(Fem) Sex Is Selfish

Based on a previous study … that elicited … personal accounts of sexual motivations … Meston, a sexual psychophysiologist, and Buss, an evolutionary psychologist compiled a list of 237 distinct [sex] motivations … In researching the [2009] book [Why Women Have Sex] they asked over one thousand women to give a description of actual sexual encounters associated with any of these 237 reasons, mostly via online survey. These reasons are discussed in relation to the underlying motivations they point to and the likely evolutionary benefits they gave our ancestral mothers.(more)

The book Why Women Have Sex has many fascinating tidbits, and provoked many thoughts in me. For example, I noticed that the vast majority of the female sex motives discussed in the book are selfish, i.e., primarily intended to benefit oneself, as opposed to one’s partner. For example, even pity sex seems mainly selfish:

Here is how one woman described sex as a way of boosting her self-confidence:

I had sex with a couple of guys because I felt sorry for them. These guys were virgins and I felt bad that they had never had sex before so I had sex with them. I felt like I was doing them a big favor that no one else had over done. I felt power over them, like they were weaklings under me and I was in control. It boosted my confidence to be the teacher in the situation and made me feel more desirable.

The main altruistic sex motive is a part of “love”:

Of the more than two hundred reasons given for having sex, love [#5, to express my love, #9, I was in love] and emotional closeness [#12] were ranked in the top twelve for women. …

According to the well-known … “triangular theory of love,” love consists of the distinct components of intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy is the experienced of warmth toward another person that arises from feelings of closeness and connectedness. It involves the desire to give and receive emotional support and to share one’s innermost thoughts and experiences. … Here is how one woman in our study experienced this [intimacy] dimension of love:

I fell that sex can be one of many physical expressions of love, though sex is not always an expression of love. When I make love with my husband, it is an intimacy, trust, and exposure of myself that I share only with him … because I love him. Sex can be a way of fulfilling my husband’s needs (physical, emotional, psychological) that can’t be achieved any other way and [it] lets him know that I love him and vice versa. …

Passion … refers to intense romantic feelings and sexual desire for another person, … “a hot intense emotion” characterized by an intense longing for union with another. …

Commitment … requires decision-making. … The long-term decision involves a willingness to maintain the relationship through thick and thin. Many women talked about how commitment was an essential component of love for them. In fact, some said that they used having sex as a way to try to ensure commitment from a partner they felt loved them.

So, out of the of 237 female reasons for sex, love is in #5,9. “Please my partner” is #11 (its #10 for men). On love, only one of its three parts, intimacy, has an clearly altruistic component. Six desired effects of intimacy are mentioned: experiencing warmth, giving support, receiving support, sharing experiences, showing love, and being shown love. Of these, only one, giving support or meeting needs, seems clearly altruistic (though even this could be selfish). So one of the six desired effects of one of the three parts of love, mentioned twice in the top ten reasons for sex, seems altruistic. Direct clear altruism is #11. Not nothing, but not a lot either.

People often complain that economists assume selfishness too often, and point to intense close relationships as clear evidence of altruism. But if even in this case our motives seem overwhelmingly selfish, economists’s usual approximation looks pretty good.

FYI, here are the top 15 female sex reasons, from that original survey:

1. I was attracted to the person
2. I wanted to experience the physical pleasure
3. It feels good
4. I wanted to show my affection to the person
5. I wanted to express my love for the person
6. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release
7. I was ‘‘horny’’
8. It’s fun
9. I realized I was in love
10. I was ‘‘in the heat of the moment’’
11. I wanted to please my partner
12. I desired emotional closeness (i.e., intimacy)
13. I wanted the pure pleasure
14. I wanted to achieve an orgasm
15. It’s exciting, adventurous

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  • Albert Ling

    Ok but isn’t sex equally selfish from the male point of view?

    • http://lesswrong.com/user/Jayson_Virissimo Jayson Virissimo

      If so, then that would provide more confirmation of the self-interest assumption and thus strengthen Hanson’s argument.

      • http://www.google.com/ Cade

        It’s really great that people are sharing this infoartimon.

  • Anonymous2

    Albert Ling- That’s well known.

    Anyway, one flaw in this survey- how did they control for the unwilligness of large numbers of women to talk about their sex life?

  • mjgeddes

    Triangular theory is on the money -note it matches up with both cognitive science, human-bio (hormones) and near-far theory.

    Passion= Very Near (Endorphins, Terminal Value, Liking)
    Intimacy = Near (Testosterone,Optimization, Wanting)
    Commitment = Far (Oxytocin, Signals, Approving)

    And there is that triple-aspect ontological ‘hinge’ popping up yet again, in yet another domain! Remember, 3^3=27.

  • http://www.strangedoctrines.com Michael Drake

    If “doing [others] a big favor” is (like everything else) motivated in self-gratification, then the economists’ assumption has very little predictive power: I might just as likely charge a man a dime for a favor as simply treat my “power” over him as my exchange.

    • Michael Vassar

      This is an important point. We don’t want to define all behavior as self-interested. Frankly, given its role in reproduction, and the centrality of that to evolution, I’d be shocked if identity concepts didn’t routinely break down around sex.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Robin only gave the #10 reason for men. Here is their top 15 to compare with women:
    1. I was attracted to the person
    2. It feels good
    3. I wanted to experience the physical pleasure
    4. It’s fun
    5. I wanted to show my affection to the person
    6. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release
    7. I was ‘‘horny’’
    8. I wanted to express my love for the person
    9. I wanted to achieve an orgasm.
    10. I wanted to please my partner
    11. The person’s physical appearance turned me on
    12. I wanted the pure pleasure
    13. I was ‘‘in the heat of the moment’’
    14. I desired emotional closeness (i.e., intimacy)
    15. It’s exciting, adventurous

    • http://lesswrong.com/user/Jayson_Virissimo Jayson Virissimo

      So, Hanson understated his case?

