From Nerve Magazine, this article reviews a new study from the Journal of Sex Research on the nature of sexual satisfaction and whether or not any of are actually feeling satisfied. Here is an important, if flippant, quote from the beginning of the article:
What, exactly, is sexual satisfaction? (x thrusts? y more orgasms? z times more humpage?) How do we know when we’ve reached the apex of satisfaction, and more importantly, will there be a rain of colorful confetti on our heads when we get there?Indeed.
The answer is, as with many sexy things, deeply subjective.
As one might expect, some respondents defined satisfaction in terms of their own experience ("personal sexual well-being"), while others described satisfaction as more about the interplay between the two people involved ("dyadic processes," "what happens between two people").
It's worth noting that this study was conducted in Portugal, with 449 women and 311 men, and a mean participant age of 36.05 years (SD = 8.34, age range: 20 to 69). Are Portuguese more romantic (on average) than Anglo cultures? The sample was highly educated (574 participants [75.4%] possessed at least an undergraduate degree and 81 [10%] were current undergraduate college students - the remaining participants [14.6%] had fewer than 12 years of education), so does that skew the results one way more than an another?
I would like to know what the breakdown was for male and female subjects in relation to the two orientations they identified. It seems strange that they did not include that information, or if there was a difference between the married couples and unmarried couples, or if the young people responded differently than the other people.
Still, it's interesting research.
A new survey finds what we actually mean when we talk about being sexually satisfied.
BY KATE HAKALA
October 2, 2013
Sexual satisfaction has long been thought to be a barometer for your overall relationship. But we’re in a constant state of wanting an unquantifiable amount more of it. You’re hit with about fifty-quadrillion ads a day boasting “10 Ways To Get More Sexual Satisfaction” or “5 Secrets of a Sexually Satisfied Man/Woman/Whatever”. That’s all well and good, except for one tiny glitch: Um, what, exactly, is sexual satisfaction? (x thrusts? y more orgasms? z times more humpage?) How do we know when we’ve reached the apex of satisfaction, and more importantly, will there be a rain of colorful confetti on our heads when we get there?
The answer is, as with many sexy things, deeply subjective.
In a recently published study, The Journal of Sex Research gathered the written responses of 449 women and 311 men in committed relationships to answer the question, “How do you define sexual satisfaction?” Because, who better to ask what defines sexual satisfaction than normal ole regulars? The results were varied, but they were split into two themes: personal sexual well-being and dyadic processes (aka what happens between two people). The study put together this map, breaking down the themes of responses:
via Journal of Sex Research
So what do our fellow lay people have to say?
“Pleasure” and “Mutuality” were the top two response themes, often given together. About half of the 760 responses included “pleasure” in their definition, but not all were referring to pleasure as an orgasm necessarily. Pleasure had a much more fluid connotation, apart from ejaculation or a physical climax in light of satisfaction. “Satisfaction with one’s sexual life as a whole. It does not imply necessarily to reach orgasm, but it means to have as much pleasure as possible,” said one respondent.
For respondents who skewed on the more personal/selfish side of answers, only a few participants in the study mentioned “desire”, “arousal”, or “orgasm” in their definitions of sexual satisfaction—you know, actual stages of the Masters and Johnson sexual response cycle. On the “shared experience” side of the spectrum, “mutuality” was the buzzword in most responses, with a partner’s pleasure being just as key in one’s own pleasure—take that, orgasm gap.
Our personal and relationship satisfaction seems just as important when we’re choosing the language with which to describe sexual satisfaction. Some other choice definitions of sexual satisfaction from the survey included: “the acknowledgement that our mutual understanding takes a material bodily form” and “physical and emotional satisfaction”.
Okay, sure, but shouldn't there be a number? Can't we quantify how many times we have to bone a week to feel satisfied? While frequency was often cited in a definition of sexual satisfaction, there was no concrete number ever named. Rather, “accomplishing a balance between one’s own and one’s partner’s desired frequency” was the goal for satisfaction. “As much sex as we want” is an ephemeral definition of satisfaction, but it's more comforting than an arbitrary "normal" number.
