People have a basic drive to learn and develop and to see themselves and the world in new ways. That’s according to the psychologists Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron, who refer to this as our need for “self-expansion”. It follows from their theory that any chance to self-expand should be rewarding, and that if you can self-expand while doing things with your romantic partner then your relationship will benefit. Previous research has hinted that this is the case, finding that when couples engaged in self-expanding activities together – anything that felt new, exciting, interesting and/or challenging – their satisfaction with their relationship increased.
Now in a paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Amy Muise at York University and her colleagues have taken things further, laying out evidence that a major part of the reason that participating in self-expanding activities is good for relationships is that it boosts your sexual desire for your partner and increases the likelihood you will have rewarding sex – and, moreover, that this is particularly the case for people in long-term relationships.
Immediately after consensual and satisfactory sex, most people report feeling positive, content and psychologically close to their partner. But for some, it has the opposite effect, leaving them tearful and irritable for anything from a few minutes to a few hours. Commonly known as the “post-sex blues”, psychologists call it “post-coital dysphoria” (PCD) and until recently they had only studied it in women.
For example, in 2015, Robert D Schweitzer at the Queensland University of Technology led a study of 230 Australian female students, in which 46 per cent reported experiencing PCD at some point in their lives, and about 2 per cent said they experienced it regularly.
Now masters student Joel Maczkowiack and Schweitzer have published – in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy – the first ever study to show that some men suffer from PCD, too.
We all differ in how much empathic brain activity we experience in response to witnessing somebody else in pain. For instance, hospital physicians, who are regularly exposed to other people’s suffering, tend to show a dampened response – perhaps a pragmatic necessity to cope in the job, and might along the way explain the blasé gallows humour seen in the profession. If these differences are found within a job, perhaps they also occur within a lifestyle choice, such as one that involves playing with and consenting to painful activities, such as bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism, typically abbreviated to BDSM.
As they report in Neuropsychologia, Siyang Luo at Sun Yat-Sen University and Xiao Zhang at Jinan University explored this issue by first running a preliminary online study on a Chinese BDSM web forum, finding that across genders and BDSM roles, female submissives showed the clearest differences from controls in terms of their having a diminished response to other people’s pain and lower scores on aspects of an empathy questionnaire. (Female doms didn’t show a reliably different response to pain, and male BDSM practitioners barely differed from controls.)
Half of us have been unfaithful in our lifetime, and one in five people within their current relationship. As sexual infidelity is the primary cause of divorce and one of the hardest issues to address in couples therapy, identifying any useful defences could make a huge difference to people’s happiness. In a recent paper in Personal Relationships Brenda Lee and Lucia O’Sullivan from the University of New Brunswick investigated what strategies people in relationships use to reduce the chances they will cheat – so-called “monogomy maintainance strategies” – and looked into whether or not they are actually effective.
The phrase “sexual objectification” began popping up only 50 years ago, but it’s now ubiquitous, reflecting our concern that seeing someone sexually amounts to perceiving them as eye candy or a piece of meat. More recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have gathered evidence that sexualisation can literally lead us to perceive people less as whole humans and more as an assemblage of parts – the same way that the mind normally processes objects.
But the picture is complicated by new work published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from a team mainly drawn from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Their experiments on the impact of various forms of sexualisation on the perception of the body find that objectification does not necessarily follow.
Especially if you are in a long-term relationship your own sexual functioning is not a purely an individual matter but is bound up with your partner’s. Previous research has looked at this dynamic, finding for example that people are generally happier with their sex lives when they have the perception that they and their partner are sexually compatible. Surprisingly, however, before now the influence of your partner’s broader personality traits on your own sex life had not been studied.
A German study of nearly a thousand long-term couples (98 per cent of them heterosexual) is the first to look at this question. Among the stand-out findings is that, for women, having a more conscientious partner was associated with having better sexual functioning and a more satisfactory sex life.
Writing in The Journal of Sex Research, the researchers, led by Julia Velten at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, suggested that “men who are thorough and dutiful may feel the need to satisfy their partner sexually, which may in turn lead to better sexual function of their partners.”
What makes for a good life? Current psychological theory highlights the importance of relationships, belonging and having a sense of purpose. Gratitude, forgiveness, generosity and self-compassion often get a mention too. According to a team of psychologists at George Mason University, there is however a glaring omission. Sex.
“In theoretical models of well-being, sex is rarely discussed and in many seminal articles, ignored,” they write in their new paper published in Emotion.
Todd Kashdan and his colleagues have attempted to correct this oversight with a three-week diary study, in which they looked at the associations between sex frequency and quality and not only positive mood, but also sense of meaning in life. “If an individual gains sexual access to a romantic partner, this should raise momentary affect … and increase one’s sense of self-worth or meaning in life,” they predicted.
Is sexting a good thing, because it’s sexually liberating, or a bad thing, because it’s objectifying? Separate research groups have put forward both arguments. But according to a new study of college students in Hong Kong, it’s both.
It’s estimated that roughly half of US college students (on which most research in this area has been done) send nude or sexually provocative images by phone or the internet. In the new study, reported in the Journal of Sex Research, the proportion was lower (13.6 per cent), perhaps because Chinese culture has a lower level of sexual permissiveness, but sexting was still relatively common, with almost one in five men and one in ten women saying they do it.
Scent plays an often under-appreciated role in sexual attraction, helping to account for why visual attractiveness alone can’t explain just how physically attractive a person is perceived to be. But what role does our ability to smell our partners – or potential partners – play in actual experience?
We know from past research that men born without the ability to smell tend to have fewer sexual partners. And about half of people who lose their sense of smell, through infection or injury, report negative impacts on their sexual behaviour. However, this could be an indirect effect – an inability to smell is often also associated with depression or social insecurity, which can affect aspects of sexuality – and such studies do not tell us whether sense of smell is related to sexual experience among healthy people. Now, in a new paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Johanna Bendas at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, and her fellow researchers report evidence from healthy, young adults showing precisely that.
In 1914, the psychologist Leta Hollingworth’s experiments punctured holes in the prevailing idea that menstruating affects women’s intellect. But a century on, the ovulation cycle continues to interest psychologists, who today focus on how it affects sexual behaviour. A popular evolutionary psychology theory states that during fertile periods, women become more interested in men who use dominant masculine behaviour, as this signals they are likely to provide good genes for any offspring. A University of Goettingen team have now conducted the largest ever test of this idea, published as a pre-print at PsyArxiv.