California State University, Northridge

Human Sexual Motivation

by Kelly M. Johnson
(spring 1997)


Human sexual motivation is an unusual motivation. In lower animals we speak about sexual motivation as a "drive." That is, we state that some internal, innate force pushes the animal to engage in reproductive behavior. Humans don't simply give in to an internal push towards sexual behavior. Instead, human motivation to engage in sexual behavior is due to a complex relationship among several factors.

Most theorists refer to motivation as an inferred need, desire or impulse which initiates, directs and sustains behavior (e.g., Coon, 1997; Wood & Wood, 1996). One group of psychologists calls motivation a factor which explains the relations between stimuli and behavior (Bernstein, Clarke-Stewart, Roy, & Wickens, 1997). By combining these two definitions and applying them to human sexual behavior we could say that sexual motivation is an inferred, internal state influenced by several factors which determines engagement in sexual activity.

Collecting Data on Human Sexuality

Problems with data - Before discussing the elements of sexual behavior, it is important to understand the methods of collecting data that are involved in studies on human sexual behavior. Due to the private nature of the subject matter, most research is performed using surveys, self-reports and volunteers. Self-reports and surveys can be riddled with errors. For example, individuals make errors either intentionally, to give socially-acceptable responses, or accidentally, by forgetting, or even unintentionally because what they think motivates their behavior doesn't (see, e.g., Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). Finally, volunteers in sex studies are not typically subjects from which one can generalize. Take, for example, the question, "how often do you masturbate?" Volunteers who are willing to answer questions like this are probably more outgoing than the general population. Another important fact to keep in mind is that most studies of sexual behavior are correlational. Studies which show behaviors differentially produced by men and women, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, or members of different nations, are only descriptive since they cannot control for all potential variables. In other words, it is rare that we can assume causation from any of the variables examined in studies of human sexual behavior.

Two landmark studies - With the above information in mind, it is important to introduce two early sources of data on sexual attitudes and behavior. One primary source of self-reported data which has greatly influenced the field of human sexual behavior comes from the Kinsey studies (Kinsey, Pomeroy & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953). These reports were highly influential due to the nature of the questions asked and the large number (several thousand) of subjects who were polled. Kinsey's studies sought to identify, among other facts, what sexual behaviors people engaged in, what age they were when they began engaging in them, and how often they were currently engaging in them. They also indicated that women and men were not very different from each other in terms of sexual physiology. This information raised a furor in the conservative decade of the 1950s (Wade & Tavris, 1996). However, the Kinsey studies also stated that sexual differences were due to women's lesser sexual capacity. Herein lies the error in descriptive studies that are used to imply causation. Kinsey and associates completely disregarded the effects of culture and learning on their subjects' behavior.

Another landmark study, due to the methodology used, involved actual physiological measurement of sexual responses in male and female volunteers (Masters & Johnson, 1966). This study dispelled the myth that women's sexual response to intercourse was vastly different from men's and indeed showed that both sexes had very similar physiological responses. Their results would indicate that differential subjective responses to sexual intercourse between the sexes were indeed more likely associated with culture and learning.

The data collected in these studies are now rather outdated. Furthermore, critics of the studies state the information is not generalizable since the participants were primarily white, middle-class volunteers (Bernstein, et al., 1997; Wood & Wood, 1996). It was with this information in mind that two recent studies were conducted, one in the United States and one in Great Britain, which gathered data from non-volunteers using extensive interviews (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Wellings, Field, Johnson, & Wadsworth, 1994). These studies were designed to include a representative sample and also allow participants to give in-depth, and anonymous answers (due to the sensitive nature of some of the questions) (Laumann, et al., 1994; Wellings, et al., 1994). Laumann and his associates found a more conservative pattern of sexual behavior than did the Kinsey studies indicating that volunteers are not, in fact, representative of the general population (Bernstein, et al., 1997).

In summary of the method of data collection, there are difficulties associated with collection of data from volunteers and generalization is limited. Superior studies should attempt to choose broader samples and provide participants an opportunity to produce honest, confidential answers. Further, those who analyze studies of human sexual motivation need to beware of drawing causal conclusions where none are warranted.

Factors in Human Sexual Motivation

It is common to try to organize various psychological topics by placing the factors involved into environmental and physiological categories. For example, you would place hormones, a known component of sexual motivation, into the physiological category. But where would you place something like desire for physical pleasure, a frequently cited element in sexual motivation (Abramson & Pinkerton, 1995; Cofer, 1972; Hatfield & Rapson, 1993)? Physical pleasure has both a physiological component (the physical sensations associated with touch) and a subjective psychological component. Where does something subjective like pleasure fit in our breakdown into physiological and environmental components? Pleasure is an emotion (Cofer, 1972), which, according to the Schacter-Singer theory, is a subjective feeling based upon physiological arousal and interpretations of the stimuli that are linked to the arousal (Cornelius, 1996). Thus emotions are both physiologically- and cognitively-based. This indicates that another category exists into which we might place sexual motivators, but to state this would be to miss the larger issue. The larger issue is that pleasure is influenced by both our cognitions and our physiological functioning. As a factor involved in sexual motivation, it is not unusual to be associated with motivation and to simultaneously be associated with other variables that are themselves identified as related to sexual motivation and which may or may not belong to the same category. Thus, identifying categories and then placing the elements of sexual motivation into discrete categories is a difficult, if not impossible task. Rather than attempting to do so, the current author will identify the variables that have been linked to sexual motivation and identify, where possible, any mediating variables.

Physiological Correlates - An analysis of human sexual motivation couldn't proceed without first discussing physiological factors, in particular, hormones. The influence of hormones in sexual behavior is well-supported by research. Both men and women produce estrogens, progestins and androgens, though women produce far more estrogens and progestin and men more androgens (Hokanson, 1969; Leger, 1992). In lower species, hormone levels are almost directly correlated with sexual behavior, however, as one moves up the phylogenetic scale, other elements become involved (Fisher, 1993; Hokanson, 1969). In humans, hormones are also related to sexual desire, but are not the entire story.

In males, a minimum level of testosterone is necessary to maintain normal sexual motivation in males (Leger, 1992). If males' testosterone levels fall below the threshold, sexual motivation is greatly reduced. However, once the threshold level is reached, it no longer predicts sexual behavior. Women's studies also show correlations between hormones and sexual desire (Leger, 1992; Sherwin & Gelfan, 1987; Sherwin, Gelfan, & Brender, 1985), however, the results are inconsistent (Leger, 1992). Since neither increases nor decreases in hormones in either males or females are perfectly correlated with sexual desire, it stands to reason that there must be other factors involved. As Hokanson (1969) concludes, hormones serve the primary purpose of readying the individual for action, but other factors determine whether the individual actually engages in sexual activity.

Another physiological factor in sexual motivation may well be odor and sense of smell. Of all the elements researched, odor and sense of smell have received the least attention, probably because, as Kohl and Francoeur (1995) state, their influence on sexual behavior is difficult to ascertain. However, body odor (i.e., airborne hormones) definitely influences our behaviors. In their review of numerous studies such as synchronization of menstrual cycles of women who live together, and the influence of hormone-scented masks on individuals' ratings of others, Kohl and Francoeur (1995) state that odor must be involved in our sexual behaviors also. Helen Fisher (1993) also agrees that odors may influence sexual behavior and cites that some men in Greece swear by body-odor scented handkerchiefs which they use to lure women into relationships.

Sexual Orientation - Our desire to engage in sexual behavior with someone is also influenced by sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to the direction of an individual's sexual attraction (Wood, et al., 1996). Most individuals are heterosexual (Laumann, 1994; Wellings, et al., 1994) which means they are primarily attracted to the opposite sex. Homosexuals are individuals who are attracted to the same sex and bisexuals are attracted to both sexes.

Why are individuals attracted to one sex rather than another? LeVay (1995) believes that most researchers of the topic agree it is a combination of multiple factors including genetic makeup, hormones and social experiences. He further believes that newer studies (e.g., Bailey & Pillard, 1991; Bailey, Pillard, Neale, & Agyei, 1993) indicate that genes are perhaps more influential than the other factors. Studies indicate that the percentage of individuals who call themselves homosexual is quite small, ranging from about .5% to 2.8% (Laumann, 1994; Wellings, et al., 1994) . This estimate is significantly lower than the rates given in the problematic Kinsey Reports (1948; 1953).

In his review of several studies on the prevalence of homosexuality, LeVay (1995) states that it is best to keep an open mind towards reviewing new evidence since changing attitudes and beliefs appear to be linked to self-stated homosexuality. What he was referring to was the indication that individuals are more likely to express their gay behavior within their own culture as that culture becomes more accepting of homosexuality. Thus it is apparent that culture influences the expression of one's sexual orientation which in turn influences sexual motivation.