Since 760 definitions are a lot to digest, I created a word cloud of some of the participants' responses:
As you can see, the heavy-hitters that define satisfaction here are "feel", "pleasure", "activity", "relationship", "partner", and coming in last, "orgasms". Note that "every day", "huge penis", "big boobs", "erections", "wet", "with many people", "as much as Brad and Angelina", and "more often than my friends" aren't on this list—clear cut proof that what really matters and what actually satisfies us has nothing to do with the feelings of inadequacy, awkwardness, or competition so intrinsically tied to how we advertise "sexual satisfaction". Even talk of dysfunction or negative feelings ("He couldn't get it up," "She doesn't want to have sex," "I'm not attracted to them,") are completely absent from these definitions. What we really conceive as sexual satisfaction didn't come down to a number or what we lack, but only what we have. Pure, sex-positive pleasure.
The ultimate definition the study came up with was, “The emotional experience of frequent mutual sexual pleasure.” I'd say that's about as good as any.
* * * * *
For those who would like to see the original article, the Journal of Sex Research has made the full article available online.
Sexual satisfaction is an important indicator of sexual health and is strongly associated with relationship satisfaction. However, research exploring lay definitions of sexual satisfaction has been scarce. We present thematic analysis of written responses of 449 women and 311 men to the question “How would you define sexual satisfaction?” The participants were heterosexual individuals with a mean age of 36.05 years (SD = 8.34) involved in a committed exclusive relationship. In this exploratory study, two main themes were identified: personal sexual well-being and dyadic processes. The first theme focuses on the positive aspects of individual sexual experience, such as pleasure, positive feelings, arousal, sexual openness, and orgasm. The second theme emphasizes relational dimensions, such as mutuality, romance, expression of feelings, creativity, acting out desires, and frequency of sexual activity. Our results highlight that mutual pleasure is a crucial component of sexual satisfaction and that sexual satisfaction derives from positive sexual experiences and not from the absence of conflict or dysfunction. The findings support definitions and models of sexual satisfaction that focus on positive sexual outcomes and the use of measures that incorporate items linked to personal and dyadic sexual rewards for both men and women.
Sexual satisfaction is considered an important component of sexual health, a sexual right, and an outcome of sexual well-being (World Health Organization, 2010). Within the field of couples research, various authors (e.g., Fincham, Beach, Vangelisti, & Perlman, 2006; Gottman & Silver, 2007) have emphasized the interaction among sexuality, communication, and conflict within the couple. Not only can sexual problems reflect difficulties with power management, communication, and conflict within the couple (Metz & Epstein, 2002), they are strongly related to relationship dissatisfaction (McCabe, 1999; Rowland, van Diest, Incrocci, & Slob, 2005). In this field of research sexual satisfaction is a central dimension in the study of relationship quality, classified as the “barometer for the quality of a relationship” (Sprecher & Cate, 2004, p. 241). Therefore, the understanding of the meaning of sexual satisfaction within the context of dyadic heterosexual committed relationships is crucial.
As McClelland (2010) pointed out, the study of sexual satisfaction is still in its infancy, and most research has been conducted using self-reinforcing definitions of sexual satisfaction and single items to measure the construct of sexual satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction has also been mainly studied within the context of heterosexual committed dyadic relationships. Within this relational context, several quantitative studies have demonstrated that sexual satisfaction is related to sexual functioning (Frank, Anderson, & Rubinstein, 1978; Heiman et al., 2011), sexual frequency (Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001; McNulty & Fisher, 2008; Smith et al., 2011), sexual communication (Byers, 2011), relationship satisfaction (Sprecher, Christopher, & Cate, 2006), nonsexual physical intimacy (Heiman et al., 2011), and emotional intimacy (Rubin & Campbell, 2012). Even though these correlates seem well established by quantitative studies, our literature review revealed three problems in the study of sexual satisfaction: scarce conceptual definitions of sexual satisfaction, few theoretical models for the understanding of sexual satisfaction, and inconsistency in the indicators (e.g., frequency of orgasm) used in different measures of sexual satisfaction.
