than lesbian women or men and women who are married or cohabitating. Lesbians have sex less frequently than any other relationship group (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983).


l   In most countries, people have a negative view of someone in a committed relationship engaging in sex with someone other than his/her partner (Widmer et al., 1998).

l   So how common is infidelity?

l   Results from a large-scale survey reveal that 25% of married men and 15% of married women engaged in extramarital sex at least once during their marriage, and less than 4% of spouses said they had an extramarital affair within the last year (Laumann et al., 1994).


l   So what factors predict who is more likely to have sex with someone other than their relationship partner?

l   Gender--- men are more likely than women to engage in sexual infidelity and they are also more likely to accept nonmonogamy (Glass & Wright, 1985; Seal, Agostinelli, & Hannett, 1994; Thompson, 1984). Men are also more likely than women to have a greater number of outside sexual partners (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983).

l   Gay men have more outside sexual partners than lesbian women and more than married men and women as well.


l   Simpson and Gangestad (1991) have argued that some people endorse a set of beliefs that lead them to be more comfortable having nonmonogamous sexual experiences. The extent to which someone holds these beliefs is called his or her sociosexual orientation.

l   People who have a restrictive sociosexual orientation are typically willing to have sex only in the context of a committed and affectionate relationship. Those with an unrestrictive sociosexual orientation are less in need of committed and affectionate relationships in order to engage in sex.

Measuring Sociosexuality

l   Questions on the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI) include the following questions:

l   With how many different partners have you had sex (sexual intercourse) within the past year?

l   How often do you fantasize about having sex with someone other than your current partner?

l   Never, once every two or three months, once a month, once every two weeks, once a week, a few times a week, nearly every day, at least once a day.


l   According to the hypothesis about sociosexual orientation, we would expect the SOI to predict the likelihood that people will have sex outside their committed relationships.

l   Seal and colleagues (1994) confirmed this expectation by setting up a study in which students who had previously filled out a survey assessing their sociosexual orientation watched a video in which an attractive member of the opposite sex described him/herself. After viewing the tape, participants were told they could enter a drawing an go out on a free date with the person from the video if they won.


l   Then, researchers asked the participants to imagine that they had actually gone out on the date and had had a good time. Participants were then asked how willing they would be to engage in physically intimate behaviors, including sexual intercourse, with the date.

l   Results showed that 36% of those who were unrestrictive in their sociosexual orientation entered the drawing, whereas only 4% of those who were restrictive sociosexually entered the drawing to go out on the date.



l   Further, unrestrictive people were more likely than restrictive people to say they would be more willing to engage in physically intimate behaviors with their date.

l   Equity theory has also proven useful for predicting who is more likely to engage in nonmonogamous activity.

l   Equity theory emphasizes what we get out of a relationship (outcomes) and what we put into it (inputs). The theory also stresses how we pay attention to the exchanges between inputs and outcomes and assess how fair our relationship is.


l   Walster and colleagues (1978) used 2,000 replies from a larger survey of 62,000 people and looked at extramarital affairs in men and women.

l   Walster et al. asked how many extramarital affairs  people had and when had they had them. They found that answers to both questions were associated with feeling underbenefited (occurs when contributions exceed benefits) and having a greater number of extramarital affairs.  

Preventing Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

l   Because of the high frequency of casual sex among young adults, researchers have looked at the factors that may put people at risk for pregnancy and contracting STDs.

l   Condom use has been relatively low, whereas the frequency of casual sex is relatively high among young adults.

l   One study found that 78% of participants said they had engaged in a “hookup” or brief sexual encounter with a stranger or acquaintance at least once.


l   Researchers have found that many people do not use condoms because they have a negative attitude towards them such as finding them uncomfortable (Campbell et al., 1992; Catania et al., 1989; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1991).

l   Another reason why people do not use condoms when they should has to do with the mixture of alcohol and sex that is very common in most college campuses and bars. And research suggests that people are less likely to use a condom when they are drunk (Leigh & Stall, 1993).


l   Steele and colleagues (1985, 1990) have used the term “alcohol myopia” to describe a person’s decreased ability to think about and process all of the information available to them which is characteristic of young people when alcohol and sex are mixed.

l   Another factor that influences why people do not use condoms is the illusion of unique vulnerability, the belief that bad things happen to others but not to you (Lehman & Taylor, 1987; Perloff, 1987).


l   A person’s general attitude toward sex is yet another factor that contributes to the use and lack of use of condoms and contraceptives.


l   Negative reactions to sex such as guilt and anxiety are associated with less use of contraceptives (Andres, Gold, Berger, Kinch, & Gillett, 1983; Byrne & Fisher, 1983).


l   How do people feel about their sexual relationships?

l   When asked, more than half of men and women responded that they were “extremely physically satisfied with their sexual relationships” (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994). And the numbers were somewhat higher for married respondents, particularly men.

l   Other researchers have found that gay, lesbian, and cohabitating couples also experienced high levels of sexual satisfaction (Kurdek, 1991).