  • Jack

    I don’t understand– people think women have sex for altruistic reasons? Why would anyone think that?

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Personal experience. If women have only had sex with you for altruistic reasons, then you think that all sex is that way.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I am shocked to hear that women are self-interested agents. This is an astonishing discovery that will revolutionize 19th century psychology.

    • Anonymous

      I think it has always been suspected.

    • dia

      I am shocked too. In Italy we still believe women have a higher moral status. So the feminists tell us (women are not as violent, selfish, self-centered, self-interested – etc. – as men are. “Yes they care.”). I’ll wait for the book to be published here and see what happens.
      dia
      Roma, Italy

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I always wonder about the value of such self-reported data like this, especially about motivation, and even more especially about sexual motivation. It is axiomatic (and I think Hanson would agree) that people are not always aware of their true motivations. They may disguise them from others and from their selves as well. Freud spun an entire psychology out of this, and he was not entirely off-base.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I do somewhat distrust self-described motivations. But in general we expect the bias to be toward down playing selfishness. So I find it striking that even self-descriptions are primarily selfish.

    • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

      In this case, I’m not sure that’s the direction it would go in. My assumption would be that hetero men would most like to think of women as having sex for sexually selfish reasons (for sexual pleasure), rather than for “altruistic” reasons that cash out to meretricious consideration for nonsexual male services/status/monetary support.

      I would expect women to overreport the selfishness of our sexual motivations, in other words, while underreporting selfishness in other domains.

      • lemmy caution

        that is a good point sister y.

  • Marcus

    Economists think they figured this out?

  • http://cryptome.org Peter

    I’m amazed boredom didn’ t make that list, either for men or women.

  • udolipixie

    Why is the title/topic female sex is selfish when the men’s reasons are pretty much the same? Shouldn’t it be sex is selfish?

    The altruistic reason is #10 for men & #11 for women it’s not that big of a difference.

    Plus women have #4 I wanted to show my affection the the person, #5 I wanted to express my love for the person, and #9 I realized I was in love.
    While men only have #5 I wanted to show my affection to the person & #8 I wanted to express my love to the person.
    Showing affection and expressing love through sex apparently is higher on the list for women than men. Emotional intimacy is also higher on the list for women than men considering it’s #12 for women and #14 for men.

    Men
    1. I was attracted to the person
    2. It feels good
    3. I wanted to experience the physical pleasure
    4. It’s fun
    5. I wanted to show my affection to the person
    6. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release
    7. I was ‘‘horny’’
    8. I wanted to express my love for the person
    9. I wanted to achieve an orgasm.
    10. I wanted to please my partner
    11. The person’s physical appearance turned me on
    12. I wanted the pure pleasure
    13. I was ‘‘in the heat of the moment’’
    14. I desired emotional closeness (i.e., intimacy)
    15. It’s exciting, adventurous

    Women
    1. I was attracted to the person
    2. I wanted to experience the physical pleasure
    3. It feels good
    4. I wanted to show my affection to the person
    5. I wanted to express my love for the person
    6. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release
    7. I was ‘‘horny’’
    8. It’s fun
    9. I realized I was in love
    10. I was ‘‘in the heat of the moment’’
    11. I wanted to please my partner
    12. I desired emotional closeness (i.e., intimacy)
    13. I wanted the pure pleasure
    14. I wanted to achieve an orgasm
    15. It’s exciting, adventurous

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  • ruralcounsel

    Here is what I believe…

    The biological reason women want ‘intimacy’ with men is to emotionally bind the male provider/defender to them for the extended periods of time necessary for child rearing. If the ‘intimacy’ is not good enough or the providing/defending is subpar, the women will seek provider replacement by forging new intimacy relationships. Women are notoriously willing to ‘trade up’.

    The reason men want ‘intimacy’ with women is to emotionally bind the female to them for the short period of time necessary to impregnate them. If the ‘intimacy’ is good enough and the male is at that point of their life that settling down makes sense, they may also be willing to commit for the longer time needed to rear children, and seek fertile females. Men are notoriously willing to ‘trade younger’.

    The ability of men to form attachments to their own children is the glue that holds families together. The intimacy between the father and mother is vulnerable and often weakens over time, and is subject to replacement. This is why women are instinctively driven to look for someone who appears will make a “good father”. This is why couples stay together “for the children”.

    Several modern developments have disrupted these stereotypes: birth control, goverment welfare, rule of law that provides a generically safer society for raising children without a dedicated male defender, paternity testing, child support orders. You can probably think of others.

  • MPS

    I just want to comment on your defensive posture of economics, vis-a-vis the primacy of selfishness. It seems to me you are getting hung up on an unimportant issue of semantics.

    People do things, which some people would call “altruistic” or “charitable,” about which I think your perspective is (and I would agree) that these motives can really be seen as selfish, because of psychological and social rewards.

    Now comes along the person who says the problem with economics is it only looks at selfish incentives. Well, either this person is ignorant about what is being taken into account in the economical analysis in question, or they are effectively saying they think the analysis fails to give enough weight to those incentives associated with subtle things like psychological and social rewards. That’s a proper economic criticism (though of course it might be factually incorrect), just not using the right words.