“Carnegie Mellon Researchers Find More Sex Doesn’t Lead to Increased Happiness.” Variations of this headline made the news a few days ago. It even got discussion time on Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. I had a hunch the headline was misleading—these things always are, especially when it comes to sex--but I wasn’t surprised the story was all over the Internet, because this “scientific discovery” played right into the sticky hands of our society’s erotophobia.
The Carnegie Mellon University website provides a more detailed—and perhaps unwittingly humorous—description of the study. With grant money from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Carnegie Mellon researchers recruited 64 married couples who were not having any particular difficulties in their sexual or emotional relationships. They “experimentally assigned” 32 of the couples to have sex twice as often as they usually did for a three-month period, while the control group of 32 continued to have sex whenever they desired it. The couples filled out surveys about their sex habits and happiness at the beginning and end of the study as well as shorter surveys each day.
At the end of the study, the couples who were asked to double their sexual activity were slightly less happy with their sex lives “in part because the increased frequency led to a decline in wanting for and enjoyment of sex.” This study was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.
Yes, let’s pause for a moment to roll our eyes and say, “Um, can the Pennsylvania Department of Health ask for its money back?”
Now, back when I was an undergraduate, I used to enjoy volunteering for studies run by the psychology department. They usually paid me a nominal fee, enough to buy a blend-in at the nearby ice cream parlor, but my real motivation was trying to figure out what the researchers were really testing. Even then, I suspected that what they told me was not the whole story, a suspicion confirmed by studies described in social psychology books, which, for better or worse, I read for fun. Unfortunately the Carnegie Mellon researchers might have been so distracted by the word “sex,” they themselves didn’t realize what they were really studying, which is what happens when you coerce people to engage in pleasurable activities rather than do so of their own volition. Is it any surprise that fun becomes a chore rather than a pleasure?
The study’s lead investigator, George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology (Economics? Well, as I always say, sex does sell but not for as much as you think), stated that the findings were a surprise and a disappointment because, “We were expecting that the people who had more sex would enjoy it a lot and would be happier, and it would be good for the relationship.”
Right, I know. I’m happier when I’m having “more” rather than “less” sex myself. While I am heartened to know that the original intention was sex-positive, I am still concerned that funds for a study of sexuality, which are very difficult to find in our country, were squandered with such obvious blindness, not to say simple-mindedness. Yet this study received funding and was published. On a positive note, the professor did develop a bit more insight into the flaws of his endeavor.
"Perhaps couples changed the story they told themselves about why they were having sex, from an activity voluntarily engaged in to one that was part of a research study. If we ran the study again, and could afford to do it, we would try to encourage subjects into initiating more sex in ways that put them in a sexy frame of mind, perhaps with babysitting, hotel rooms or Egyptian sheets, rather than directing them to do so.”
Egyptian sheets? I haven’t tried those yet, but I am intrigued! And does the babysitter just watch the kids or get involved? But do remember, Professor, to think through the Egyptian sheet factor and put in a control group who does it on ordinary sheets. Otherwise you could embarrass yourself again.
Because, of course, the more significant part of this discussion is that its “findings” about sexuality have been reported all over the Internet, as, for example, the results of another article in same issue of the journal, “Dry Promotions and Community Participation: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment in Brazilian Fishing Villages” was not.
Even the Carnegie Mellon website, quoted at the beginning of this post, is misleading, but in the popular press, the anti-sex message is dialed up.
“Having too much sex can make you unhappy, study finds”
Um, no, it finds that when you coerce people to have twice as much sex as they’d naturally choose to, they don’t describe themselves as “happier” in a survey.”
“Can Lots of Sex Actually Make You Unhappy?”
Please define “lots” for the audience, which is twice as much as you’d normally choose for three months, which should be more accurately described as “coerced sex.”
“Sex and happiness linked but not how you thought”
Actually, they’re linked in exactly the way I thought. Quality is a more important factor for satisfaction than quantity, but my experience also convinced me that having more satisfying sex does not make me less happy.
“Study Confirms Sex Does Not Make You Happier”
The study does not confirm that all sex makes you less happy, which is implied in this headline. Some kinds of sex in certain circumstances may indeed make you less happy, such as when you’re ordered to have more sex by a CMU researcher who clearly is not a very inspiring Dom, which the study does address in a limited way.
Quantity is definitely at issue as if our journalistic guardians want to assure us that “more” sex will be dangerous to our emotional well-being. If you think about it, “more” means desire for sex, as in “Gee, I wish I were having more sex than I am.” But the headlines assure us if we got what we desired, we’d be less happy, so the implied “scientific” warning is to stop wishing for sex and, uh, do more work or buy more stuff or go to church instead? The history of sexuality confirms that those in power have always been concerned with keeping sexual activity under control whether through law, religion or rhetoric--and, by the way, they always fail to accomplish this to their satisfaction. But, as we see, this noble and time-honored mission continues as of May 2015.
To be fair, if you actually read the articles, the study is described and the reader can draw her own conclusions about whether the feelings of couples who are forced to have sex impacts her personal sexual decisions and desires. Even the weirdest article, “Study Confirms Sex Does Not Make You Happier,” turns from anti-sex to a more supportive tone by the end. The articles themselves aren’t as negative, but how many people read beyond the catchy warning—“Don’t have sex, it makes you sad.”
On the contrary, the general conclusion in the texts is “the quality of sex is more important than the quantity.” Why didn’t that message make the headline?
The public is clearly hungry for more information about sex including thoughtful scientific studies, honest anecdotes, and advice that respects the importance of sexuality in our lives. Sadly, because of this desire for more knowledge about a taboo subject, such misleading and sensational headlines will continue to get the attention they do not deserve.
So, again fellow erotica writers, please keep on writing about the erotic experience with intelligence and insight. Your voices will indeed bring more happiness to the world!
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor