Why Do Women Have Sex?

A new book uncovers our motivation, and, no, it's not just about love.

Cover of WHY WOMEN HAVE SEX (Times Books/October 2009)

Why do women have sex? It's an intriguing question once you get beyond the obvious reasons: to perpetuate the species and because it feels good. Two University of Texas researchers wanted to dig deeper to find out what specifically drives women to go to bed with their partners. They conducted an online survey of more than 1,000 women ages 18 to 87 and found, to their surprise, that women aren't all that different from men. The survey asked women if they have ever had sex for one of the 237 reasons identified by the researchers in a previous study. If their response was yes, they would then be prompted to describe a specific sexual experience. The researchers Cindy Meston and David Buss incorporated the findings into a new book, Why Women Have Sex. Here are excerpts from my interview with Meston. (You can listen to the full podcast below.)

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What are the biggest reasons women have sex?

The No. 1 reason is because they're attracted to their partner, followed by their seeking of physical gratification. Lower down on the list, the reasons were connected to love or emotional bonding. This sort of knocks down the stereotype that men have sex for pleasure while women have sex for love. Personally, for me—in my 17 years treating women who have sexual problems—it's reassuring to see that most of the women who participated in our survey are having sex for the pure physical pleasure of it. Who are the women who participated in your survey? Is it possible those who take the time to fill out an online survey are more likely to seek out sex?

You bring up a good point. There's a natural selection bias in any sex research in that those who are more sexually liberal are more likely to take part in a study. We hope we eliminated that by keeping the answers confidential so people would be as honest as possible, but it's still hard to know if this is a representative sample. We did get a wide range of ages of women responding and had respondents from several other countries besides the U.S. Did any of the motivations for sex surprise you?

While we expected a wide range of reasons, some specific stories really did surprise me. Many women said they had sex to bring them closer to God. And revenge sex was a big theme—getting back at partners who weren't faithful by having sex with someone else. Competition sex was also surprising: A bunch of friends go to a bar and see who can get the guy to have sex with them. Many young women wrote about having sex simply to get another notch on their belt, which we typically think of as something men do. Some women simply wanted to get rid of their virginity. Still other women engaged in "sympathy sex" because they felt sorry for their mate for any number of reasons, like he was too unattractive to get any dates. Women also admitted to having sex as an economic exchange to land a job or promotion or to get money or drugs. Some of the reasons made me laugh, and others were very sad. Did women ever express regrets for acting on their impulses, like having a one-night stand?

Some did, while others didn't. For instance, one woman who had sex out of loneliness said a one-night stand helped her feel better and more connected afterward. Another woman, though, said it made her feel even lonelier. It's hard to say what drives this remorse; it's probably a complex mix of religious attitudes and values and what a woman deems to be appropriate behavior. Self-esteem also plays a role in the choices she makes and how she feels afterward. Did you see any differences between men and women?

Yes. Based on our previous research and this new study, we see that men are still more likely to engage in uncommitted sex, like one-night stands, but that this gender gap has narrowed dramatically since the 1950s, when these [kind of] surveys were first conducted by [Alfred] Kinsey. More women still make the connection between love and sex. And overall, men are definitely more willing to have sex because of physical attraction, while women place less emphasis on physical attraction and more on a man's scent, personality, and breadwinning abilities. Were there reasons women said they didn't have sex?

We didn't really explore that; it's really a separate study. The number of reasons is so vast, from not having a willing partner to having psychological or medical problems. Here are ways to cope with painful sex and advice on coping with 5 common sexual problems.