Pleasure - As mentioned earlier, pursuit of erotic pleasure is a primary reason to engage in sexual behavior (Abramson et al., 1995; Hatfield et al., 1993). Kinsey and colleagues (1948; 1953) found that children between the ages of 2 and 5 years of age spontaneously touch their genitals. At this age, one could not argue that this sexual behavior is learned or designed to contribute to reproduction. Abramson and Pinkerton (1995) point out that the pleasure of sexual behavior is physiologically and psychologically-based and that the sex organs do not exist merely to guarantee reproductive behavior. As an example, they cite the female orgasm, uncommon during vaginal penetration, but very common by more direct means of clitoral stimulation. In other words, sexual pleasure does not occur merely to ensure procreation. We engage in sexual behavior because it is enjoyable. However, as will be reviewed later, what is considered pleasurable, may well be influenced by one's interpretation of the stimuli.

Cognitions - How a stimulus is interpreted influences how individuals respond to that stimulus. Zellman and Goodchild (1983) surveyed 400 teenagers and found that the behaviors girls felt conveyed romantic interest were the same actions boys considered invitations to sex. Since societies create very different gender roles for men and women, differences in interpretation of the same data are bound to occur (Wade, et al., 1996). Wade's comments indicate that culture influences sexual behaviors, not only through performance of behaviors that are considered appropriate, but also through interpretation of those behaviors.

Cognitions and arousal - Based upon the results of surveys such as the Kinsey studies (1948; 1953), men have been considered to be more sexually responsive than women. Early studies comparing men and women's subjective responses to erotic films supported that theory. However, when studies were conducted comparing male and female physiological responses to male-produced, male-intended erotic films, researchers found that men and women actually experienced the same physiological arousal (Laan, Everaerd, Van Bellen, & Hanewald; 1994). When participants were asked to express their feelings about the stimuli, men reported sexual arousal and positive affect, yet women reported disgust and lack of arousal. In other words, both men and women experienced the same physiological arousal but different subjective arousal. When women viewed an erotic film produced by women for women, the female participants showed the same physiologic arousal as they did to male-produced films, but reported significantly greater sexual arousal, interest and positive affect. As interpreted by the researchers, the difference was due to how women interpreted the content of the films. Essentially, this study indicated that interpretation of the stimuli is of great importance in subjective feelings of sexual arousal. Cognitions affect sexual arousal in another fashion. According to Kalat (1996), inhibition of arousal can occur in individuals who believe that sex is shameful. These individuals experience sexual arousal, but have difficulties achieving sexual orgasm because of their thoughts.

Palace and Gorzalka (1992) studied sexually functional and dysfunctional women and found that cognitions and physiological arousal were simultaneously important in sexual arousal. They hypothesized that cognitions and physiological arousal comprise a feedback loop to determine overall sexual arousal. These many studies indicate that the thoughts individuals have regarding various stimuli impact individuals sexual motivation through influencing their arousal or their interpretations of behavior.

Attraction - Numerous elements have been identified as playing a role in attraction. For example, attraction is a function of proximity (how frequently you cross paths with someone), familiarity and similarity (e.g. in looks, or attitudes) (Kalat, 1996). This has been supported both with studies of attraction to friends and to romantic partners.

Playing hard-to-get also contributes to human's attraction to one another (Hatfield, Walster, Piliavin & Schmidt, 1988). Apparently individuals make attributions about potential significant others based upon how quickly that person returns a show of interest. Those who are easily attained are less attractive than those who are more difficult too attain due to the traits the relationship-seeker attributes to her. For example, relationship seekers fear that easy-to-get women might display inappropriate behaviors in public. However, a hard-to-get woman who indicates interest in the relationship-seeker has positive traits attributed to her such as warmth and friendliness.

Another overwhelmingly important element in attraction is physical attractiveness. As stated previously, research between attitudes and behaviors are not always consistent. Research on what individuals find attractive in potential dates provides further evidence for this inconsistency in human sexual behavior. Although subjects stated that physical attractiveness was one of the least important elements in their attraction to someone else, in actual experiments using blind dates, the only factor which predicted whether subjects desired a second date with the same person was the attractiveness of the blind date (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). This was true for both male and female participants of the study. In a study on physical attractiveness and relationship length, the factor which best predicted whether couples would remain together nine months after they began dating was the similarity in their physical attractiveness (White, 1980). This "matching" phenomenon in which people tend to select mates that match them in terms of physical attractiveness, has been replicated and expanded upon with consistent results (Feingold, 1988). It might seem that we learn to appreciate beauty from the culture that we are born into, yet studies of pre-school children indicate that they too, prefer attractive classmates and also make attributions based on classmates' physical characteristics (Dion & Berscheid, 1971).

