People are sexual for all sorts of reasons, and far and away the primary reason people participate in sexual activity of any kind is for the purpose of pleasure. It’s odd that although humans are wired for pleasure (limbic brain: ancient, well defined, neurobiological reward and pleasure systems), cultures often underemphasize healthy, non-destructive pleasure as a reasonable health goal. Even scientists don’t study pleasure all that much.
Science has… neglected positive sensations and mind states like satisfaction and contentment, solely focusing upon pathogenetic processes. For example, a vast number of publications on depression and mental disorders exist, but only a few describe possible mechanisms underlying feelings of joy or bliss.
Why Sex for Pleasure is Important
Pleasurable experiences are healthy for the mind and body, and become the backbone of a resilient physical and mental defense. When individuals experience healthy pleasurable experiences, the pleasure reinforces those actions to happen again. Fortunately, sexual arousal enhances not only sexual health, but whole body health by increasing whole body blood flow and rebalancing the nurturance portion (parasympathetic) of the arousal system.
How to Use Pleasure
First, some definitions.
- Sex for pleasure is defined as participating in sexual activities purely for the purpose of experiencing pleasure.
- Pleasure is defined as a subjective feeling of happiness, enjoyment or satisfaction, resulting from an activity that is enjoyed.
- Sex for gain is defined as being sexually intimate for rewards instead of, or in addition to, sexual pleasure.
- Rewards are defined as receiving something wanted. A reward can either motivate the action preceding the reward to occur again (promotion), or motivate the avoidance of an action (aversion).
Behaviorally, people (or health care providers) who want to enhance healthy choices can use pleasure as a positively reinforcing part of their routines/behavior prescriptions. For example, someone who experiments with different kinds of sexual lubricants and chooses one which enhances pleasure, incidentally will be choosing healthier genital skin (through moisturizing and reducing friction on skin), have a lower rate of condom breakage, and build sensitive skin more resistant to tearing, thereby reducing infection transmission.
Someone who is trying to build any healthy program needs to lower the aversive experiences (things they really hate to do, or that cause unwanted pain), and build positive actions (fun to do), or that quickly build positive outcomes (program shows progress quickly). We sometimes call these “Win-Win” programs, since it’s a great program that is fun to do and good for you at the same time.
Sex for Gain
Why do people have unprotected, risky or dangerous sexual encounters? Not every sexual experience occurs for the purpose of pleasure, nor is particularly healthy. Some find themselves making very difficult choices between not-the-greatest options. It may take a bit of thinking to understand the whole dynamic, but having an open mind to the possibility of gains helps make some situations understandable.
Sex for Gain is defined as being sexually intimate for rewards/gains in addition to, or instead of, sexual pleasure. It can be very difficult to understand sexual behavior unless you consider all of the possible rewards, including hidden rewards.
Examples of sex for gain include (but are not limited to):
- reproduction (willing to be sexual for the primary purpose of becoming pregnant).
- exchange (willing to be sexual to exchange a favor for something else, such as a place to sleep, drugs, money or to avoid being assaulted).
It may sound odd to include reproduction here, but it clarifies how un-pleasurable some sexual routines become for some would-be parents. Rather than following tantalizing lures and whims, one times sexual activity to benefit reproductive capacity, rather than to maximize personal pleasure or intimacy.
The character, quality and sense of satisfaction may be vastly different when people participate in sexual activities for gain. It is also much more medically dangerous: people expose themselves to higher risks of infection, pregnancy and potential violence, because the gain itself may be so valuable.
In the end, when someone is being sexual under risky circumstances, it may help to consider what outcome (other than pleasure) is being sought.