Some definitions of the concept of sexual satisfaction are global, vague definitions that stress the subjective appraisal of one's current sexual relationship without specifying any indicator (Lawrance & Byers, 1995, p. 268; Sprecher & Cate, 2004, p. 236). Existing theoretical models of sexual satisfaction stem mainly from social exchange models (e.g., Lawrance & Byers, 1995; Peck, Shaffer, & Williamson, 2004), and most research on sexual satisfaction lacks a theoretical framework through which results can be integrated. Finally, despite these shortcomings, there are several measures that assess sexual satisfaction, most of them not based on theory and without a clear definition of the concept of sexual satisfaction (for exceptions, see the Global Measure of Sexual Satisfaction by Lawrance & Byers, 1995; and the New Sexual Satisfaction Scale by Stulhofer, Busko, & Brouillard, 2010). Existing measures also focus on different underlying implicit approaches to sexual satisfaction, meaning that researchers have differed in their implicit operational definitions of sexual satisfaction. For example, there are measures based on different indicators, such as (a) the absence or presence of clinical criteria for the diagnosis of sexual dysfunctions (Rust & Golombok, 1985, 1986); (b) the quality of communication and conflict management (Hudson, Harrison, & Crosscup, 1981); (c) relationship closeness and global satisfaction with sexuality (Wiegel, Meston, & Rosen, 2005); (d) the integration of individual and relationship correlates of sexual satisfaction (Stulhofer et al., 2010); (e) affective responses resulting from a subjective evaluation of several sexual dimensions of a relationship (Lawrance & Byers, 1995); and (f) gender specificities (Meston & Trapnell, 2005; Pinney, Gerrard, & Denney, 1987). As most of the existing measures were developed based on researchers’ understandings of the construct of sexual satisfaction, rather than laypeople's understanding of the term, we do not know if the researchers’ conceptualizations represent colloquial understanding of the concept. These shortcomings compromise the building of a solid and consistent body of knowledge about the concept of sexual satisfaction and preclude comparability among studies.
Even though sexual satisfaction has a central role in the study of sexual health and couples’ satisfaction, the literature reveals a particular lack of qualitative research on the meanings of sexual satisfaction (for a review, see McClelland, 2010).
In line with previous research on the definition of sexual terms (Byers, Henderson, & Hobson, 2009), the goal of this exploratory study was to investigate lay definitions of the concept of sexual satisfaction. Through an online survey, we asked both men and women who were in committed, cohabitating, heterosexual relationships for their definitions of sexual satisfaction. Using thematic analysis, the present study explored these written definitions of sexual satisfaction as a first step in filling the gaps in this area of research.
Developed within a postpositivist paradigm and within the theoretical frame of family systems, which advocates that human systems are complex and interinfluential, our main research question was this: “How do individuals in committed, exclusive, heterosexual relationships define sexual satisfaction?”
The present study was based on a convenience sample from a large online study about sexual satisfaction. The sample was collected using snowball sampling methods. The principal researcher sent e-mails to acquaintances, colleagues, and students, inviting them to participate in the study and directing them to the informed consent page. To be included in the present study, participants had to (a) be older than the minimum consent age of 18; (b) have Portuguese as their first language; (c) be heterosexual; (d) be in a committed, exclusive relationship for at least one year; and (e) be cohabitating with their partner. The survey was conducted between January and April 2008.