Sexual Frequency and Satisfaction

l   Sexual satisfaction is closely tied to sexual frequency (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983).

l   For example, in Blumstein and Schwartz’s survey showed that 89% of spouses who had sex three times a week or more reported they were satisfied with the quality of their sex life, whereas only 32% of spouses who had sex once a month or less said they were satisfied with the quality of their sex life.

l   The same pattern of results was found for cohabitating couples and gay and lesbian couples.


l   These findings do not allow us to conclude that having sex more frequently causes people to be more sexually satisfied.

l   It may be that people who are satisfied with their sex life choose to have sex more frequently. Or that people with a strong sex drive and who are sexually permissive in their attitudes toward sex are more likely to both have more frequent sex and be more sexually satisfied.

Sex and Relationship Satisfaction

l   Sexual satisfaction is strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction in married couples (Cupach & Comstock, 1990; Greely, 1991; Haavio-Mannila & Kontula, 1997; Kurdek, 1991; Lawrence & Byers, 1995) and among gay, lesbian, and cohabitating couples (Kurdek, 1991).

l   Other studies show a more complicated picture of the relationship between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction.


l   A close relationship between desired and actual frequency of sex was associated with greater marital satisfaction (Terman, Buttenweiser, Ferguson, Johnson, & Wilson, 1938).

l   Howard and Dawes (1976) reported that a combination of sex and arguments (frequency of sex minus frequency of arguments) predicted marital happiness, but both may have a high frequency. The “marital bank account.”

l   In general, when spouses enjoy a variety of sexual and nonsexual activities together, they tend to be more satisfied with their marriage.

Exchange Theories and Sexual Satisfaction

l   The Interpersonal Exchange Model of Sexual Satisfaction (IEMSS, Lawrence & Byers, 1995) emphasizes the role of social exchange variables like rewards, costs, and comparison levels and has been supported by research.

l   More sexual rewards, fewer costs, and having one’s expectations about sexual rewards and costs met are all likely to lead to sexual satisfaction (Lawrence & Byers, 1995; Byers, Demmons, & Lawrence, 1998).


l   As we might assume, equity theory predicts that a lack of a fair exchange in outcomes and inputs is associated with less sexual satisfaction (Walster, Walster, & Traupmann, 1978).

l     Rewards: degree of comfort with partner, feelings about self during and after sex, physical snsations from caressing and hugging, sexual interactions enhancing feelings of security about total relationship.

l     Sexual Costs: having sex when not in the mood, lack of spontaneity, dissatisfaction with the frequency of sexual activity and time spent.

l     Basic theme is mismatch between sexual desire and availability.

Characteristics of Good Sex

l   Each person has his/her needs met by a partner who respects the other’s specific sexual desires.

l   Having the proper balance of positive and negative interactions (sexual and nonsexual) in the relationship, so there are more positives then negatives.

l   Enjoying being with each other, in and out of bed.

Communicating Desire

l   Since sexual desire can be communicated nonverbally, for example by initiating a kiss, it may be the most common form of sexual communication (Metts, Sprecher, & Regan, 2000).

l   Young adults seem to use less direct forms of sexual communication when conveying sexual desire such as good grooming or dressing attractively.(Greer & Buss, 1994).


l   One reason why young people may not use direct verbal forms of communicating sexual desire is that they may not always know how they are feeling about their sexual desires.


l   O’Sullivan & Gaines (1998) found that college students were more likely to fake interest or reject their partners sexual advances when they were ambivalent about their sexual feelings.


l   Men are more likely to initiate sexual activity than women (Sprecher & McKinney, 1993) and this is true for married couples and cohabitating couples. Both men and women tend to communicate agreement to have sex indirectly. Women verbally, men nonverbally.

l   One difficulty that arises often is talking about specific sexual issues such as sexual dislikes. Mostly through fear of rejection.

l   In general, people are most comfortable talking about sexual issues when their partners do the same (Byers & Demmons, 1999).

Sexual Communicaton

l   Men and women tend to interpret sexual situations differently.

l   Men see other people particularly women as much more interested in sex than women do, and perceive behavior as having much more sexual meaning than women do.

l   Jim and Sarah’s story. Looking up at him, brushing hair aside, brushing against his arm.



l   Unfortunately, unwanted sexual experiences do occur.

l   While statistics vary from study to study, Cate & Lloyed (1992) concluded that “fully one half to three fourths of college women report experiencing some type of sexual aggression in dating relationships.”

l   In a meta-analysis of 120 studies, Spitzberg (1999) found that about 13% of women and 3% of men reported having been raped; 18% of women and 6% of men reported being victims of attempted rape; and 22% of women and 14% of men reported having been sexually assaulted.


l    There have been arguments about whether communication differences play a role in sexual violence.

l    It is more plausible to conclude that distortion of communication in the direction of one’s desires is more significant than gender differences in communication.

l    As long as we regard male sexual activity as a form of conquest, encourage women to “play” hard-to-get and feel embarrassed about talking to a sexual partner about our feelings, it will likely be difficult to disentangle problems of violence from problems of sexual communication and responsibility.