January 2, 2019


We all agree our biological reproduction reflex at least partially drives the sex urge. It’s why women are generally (and often unconsciously) more open to casual sex while they’re ovulating. And the men around can – just as unconsciously – sense it. Many women will point out – if they stop to think about it – that they get hit on more frequently during ‘high season’.

Scientists have long wondered whether the ability to last longer in bed deepens emotional bonds, or whether the two develop independently. A group of scientists have done four studies to explore the concept. Gurit E. Birnbaum, Moran Mizrahi, and Harry Reis agree that sexual attraction initially draws people together, but does it play a role in bonding?

In theory, it should, because feeling affectionate towards someone you’ve slept with makes you more likely to stick around and help them raise the baby you just made, even if the sex act itself was purely physical. The four studies were published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and they used different techniques to show how sexual attraction can prompt emotional bonding with the opposite sex.

Studying Synchronisation

This was measured by typical but subconscious measures of connection – things like frequent eye contact, seeking physical proximity, and mimicking each other’s physical cues (synchronisation). These are sometimes called non-verbal immediacy behaviours. In the psychological space, this behaviour indicates sexual/emotional interest and ‘readiness for (sexual) contact’. Subjects were paired with an attractive person of the opposite sex.

The idea was to create these immediacy measures between strangers in a non-sexual context. In Study 1, they lip-synched pre-recorded songs while in Study 2, they slow-danced. In both cases, they were videotaped to observe immediacy cues, then asked how much they desired their study partner. Both cases showed couples with more immediacy cues expressed higher levels of desire. Study 2 asked if they wanted to see each other again, and many said yes.

In Study 3 and 4, more non-sexual elements were introduced to see if sexual attraction affected the desire to offer help, show empathy, or respond non-sexually. The reasoning? Generous non-sexual gestures are often used to open the path to sexual activity, both with strangers and intimate partners. Study 3 participants were subliminally exposed to sexual and/or neutral stimuli. Some were subliminally given a sexual primer (like an attractive naked person), then asked to choose clothes, food items, or locations for a date.

Linking the Sexual and the Non-Sexual

This was repeated for a total of seven categories. After the exercise, they were seated next to an attractive stranger of the opposite and asked about things like playing hard to get. Their responses were videotaped and assessed for empathy and responsiveness. The subjects exposed to sexual primers rated more highly in both. Finally, Study 4 participants watched either an erotic (but not pornographic) video or a neutral one.

Then they were left in a room with an attractive stranger of the opposite sex, given test questions, and told they could consult the stranger. On the third question, the attractive stranger asked for help. Video recordings assessed how long the test subject waited before helping, and how much time and effort they invested in helping.

Results showed unconscious sexual priming makes us … nicer. So the conclusion is if strangers are sexually attracted to each other, they’re more likely to take helpful steps that encourage more interaction, and that interaction can foster relationships.

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