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Linking Pleasure and Health

For decades, the public health community has proclaimed that sexual health is more than the absence of disease and violence. Sounds good, but the science to back up the claims hasn’t been there. Few high-quality, population-level research studies ventured to answer questions like, Are the ostensible positive aspects of sexual health, such as sexual pleasure, related to other aspects of human health and development? If they are related, are the associations the same across the population?

With a June 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Adena Galinsky, PhD ’09, and colleagues took a step toward answering these and other questions. Using data from 3,237 adults ages 18 to 26 who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the study linked sexual pleasure among young adults to healthy psychological and social development. “Public health policy documents have been saying for decades that sexual health is more than the absence of sexual negatives, and for the first time we’ve done a study that looks at how one kind of positive sexual health is distributed in the population and is associated with other kinds of well-being,” says Galinsky, who recently finished her doctorate in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health(PFRH), and is now doing postdoctoral research at the University of Chicago.

Previously, the national longitudinal study data had often been used to examine the links between sexual behaviors and attitudes and negative health consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases. “The research typically has had a problem focus, and we have ignored the fact that people engage in these behaviors because they have positive consequences,” says Freya L. Sonenstein, PhD, a PFRH professor and senior author of the study.

In this recent study, Galinsky and Sonenstein compared the respondents’ self-reports of sexual enjoyment with three positive psychological measures: empathy, autonomy and self-esteem. “For the women respondents, all three of these psychological measures turned out to correlate significantly with measures of sexual enjoyment,” says Galinsky.

For men as well as women, empathy was consistently associated with the types of sexual pleasure examined in the study. “It’s a mythbuster, in the sense that people tend to think of young men as ’natural predators‘ with little variation in their levels of sexual pleasure,” says Sonenstein, director of the Bloomberg School’s Center for Adolescent Health.

Previous qualitative work revealed the social pressures on young women to prioritize their partner’s wishes over their own and focus on their appearance rather than their own feelings and desires, says Galinsky. “In this context, a higher than average sense of autonomy and self-worth may enable young women to overcome the barriers they face in recognizing and effectively communicating their own sexual preferences and limits,” she says. An alternative take may also be true: Because the barriers are higher for women, achieving sexual enjoyment may boost their sense of autonomy and self-esteem in a way that it doesn’t for young men, says Galinsky.