ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

In 2012, Jessica Maxwell became interested in what she saw as a disparity between how sex is portrayed in the media and what the academic community has to say about it.

“I sort of noticed that… a lot of people sort of think that sex should happen effortlessly, whereas if you actually read all the sex research… it was all about, ‘You need to be motivated to make your partner happy’ or ‘You really need to devote a lot of time and attention to your sex life,’” she explained in an interview with The Varsity.

Maxwell, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at UTSG, hypothesizes that there may be two prevailing attitudes about sex: that it should be effortless with the right partner or that it takes work. She calls these attitudes “destiny” and “growth” respectively and set out to measure the relationship between possessing these attitudes and sexual satisfaction in a study.

Her findings were reported in an article titled “How Implicit Theories of Sexuality Shape Sexual and Relationship Well-Being” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on November 3. According to Maxwell, ‘implicit theories’ is an existing framework that has been applied to a number of different domains. “There’s also this sort of idea about things like intelligence. Do you think you need to work to be smarter or do you think it’s like your IQ’s… fixed?”

In her study, Maxwell applied the implicit theories framework to the question of sexual satisfaction, showing how “destiny” or “growth” attitudes towards sex may predict a person’s level of sexual satisfaction.

Her findings were conclusive: of the approximately 1,900 participants, those who possess “growth” beliefs about their sex lives reported higher levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction. Of the couples studied, Maxwell also found that the partners of people who possess “growth” beliefs are happier with their sex lives and relationships regardless of their own beliefs.

In other words, it seems to pay off to believe that sex takes work. What is less clear to Maxwell is why this is the case. In her view, more research needs to be done to fully answer this question. That said, she is encouraged by her preliminary findings, which suggest that “growth” believers are taking action to improve their sex lives.

“Not only did they believe they need to work on it, we have some evidence that they’re doing things. By that I mean more willing to sort of accommodate to their partner’s wishes,” says Maxwell. “Maybe if their partner wants to have sex in the morning more often, they’re going to try to do that and, just in general, seem to be more motivated to meet their partner’s needs.”

Some of the study’s results stood out as surprising to Maxwell. One was finding that women tended to believe in sexual “growth”, while conversely, men rated higher on sexual “destiny” beliefs. All participants were scored separately on both characteristics. “Men were more likely to endorse that ‘sex is effortless’ idea and then conversely we saw women be higher in sexual growth,” Maxwell said, adding that this may seem “somewhat counterintuitive” to some people.

The difference can be explained by evidence that sexual satisfaction is actually harder to come by for women than men. Nevertheless, Maxwell’s main finding — that sexual growth beliefs correlate with happier sex lives and relationships — apply equally to men and women.

Maxwell’s research is not conclusive in regards to whether or not sexual attitudes can be learned in order to improve one’s sex life, but she is optimistic about this as well.

She described one study in which she primed participants with fake articles promoting either a “growth” or “destiny” ideology. “And those magazine articles were able to at least temporarily induce people to hold those beliefs,” explains Maxwell, which supports her hypothesis. “I think that’s suggesting that we can move them around a little bit,” she concludes.

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