A total of 760 participants, 449 women and 311 men, completed the online questionnaire. All participants were from Portugal, and the majority lived in the Greater Lisbon area (n = 461; 57.8%). The mean participant age was 36.05 years (SD = 8.34, age range: 20 to 69). There were 422 (56%) married participants and 338 (44%) participants living in common-law relationships. The mean duration of marriage was 9.95 years (n = 422, SD = 8.25, range: 2 to 39), and the mean duration of common-law relationships was 4.65 years (n = 338, SD = 8.2, range: 2 to 29). The sample was highly educated, with 574 participants (75.4%) possessing at least an undergraduate degree and 81 (10%) current undergraduate college students; the remaining participants had fewer than 12 years of education.
The survey was approved by the university ethics committee. First, 30 individuals, all known by the principal researcher (colleagues, acquaintances, and friends), piloted the full survey and evaluated the interface, visual display, length, and comprehensibility of the instructions and survey items. The online survey was administered by a technician who had a username and password to access the server that was updated regularly and checked for potential intruders. No personal information was collected that could identify the participants and no Internet Protocol (IP) addresses were recorded. The informed consent page had information concerning the nature and aims of the study, the names and positions of the researchers, anonymity and confidentiality (e.g., nonrecording of IP addresses), inclusion and exclusion criteria, compensation, and contact details for the principal researcher.
The participants initially completed a background questionnaire assessing demographics (e.g., sex and residence) and history variables (e.g., existence of sexual problems and history of previous cohabitation). The participants then completed a series of questionnaires that are reported elsewhere (Pascoal, Narciso, & Pereira, 2012, 2013). At the end of the questionnaires, the participants were asked to respond to four open-ended questions concerning their sexuality. In the present study, answers to only the first question were analyzed: “How would you define sexual satisfaction?”
We included open-ended questions throughout the survey to control for attention, commitment, and motivation (e.g., What is your profession?) and consistency in the responses (e.g., How many children do you have? versus Do you have children?). Two members of the research team independently examined responses to these questions to determine problematic responses (e.g., jokes or derogatory language). When problematic responses were detected, the participants were excluded to increase the validity of the study. There were 22 (3%) problematic responses. There was 95% consistency in the researchers’ evaluation of problematic responses. Missing answers were highlighted so that individuals could have the opportunity to complete the survey and not miss questions unintentionally. On average, individuals took 40 minutes to complete the survey. The dropout rate was 40% and occurred, on average, 25 minutes after starting the survey. There was a final debriefing page that included information on public resources that participants could contact if they had experienced psychological or emotional distress during the completion of the survey. Only four participants did not answer the question about the definition of sexual satisfaction.
We used QSR (2011) Nvivo9 software to store, explore, and organize the qualitative material. The data set used in the present analysis constitutes the written answers to our question “How would you define sexual satisfaction?” We used Braun and Clarke's (2006) approach to thematic analysis to identify themes in participants’ written definitions of sexual satisfaction and to build our thematic map (Figure 1). We adopted a realistic approach, looking for semantic themes across the whole data set. Specifically, we followed their six-phase method for thematic analysis to describe how patterns of meaning combined into broader conceptualizations/themes. The main themes, subthemes, and codes presented were found after repeated reading of the written definition, paying careful attention not only to patterns of themes across definitions but also to contradictions, ambiguity, and inconsistencies both within and across the definitions. We organized our themes hierarchically in three levels of analysis. At the first level are the codes that we identified across the data set. At the second level are the subthemes, where different codes were combined because they shared an underlying meaning. Subthemes are also called themes within a theme, because subthemes can be identified within the third, and last, level. At the third level, are the main themes: less concrete, more global and abstract (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The principal researcher and an undergraduate trained rater in qualitative methodology coded the data independently. When disagreement occurred, a specialist in qualitative methodology and family psychology was consulted until a consensus and agreement was reached. We then established our final thematic map (Figure 1).
In the initial phase of the analysis (data familiarization) we found there were two distinct types of answers: the short, straightforward definition, and more complex answers in which different concepts were intertwined and adjectives and examples were used to enrich the definition. Some examples of more complex definitions (those that included more than one code, or where different codes were present to express a more global concept) are presented later in this section.
In the early stage of the analysis, we found the following codes at the first level: positive feelings, pleasure, orgasm, sexual openness, arousal, desire, romance, expression of feelings, mutuality, creativity, and acting out desires (for a brief description of codes, see Table 1). After repeated reading of participants’ written definitions we grouped the first-level codes into different broader themes based on a shared underlying meaning. Positive feelings, pleasure, orgasm, sexual openness, arousal, and desire were grouped under the main theme of personal sexual well-being because these codes reflect an individual's subjective positive sexual experience. The remaining first-level codes were grouped under three distinct second-level themes, all of which were grouped under the main theme of dyadic processes. Therefore, dyadic processes is comprised of three subthemes: intimacy, frequency of sexual activity, and ludic sexuality. Among those, intimacy includes the first-level codes romance, expression of feelings, and mutuality, and ludic sexuality includes first-level codes creativity and acting out desires (for a graphic representation of the relation between codes, subthemes, and themes, see Figure 1). Participants’ most frequent codes were pleasure and mutuality, and these appeared very often intertwined with each other.
Table 1. Hierarchical Organization of the Thematic Map with Description of Codes
Personal sexual well-being
The codes grouped under this main theme (positive feelings, pleasure, desire, orgasm, sexual openness, and arousal) represent meanings of sexual satisfaction that focus on individual positive physical and emotional experiences that are not strictly dependent on the existence of a sexual partner. Almost half of the participants referred to pleasure to define sexual satisfaction. Among these, it was common to find participants who specifically associated pleasure with positive feelings and also those that differentiated pleasure from orgasm. An example that illustrates the first aspect was: “To feel pleasure, not having prejudice, and to experience happiness in the end” (man, 60 years old, coded for pleasure, sexual openness, and positive feeling). The following examples illustrate the second aspect: “the ability to experience pleasure even if it is not translated into an orgasm, but the orgasm feeling persists over time” (man, 42 years old, coded for pleasure and orgasm) and “satisfaction with one's sexual life as a whole. It does not imply necessarily to reach orgasm, but it means to have as much pleasure as possible” (woman, 31 years old, coded for pleasure and orgasm).
In contrast, only a few participants mentioned desire, arousal, and orgasm in their definitions of sexual satisfaction, three codes which represent phases of the traditional model of sexual response but which here appeared linked to dyadic processes (e.g., mutuality). Finally, a small number of participants included individual sexual openness to define sexual satisfaction, and this code appeared mostly as an individual characteristic that was a facilitator to experience sexual satisfaction.
In the main theme of personal sexual well-being, the codes that defined sexual satisfaction appeared as parts of definitions which included other codes that were grouped under the main theme of dyadic processes.
Dyadic processes was a main theme in which we included the definitions of sexual satisfaction that imply being in a relationship. Integrated within this main theme at the second level were intimacy, a subtheme which aggregates the codes usually associated with being in a close relationship; frequency, which refers to the frequency of sexual activity between two partners; and ludic sexuality, a subtheme in which the codes included accentuate the playful components of sexuality that are not necessarily dependent on being in a close relationship (see Table 1).
Within the main theme of dyadic processes we also found definitions where different codes belonging to this main theme were intertwined. Mutuality, which is integrated in intimacy, was the code to which most participants referred. Participants’ use of mutuality was usually intertwined with other first-level or second-level themes that belonged to dyadic processes, such as the second-level theme frequency, e.g., “Compatibility between habits, preferences, desire, and frequency” (man, 40 years old, coded for mutuality, desire, and frequency), expression of feelings and frequency, e.g., “Sex, not only for sex, but sex for [expressing] love, preferably with frequency but always when there is mutual need and with a lot of tenderness” (man, 36 years old, coded for expression of feelings, frequency, desire, and mutuality); mutuality and ludic sexuality, e.g., “To feel well with yourself, to satisfy your needs and desires and to satisfy the secret desires and needs of one's partner” (woman, 30 years old, coded for acting out desires and mutuality); or “To be able to fulfill my own and my partner's desires, to be an instrument to her private and secret desires” (man, 47 years old, coded for acting out desires and mutuality).
Complementarity between main themes
Within each main theme, complex definitions of sexual satisfaction included the complementarity between the subthemes and codes that were integrated in that same main theme. We would like to highlight that most complex definitions were characterized by presenting personal sexual being codes complemented by dyadic processes’ codes and subthemes, our two main themes. The following quotes ad verbatim are examples of definitions where different codes and subthemes from both the main themes of personal well-being and dyadic processes were intertwined and complement each other: “ … orgasm; the pleasure I give and that I receive, the bond we feel during and after [sex], the seduction, the exploration, the discovery of new pleasures and situations, with no shame, with trust and self-disclosure, feeling gradually more at ease” (woman, 36 years old, coded for orgasm, pleasure, mutuality, expression of feelings, creativity, sexual self-confidence, and romance); “To give yourself away, relaxation, eroticism and romance in order to experience unique pleasure” (man, 41 years old, coded for positive feelings, romance, and pleasure); and “Physical and emotional satisfaction, the feeling to be just one, the acknowledgment that our mutual understanding takes a material bodily form” (woman, 30 years old, coded for expression of feelings and mutuality).
Research on sexual satisfaction has been increasing in recent years. However, studies have been mainly quantitative, the concept has not been consistently defined, there are few theoretical models developed to understand it, and there are many diverse measures that take different approaches to the concept. In the present study, we explored the colloquial meanings of sexual satisfaction, taking a qualitative approach to start to fill in these gaps in the literature on sexual satisfaction.
As with other research concerning written definitions of sexual constructs (Shaughnessy, Byers, & Thornton, 2011), we found a diversity of meanings attached to the concept of sexual satisfaction. In relation to our research question, our findings support the existence of two main themes that define sexual satisfaction: personal sexual well-being and dyadic processes. The connection between the main themes is consistent with family systems theory because it demonstrates that sexual satisfaction within committed relationships is a two-dimensional concept where personal and relational dimensions are interinfluential.
Examining the definitions of sexual satisfaction grouped under personal sexual well-being revealed pleasure as the main subtheme. Pleasure was usually intertwined with the most prevalent code grouped under dyadic processes: mutuality. The participants emphasized that satisfaction comes from mutual pleasure. These definitions emphasized the relevant role of orgasm for a sexually satisfying experience; however, the results also stress that mutual pleasure is more than simply the experience of simultaneous orgasm. Pleasure is a sexual motive (Meston & Buss, 2007) that has not been sufficiently clarified or defined in previous models of sexual satisfaction (e.g., Basson, 2000). Consistent with other researchers, we believe the concept of pleasure requires further clarification (Rye & Meaney, 2007), and its role in sexual satisfaction should be examined due to the relevance of sexual satisfaction for sexual health. Our participants’ definitions included aspects of the traditional model of sexual response (desire, arousal, and orgasm), but these codes were not used frequently by our participants. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that even though sexual functioning is part of sexual satisfaction for some participants, this should be seen from a dyadic process approach, as most definitions of sexual satisfaction stress the importance of pleasure, desire, and arousal as a mutual experience.
The World Health Organization (2010) emphasizes sexual health as a state of well-being. Similarly, our findings do not support the definition of sexual satisfaction as simply the absence of dysfunction or negative emotions. Under the main theme of dyadic processes, frequency of sexual activity was another important subtheme in participants’ definitions. Consistent with previous research (Higgins, Mullinax, Trussell, Davidson, & Moore, 2011; Smith et al., 2011), some men and women noted that frequent sexual activity was important to their sexual satisfaction. However, there was no mention by the current participants of concrete numbers to identify a satisfactory average frequency. According to our results, accomplishing a balance between one's own and one's partner's desired frequency of sexual frequency is necessary to achieve sexual satisfaction, rather than a specific number or regularity of sexual encounters.
