I almost didn’t bother writing this up since it’s one of those “studies” that tells us nothing we didn’t already know.
We can’t blame Science Daily for exaggerating the significance of the study: the Penn State writeup is headlined “Love Makes Sex Better for Most Women.” The correct headline would have been “Most Women *Say* Love Makes Sex Better.”
From Science Daily:
In a series of interviews, heterosexual women between the ages of 20 and 68 and from a range of backgrounds said that they believed love was necessary for maximum satisfaction in both sexual relationships and marriage. The benefits of being in love with a sexual partner are more than just emotional. Most of the women in the study said that love made sex physically more pleasurable.
“Women said that they connected love with sex and that love actually enhanced the physical experience of sex,” said Beth Montemurro, associate professor of sociology. Women who loved their sexual partners also said they felt less inhibited and more willing to explore their sexuality. “When women feel love, they may feel greater sexual agency because they not only trust their partners but because they feel that it is OK to have sex when love is present,” Montemurro said.
While 50 women of the 95 that were interviewed said that love was not necessary for sex, only 18 of the women unequivocally believed that love was unnecessary in a sexual relationship. Older women who were interviewed indicated that this connection between love, sex and marriage remained important throughout their lifetimes, not just in certain eras of their lives.
The connection between love and sex may show how women are socialized to see sex as an expression of love, Montemurro said. Despite decades of the women’s rights movement and an increased awareness of women’s sexual desire, the media continue to send a strong cultural message for women to connect sex and love and to look down on girls and women who have sex outside of committed relationships. “On one hand, the media may seem to show that casual sex is OK, but at the same time, movies and television, especially, tend to portray women who are having sex outside of relationships negatively,” said Montemurro.
Sociology has a bad reputation as a field because it tended to attract students wanting to coast on political correctness, and it has been rife with junk science and a lack of understanding of statistics since its heyday in the 1970s. That this poll of what women say they think could be presented seriously at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association tells us this poor scientific reputation is justified.
Without doing a study, we know that (as the professor points out) culturally women are “supposed” to not desire sex for its own sake, while men are freer to express such base desires. So naturally most women will protect their self-image and shade the truth for a human (especially female) interviewer. One might get closer to honesty with an online survey, but that also has the issues of the self-selecting sample.
I think that for most secure women and men that sex with a loved partner is a different kind of experience: more meaningful and deeper than casual encounters, yet often less exciting precisely because it is safe and somewhat routine. People in committed monogamous relationships want to believe that their sex is better (and it is almost certainly more frequent than single people get, at least in the first few years) and both men and women would say so out of emotional commitment to their choice. And this is entirely healthy.