The good and not-so-good reasons to have sex

It's important to get in your head and think about your sexual motivation

(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

There are many, many reasons why people have sex, from expressing love to making babies to being really disappointed that Comedy Central is airing only reruns of The Daily Show. In fact, in 2007, the University of Texas found that there are 237 reasons behind people's decisions to do the deed.

However, researchers at the University of Toronto have helpfully narrowed down our motivations for sex into four main categories, writes Elizabeth Bernstein at the Wall Street Journal. First, there are partner-focused (how sex will make your partner feel) and self-focused (how sex will make you feel) motivations. Within each of those, there are avoidance (to avoid something negative) and approach (to achieve something positive) motivations.

So, if you want to have sex for purely selfish reasons of horniness, that would be categorized as a self-focused approach. But if you want to have sex to stop thinking about the ex you just saw making out in the corner of the bar, that's self-focused avoidance sex.

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The researchers at the University of Toronto studied 108 heterosexual cohabiting couples. They asked each person to keep a daily diary and rate various motives for having sex on a scale from one to seven, with one having the least influence and seven having the greatest.

The responses showed that both types of partner-focused motives had the greatest influence. Specifically, partner-focused approach had the most positive impact, and partner-focused avoidance had the most harmful.

It leads to the question: Does avoidance-motivated sex damage your relationship?

The answer is unclear because the motivations themselves aren't always clear. A prime example of partner-focused avoidance is to have sex to avoid disappointing a partner or causing conflict. A prime example of partner-focused approach is having sex to feel closer to your partner.

Well, what if you have sex to avoid disappointing a partner, and thus feel closer? Are you destroying the last sexual remnants of your emotionally tattered romantic connection?

Probably not, according to Amy Muise, the lead researcher in the study. It's important to be aware of your motivations for having sex, but there's no need to write up a pros and cons list on a legal pad before you and your partner decide whether to get it on.

"If your motive is seven for avoidance and one for approach, it's more harmful to engage in sex in that situation," she said in an interview with The Week. But, "barring 100 percent avoidance, it's probably okay to engage in avoidance sex."

Of course, there's the obvious problem that you're having sex out of a sense of guilt, obligation, or fear, which we all know makes for supremely satisfying sexual experiences all-around.

"A partner senses if sex is avoidance motivated, and it affects his or experience, too," says Muise. So, even though studies show sex is better than no sex for a relationship, it's not going to automatically make you and your partner happy.

But can you change your motivation? In a way, it's more difficult to change your desire rather than your behavior. After all, you might get yourself to go to the gym more, but that doesn't mean you're ever going to look forward to working out.

Based on anecdotal evidence, Muise says that "for some couples, just knowing their motivation and its impacts" improves things. And while her research hasn't yet attempted to manipulate or change motivators, she thinks that "if you try to focus on positive aspects of the sexual relationship at the fore of your mind it could change your motivation."

So, as long as you're psyching yourself up and not psyching yourself out for sex, you may start to have more positive motives. And if that doesn't work, there's always dinosaur erotica to spice things up.

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