Our culture is obsessed with sex. Everywhere you look is another article on how to have hot sex, harder erections, mind-bending orgasms and ejaculations that go on for days. What people seldom realize, though—and which the latest science backs up—is that this is exactly the problem.
There’s nothing wrong with desiring sex. I’m extremely sex-positive. Rather I believe it’s the obsessive focus on the pragmatics and mechanization of sex—in isolation from the rest of the person—that is making us actually less satisfied with sex. We aren’t integrating our sexual desires into the totality of our being, and our whole selves are suffering as a result.
In a series of clever studies, psychologists Frédérick L. Philippe and Robert J. Vallerand and their colleagues studied a concept they refer to as harmonious sexual passion: passion for sex that is well integrated and in harmony with other aspects of the self, creating minimal conflict with other areas of life. Harmonious integration of one’s sexual desires frees one up to fully engage in and enjoy sexual activity in an open, spontaneous and nondefensive manner. Items measuring harmonious sexual passion include “sex is in harmony with the other things that are part of me,” “sex is well integrated in my life” and “sex is in harmony with the other activities in my life.”
In contrast, those who have “obsessive sexual passion” have not integrated their sexuality well into the totality of their being. Their sexual desires remain detached from other areas of their self as well as other domains in life. This leads to more narrow goals, such as immediate sexual gratification (for example, orgasm) and to an urgent feeling of sex as a goal, compelling us to perform, instead of us being in control of our sexuality. Such behavior can significantly limit the full enjoyment of sex as well as life. Items measuring obsessive sexual passion include: “I have almost an obsessive feeling for sex,” “sex is the only thing that really turns me on” and “I have the impression that sex controls me.”
Across a number of studies, the researchers found that these two forms of sexual passion—obsessive and harmonious—differ remarkably in how sexual information is processed and how sexual activities are experienced. During sexual activities, obsessive sexual passion was related to negative emotions. And outside of sexual intercourse, it was related to intrusive thoughts about sex, conflict with other goals, attention to alternative partners and difficulty concentrating on a current goal when unconsciously viewing pictures of sexually attractive people.
Obsessive sexual passion was also related to the biased processing of information. Those scoring higher for this trait were more likely to perceive sexual intent in ambiguous social interactions, as well as to perceive sexuality in words that did not explicitly have a sexual connotation (for example, “nurse,” “heels,” “uniform”). Obsessive sexual passion was also related to violent actions under threat of romantic rejection, as well as greater dissolution of romantic relationships over time.
In contrast, harmonious sexual passion showed much greater integration with more loving aspects of the self, as well as other life domains. For instance, participants were asked to list as many words as they could in one minute related to the word “sex.” Those scoring higher in harmonious sexual passion were still sexually passionate beings: they listed quite a number of sexually related words. But they had a more balanced profile of purely sexual representations (for example, “penis,” “breasts,” “vibrator”) and sexual-relational representations (“intimate,” “caress,” “intercourse”). In fact, the magic number seemed to be a ratio of two: once the number of sexual words outweighed the number of sexual-relational words by a factor of two, there was a substantial increase in obsessive sexual passion and a marked decrease in harmonious sexual passion.
Those scoring high in harmonious sexual passion also showed greater control over their sexual drive. Whenever a sexual stimulus was subconsciously encountered (for example, a beautiful person), they were able to remain on task—which was to identify natural versus artificial objects. Harmonious sexual passion was also related to less sexually intrusive thoughts and was unrelated to attentiveness to alternative partners. This greater integration and absence of conflict led to higher relationship quality over time.
It is important to note that obsessive sexual passion is not the same thing as sexual compulsivity or even sex addiction (although some still debate whether sexual addiction actually exists). Even though obsessive sexual passion was correlated with negative emotions during sexual activity, it did not lead to greater feelings of distress. Also, both harmonious and obsessive sexual passion were related to loving and enjoying sex-related activities.
In fact, both harmonious and obsessive sexual passion were equally correlated with sexual desire. This is a really important finding because we have a tendency to stigmatize those with greater sociosexuality in our society. Those with a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation are more willing to engage in casual sex and report increased sexual desire and frequency of fantasizing about sex. These results suggest that sociosexuality itself is not the problem; rather it is how your sociosexuality is integrated into your identity and other areas of your life that matters.
Perhaps instead of fixating on our cultural obsession with sexual performance, we should shift more toward helping people accept and feel comfortable with their sexuality, embrace sexual passion and harness that passion in ways that bring joy, vitality and openness to all areas of their life.
For more on the distinction between harmonious and obsessive passion, see my Harvard Business Review article “Why Your Passion for Work Could Ruin Your Career.” For psychologist Frédérick L. Philippe’s “The Role of Episodic Memories in Current and Future Well-Being.” And for psychologist Jocelyn Bélanger’s work on passion and goal suppression, see his 2013 paper “When Passion Makes the Heart Grow Colder: The Role of Passion in Alternative Goal Suppression.”—S.B.K.