It’s not hard to understand why so many people love sex: It’s one of life’s most intimate, vulnerable, and pleasurable experiences, both physically and psychically.
But in a world where we get so many mixed messages about sex—about what it’s supposed to be like, how often you’re supposed to do it, who you’re supposed to do it with, and what you should or shouldn’t be doing during it—it can be easy to find yourself in a less than healthy relationship with sex.
In a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers have differentiated between two distinct kinds of sexual passion: one that’s nourishing and one that’s not.
The two kinds of sexual passion.
Led by Canadian social psychologist Frederick L. Philippe, Ph.D., a group of researchers sought to reconceptualize the meaning of the term sexual passion.
Rather than simply describing the sexual desire two partners might feel toward each other, the researchers compared the concept of sexual passion to the kind of passion one might have for a specific activity like a sport or hobby. Just like you might have a passion for yoga or reading, for example, someone with sexual passion is someone who is passionate about sex—they love doing it, see having sex as meaningful or valuable, and go out of their way to invest time and energy into their sex lives. You don’t need to be in a relationship to have sexual passion; all it means is that you love, value, and invest in your sex life.
The researchers distinguished between two types of sexual passion: obsessive and harmonious.
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Obsessive sexual passion.
Obsessive sexual passion is when a person’s love for sex stems from culturally instilled messages that leave them feeling “pressured to make choices, adopt values, and behave according to contingencies they have learned,” Philippe and his team write. They add:
A person could feel compelled to dress and look according to what media promote, as a function of what is socially perceived as physically attractive, or to perform sexual intercourse as a function of commonly held beliefs (e.g., sexual intercourses should be vigorous and last long). These predetermined sexual attitudes, values, and behaviors are much less likely to reflect the person’s authentic values and self-aspects and are therefore experienced as alienating the self.
Consider men who feel like they must aggressively pursue sex from women to fit in with their peers, or women who feel pressured to be sexy or sexual to get validation from others, or people who view having a lot of sex as a status symbol. Consider, too, those who feel like they need to have lots of sex to keep their relationship alive or to keep their partner happy.
Through three different experiments involving studying the sex lives and sexual inclinations of over 700 people, researchers found obsessive sexual passion was associated with less sexual satisfaction, less connection with one’s partner, more jealous behavior, and more interest in sex with people outside one’s current relationship.
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Harmonious sexual passion.
When a person has harmonious sexual passion, on the other hand, their love for sex has nothing to do with what they believe they’re “supposed to” be doing and everything to do with their own authentic desires. It’s when people “make their own choice regarding sexuality and orient their own values and behaviors according to what they believe is important and enjoyable,” the researchers explain.
Harmonious sexual passion is typically what you see within sex-positive communities, where sexuality is viewed as a healthy part of one’s life and relationships rather than something that’s needed to fulfill a set of cultural expectations.
Whereas obsessive sexual passion seemed to center sexual interests independent of or above relational interests, harmonious sexual passion seemed to bring people closer to their partners and strengthened their relationships. In the study, these folks were less likely to be interested in alternative sexual partners, more likely to feel close with their romantic partners, and more likely to have better sex and happier relationships. When the researchers asked 280 adults to list as many words related to the word “sex” as they could think of in a minute, those with harmonious sexual passion were more likely to list words tied to sex’s relational aspects like intimate, caress, and intercourse. People with obsessive sexual passion tended to use more purely sexual words like penis, breasts, and vibrator.
This isn’t to say this type of sexual passion is all about being in a relationship—to the contrary, the study found one’s relationship status had nothing to do with whether they had obsessive or harmonious sexual passion. The point is simply that harmonious sexual passion folds nicely into one’s other life spheres; sex contributes to one’s holistic well-being rather than detracting from it.
Loving sex doesn’t necessarily mean you have a healthy relationship to sex.
The nature of your sexual passion matters because it signals how you’re relating to sex. Is sex something that you’re able to embrace and choose for yourself and something that’s well-integrated into the other parts of your life?
Both people with obsessive sexual passion and those with harmonious sexual passion reported having a ton of sexual engagement—they wanted a lot of sex very frequently, tended to actually have a lot of sex and tended to have a greater number of sex partners. But the outcomes of all that sex were very different.
“If you have OSP, this means that you can expect that your sexuality will be conflicting in your life and will bring negative consequences (intrusive sex thoughts, difficulties to engage in long-term relationships, dissolution of the relationship, unfaithfulness in expected monogamous relationships). If you have HSP, this means that your sexuality will nourish your life and your relationships,” Philippe tells health news.
If you’re wondering which one you have, Philippe says one clear way to tell is how authentic your sexual passion is to you.
“For instance, they will be sexually attracted by people who correspond to their own personal preferences rather than to those of social standards (e.g., being thin, tall, and physically fit), they will dress according to their own taste rather than according to socially prescribed norms, or they will engage in sexual activities according to what they personally consider pleasurable and enjoyable rather than according to social expectations,” he explains.
Sex can bring a lot of positive into people’s lives—a greater understanding of one’s self, a sense of agency and empowerment, a stronger relationship with one’s body, and a deeper connection with the people in your life (whether you have romantic feelings for them or not). At the same time, it’s OK to not want sex in your life sometimes. And it’s OK to enjoy sex in ways outside what we’re societally prescribed.
It’s worth spending some time reflecting on your relationship to sex, even if you’re someone who loves it. Is sex something you pursue because it adds value to your life or because it’s something you’ve been told you need? Do you pursue it in ways you’ve been told are the “right way” or “sexiest way” to do it, or in ways that feel truly authentic to you?
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