My friend Minerva recently forwarded me a paper from the Archives of Sexual Behavior that reported on the findings of a study that attempted to explore the relationship between sexual “want” and sexual “like.” What is, the researchers wanted to know, the correlation between a person’s wanting sex with their partner and how much they enjoy sex with their partner.
The paper isn’t freely available online, but the full citation is: “The Partner-Speciﬁc Sexual Liking and Sexual Wanting Scale: Psychometric Properties” by Tamar Krishnamurti and George Lowenstein, Archives of Sexual Behavior 41:2 (2012), 467-476. Abstract here.
According to the Krishnamurti and Lowenstein, there is actually an inverse correlation between wanting sex with one’s partner and enjoying sex with one’s partner. That’s right, you heard me: The more research subjects reported wanting sex with their partner, the less likely they were to enjoy having it.
I’d argue there could be some interesting, not necessarily crappy, reasons for this self-reported pattern — if you could actually prove you’d collected meaningful data that supported this hypothesis. But the thing is, when I went and looked at the study I couldn’t get passed the questions they’d asked. Because they seemed like a really superficial way to get at sexual want and sexual pleasure.
Questions asked about “Partner-specific sexual liking”:
“My partner is sexually very exciting.”
Does “exciting” really get at “someone whom I enjoy making love with”? Do all of us really want an “exciting” sex life? Sometimes maybe, but is it a good metric for overall sexual satisfaction?
“I lose track of time when I’m with my partner.”
Again — is this necessarily an indicator of sexual pleasure?
“My sexual fantasies feature my partner.”
This is a tricky one, but I feel like it’s really morally loaded. Judgy. We’re taught in our culture that to be a good partner, we should only fantasize about the person we’re with. But sexual fantasy is more complicated than that. It can be about self-pleasure, or purely physical sensation, or role-playing scenarios you’d never actually want to engage in with someone in actual life.
Questions asked about “Partner-specific sexual wanting”:
When you look at your primary sexual partner, how often does this
result in physical sexual arousal (e.g., an erection, increased heart rate, lubrication, etc.)?
There were variations of this question for sexual thoughts and physical touching as well as looking. So at least you’re getting at the experience of people who aren’t primarily visual. But. What this “wanting” metric fails to get at is the experience of people with responsive desire who might not become aroused or spontaneously “want” sexual activity unless they’re already engaged in some level of sexual intimacy with their partner.
“I get very turned on before sex with my partner.”
Again: this places a premium on spontaneous desire when, in fact, one might really enjoy sex but experience it more responsively: that is, not feel physically “turned on” before sexual activity begins.
“During sex I get distracted by other thoughts.”
Like with the questions about fantasy and about losing track of time I quoted above, this question implies that being distracted during sex is a poor outcome, that being distracted = “bad” sex. Who among us hasn’t been distracted while doing something we’re really into? Sexual or otherwise? Not to mention people who struggle with ADD or other physical or mental health issues that make sustained focus difficult for reasons other than lack of interest in one’s partner or the activity engaged in.
Here are all the questions asked (click on image to view full size):
I get that data-gathering is always an exercise in reducing human complexity to some sort of measurable set of responses. But I can’t help thinking “garbage in, garbage out” for so many of these studies about human sexual desire. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to break apart our assumptions about how want/desire and sexual pleasure work in order to get at an overall satisfaction quotient for a person’s sex life?
And then the vexed question this study was trying to ask: What’s the relationship between desire for something and satisfaction when you actually experience the thing? The study results suggest that you want the thing more the less satisfaction you have (or desire it less the more satisfied you are).
On the one hand this result seems counter-intuitive: If you enjoy something, aren’t you going seek it out more often? But I’d suggest that this finding isn’t actually too surprising. When we’re content with the sex we’re having, we probably don’t think as actively about it as a person who’s struggling with an unsatisfactory experience. We’re not cataloging every thought or feeling and considering its quality — we’re simply being. So my speculation about the results of this study, if they are, indeed, accurate? The people who are having the best sex are the most likely to low-ball their satisfaction rates and are less likely to be cataloging every time they have sexual thoughts about their significant other. To those folks, desire is synonymous with pleasure and all rolled into normality in such a way as to be unremarkable.
It’s just a theory.
But mostly? I really wish sex researchers would has ask more thoughtful questions.