The mystery of why women have sex, and what they want out of it, has long been an elusive study—something even Sigmund Freud called “the great question.” Researchers have historically theorized that women’s motives lie in love and commitment, while newer studies have shown they do it for pleasure, just like men. But women are complicated creatures: their sexual health is determined as much by their emotions as by their physical state, which might help explain why as many as 50 percent of women have trouble getting aroused. Yet while scientists, in recent years, have labored over the “how” of female desire, no major study, until now, has actually asked women to describe why they have sex in the first place.
In their new book, Why Women Have Sex,University of Texas psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss aim to illuminate the complexities of women’s sexual motivations through women’s own words—an important step, they say, to better understanding how women can achieve sexual satisfaction. Based on five years of research and an online survey of 1,000 women, the authors consider motivation ranging from altruistic sex (“I felt sorry for the guy”) to revengeful sex (“I wanted to get back at my partner”) to palliative sex (“I had a migraine”). We hear from women who’ve had sex to boost their confidence, even if it’s with a man (or woman) they find repulsive, and from those who’ve used sex to barter for gifts or household chores (9 percent of us have used this form of economic sex, according to a University of Michigan study). We learn that 31 percent of women have had sex to evoke jealousy in the ones they love, while others have done it to protect themselves from getting hurt. Some, like the 25-year-old woman we described earlier, have had sex to boost their self-esteem, and 84 percent of women report they’ve done it simply to “keep the peace” at home. “I think the stereotype tends to be that women have sex for love and men have sex for pleasure,” says Meston, director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Lab at UT Austin. “But in reality, women’s sexual motivations are vastly complex.”