Attraction to others is yet another element of sexual motivation that has its roots in both nature and nurture -- it is obviously innate to seek out attractive others, yet we still lean towards mates who are more similar to us, an apparent influence of culture and learning in addition to an inherited predisposition.

Learning - Learning is, of course, highly influential in sexual motivation. We copy the behaviors of those we respect and admire. We learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded (and sexual behavior is rewarding for most) and we learn to discontinue behaviors that have negative outcomes.

Conditioning is believed to influence sexual motivation. Certain stimuli may increase sexual arousal. For example, one might become sexually aroused by candlelight due to the learned association with sexual pre-encounters such as a romantic, candlelight dinner. It has also been proposed that conditioning accounts for sexually dysfunctional behaviors and sexual deviance (O'Donohue & Plaud, 1994). For example, a pedophile (person sexually aroused by children) might have been accidentally sexually aroused in the presence of a child. Principles of conditioning indicate he would seek this same combination of factors in the future in order to achieve the same pleasurable circumstances again. In her study of sexual motivators, Barbara Leigh (1989) states that fear of rejection, a learned component, is indeed the reason most often given by single men for not engaging in sex.

Matching theory (Carli, Ganley, & Pierce-Otay, 1991), which states that individuals within couples are frequently very similar in attractiveness ratings, is easily understood using the principles of conditioning. For example, an average-looking man who is rebuffed whenever he approaches beautiful females should reduce his attempts to interact with beautiful women. Similarly, he should rebuff less-attractive women if he could interact with more attractive women. Who he ultimately couples with should be very similar in looks due to the conditioning of each person's partner-choosing behaviors.

Conditioning as a theory to explain sexual deviance and dysfunction is not without its critics. O'Donohue and Plaud (1994) examined several studies which used behavioral and aversion therapy to change sexual behaviors. Due to methodological problems in the studies they examined, they believe that conditioning plays a much smaller role in sexual motivation than previously believed. Thus conditioning may play some role in the sexual motivation, but how much of a role it plays is not clear.

Culture - As mentioned throughout this essay, culture determines what behaviors are gender appropriate, what behaviors may or may not be performed in public, and what behaviors are considered sexually arousing. Yet culture and learning are inextricably tied together. An individual could not acquire his or her culture's norms without learning taking place. Conversely, there is very little one could learn which is not influenced by culture. For example, when we model the behaviors of individuals from our own society, we are copying behaviors that are more than likely already societally-influenced. If we view behaviors performed by individuals from another culture, we do so through lenses already colored by our society's influence. Hence any learning we might acquire from a culturally-different person is mediated by our own culture first.

Attitudes and Culture - Attitudes are defined as relatively stable evaluations of a person, object, situation or issue (Wood et al., 1996). Studies have shown that behaviors normally considered proper in one culture, may be improper or unarousing in another. In other words, attitudes towards sexual behaviors are culturally learned. For example, some cultures find kissing repulsive (Tiefer, 1995) while other cultures insist on same-gender sex as a rite of passage into adulthood (Herdt, 1984).

It is still noted, even in newer surveys in the United States (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994), that men and women have different attitudes toward sexual behaviors. For example, men are more interested in a variety of sexual behaviors, such as group sex, than are women. These divergences are undoubtedly, as mentioned earlier, a function of the gender roles each society impresses upon its members. A comparison of Swedish and American college students sought to examine if indeed the difference in men's and women's attitudes could be definitively tied to culture, rather than inherent gender differences (Weinberg, Lottes, Shaver, 1995). Specifically, it was believed that men and women in Sweden would have more convergent and relaxed attitudes toward sexual behaviors than the American participants. Sweden is generally known to have more relaxed sexual standards. It is believed that this is due, in part, to several years of mandatory sex education and the relatively equal power that women have in society. The study indeed showed that Swedish men and women had very similar attitudes towards sexual behaviors. Americans, as expected, had very different attitudes about what constituted appropriate sexual behaviors. While the current author cautioned earlier against drawing causal conclusions from a descriptive study such as this, the information further indicates that culture is associated with differences in sexual attitudes.

The influence of learning on sexual motivation is quite profound. Attraction, cognitions, and sexual orientation, variables mentioned previously, are also influenced by learning. Thus a key component which determines the level of our sexual motivation is learning.


In conclusion, sexual motivation is influenced by complex relationships among numerous factors including hormones, cognitions, learning and culture. Because these variables are also associated with one another, in addition to sexual motivation, it is difficult to place them in discrete categories. Finally, the inability to clearly isolate the many variables involved in human sexual motivation ensures that this topic will continue to fascinate researchers for a very long time.

Web Resources