A new study from the University of Toronto has narrowed down our motivations for having sex into two broad categories: Avoidance and approach. In the approach category, an individual is focused on achieving something positive – for example, creating intimacy with their partner. Whereas with avoidance sex, the focus is on avoiding a negative outcome – for example, confrontation with your partner.
The researchers at the University of Toronto studied 108 heterosexual cohabiting couples. They asked each person to keep a daily diary and rate various motives for having sex on a scale from one to seven, with one having the least influence and seven having the greatest. Unsurprisingly, the study discovered that when both partners are intimate for “approach” reasons, they’re more satisfied physically and emotionally. To put it simply, sex is better when both people want to have sex – a concept that’s not exactly brain science.
Yet, despite this common sense logic, many of us have and still do engage in sex that’s motivated by avoidance. Whether it’s self-focused (ie. getting under one person to get over another) or partner focused (having sex with your partner in order to “keep the peace”), most of us have been a situation where we haven’t really been in the mood to have sex but have followed through with it anyways.
In my late teens to early twenties I was in a series of unhealthy relationships. When you’re young and in a situation where your consent isn’t respected on a consistent basis, it’s so easy to fall down the slippery slope of putting other people’s needs first and engaging in avoidance driven sex. When I found myself in my first “healthy” relationship as a young adult, I’d often have sex to please my partner, even when I wasn’t in the mood. If I’d decline his advances, he’d sulk, pout and insinuate that I was a “prude.” I wasn’t a prude; I just wanted to have sex on my own terms.
At first the avoidance sex seemed harmless (after all, I was pleasing my partner), however the more I neglected my own needs, the more it chipped away at my self-esteem. Looking back, this relationship was anything but healthy.
Because of this experience, I vowed years ago to never put myself in that kind of situation again. Consent and mutual pleasure is now a non-negotiable part of my all my relationships – as it should be for all of us.
When asked about the detrimental effects of avoidance driven sex, Iona Monk, a registered clinical counsellor and founder of Vancouver Couples Counselling, says “The types of issues that arise when people have sex for avoidance reasons is a building up of resentment, alienation from ourselves and our own needs, and a general lopsidedness in the relationship.” As she explains, when we continually prioritize the needs of partner over our own, this can lead to general distress in the relationship which will present itself as fighting or distancing from each other.
However, Monk reports that when it comes to the avoidance sex described in the University of Toronto study, she hasn’t noticed a similar pattern amongst the couples she works with. “I’d like to think that both women and men, once they enter their 40’s, honour their own needs and feelings more and don’t have sex for avoidant reasons. It’s really not necessary and is disrespectful of our own needs.” she says.
If the University of Toronto study can teach us anything, is that when it comes to having a satisfying sex life with our partner, communication and respect is key. As Monk explains, “Perhaps younger men and women still give in for this (avoidance) reason, but I’d like to think it shifts as we mature, learn to communicate better and know and accept our needs more.”