Expression of feelings was not a common code, but its presence seems to support the literature that highlights sexual satisfaction as the barometer of relationship satisfaction (Sprecher & Cate, 2004). As discussed, participants’ most frequent themes were pleasure and mutuality, which were very often intertwined. Therefore we propose that for heterosexual people in an exclusive dyadic, cohabitating relationship the concept of sexual satisfaction could be defined as the emotional experience of frequent mutual sexual pleasure.
Existing models of sexual satisfaction are mainly derived from interpersonal exchange models. Within the subtheme of intimacy, our results indicated mutuality as a code of special relevance. This result is supportive of the social exchange theory and the role specified by Byers, Wang, Harvey, Wenzel, and Sprecher (2004) of the perceived balance between partner exchanges (i.e., mutuality) to achieve sexual satisfaction. The vast majority of the current participants’ sexual satisfaction definitions focused on the positive aspects of sexuality (e.g., pleasure, well-being); in other words, they focused on rewards rather than on the absence of negative aspects or sexual costs. These findings are partly supportive of social exchange models, but they seem to indicate that sexual satisfaction relates more to the presence of positive aspects of sexual experience (i.e., sexual rewards) than to the absence of negative aspects (i.e., sexual costs). Theoretical models and measures of sexual satisfaction seem to be more in accordance with people's meanings of sexual satisfaction if they focus on the positive aspects of sexual satisfaction. Our results also highlight some aspects that have not been consistently addressed in existing models and measures of sexual satisfaction, namely, the two codes under the subtheme ludic sexuality: creativity and acting out desires. These codes are not dependent on having a committed close relationship and may be one example of a dyadic process necessary for sexual satisfaction that is applicable to different types of dyads (e.g., dating and one-night stands).
Concerning the diversity of existing measures of sexual satisfaction, the overall finding of a two-dimensional definition of sexual satisfaction is consistent with a few operational definitions of sexual satisfaction used in prior research (e.g., Meston & Trapnell, 2005; Stulhofer et al., 2010). Our study revealed that both women's and men's meanings of sexual satisfaction are embedded in a net of relational (dyadic processes) and individual (personal sexual well-being) concepts, which reinforces the use of measures that focus on both individual and relational aspects of sexual satisfaction for both genders (e.g., Stulhofer et al., 2010). The inexistence of definitions that mention lack of dysfunction or relational conflict suggests that items addressing these issues may not be the most appropriate to assess sexual satisfaction. Measures that focus on the positive aspects of sexual satisfaction should be preferred for research purposes with nonclinical samples of heterosexual individuals in a dyadic exclusive relationship recruited from the community.
There were limitations of the present study. Our findings were based on a volunteer sample; thus, our study participants may have been more at ease with sexual topics than individuals who did not volunteer for our study. Also, the questions were preceded by a set of standardized questionnaires on sexual and relationship variables, which may have influenced the participants’ definitions of sexual satisfaction, leading to higher levels of sexual self-disclosure and sexual satisfaction. Our participants were all involved in exclusive, dyadic, committed relationships, which may explain the major focus on relational aspects. Sexual satisfaction may assume different meanings for individuals involved in other types of relationship structures or dynamics (e.g., friends with benefits or polyamory). Researchers should replicate the current findings in more heterogeneous samples. A major methodological shortcoming was that the analysis was conducted using written descriptions concerning the meaning of sexual satisfaction. This was a descriptive study, and we could not explore or deepen the meanings of particular words, synonyms, and expressions used to differentiate concepts that are semantically similar to one another. Neither could we understand the processes underlying and explaining the interrelations found and others that were not mentioned. Even though we used family systems theory as a theoretical framework, we did not study interdependence, which should be addressed in future studies with samples of individuals involved in close relationships. Future studies should also address the distinction between the features of sexual satisfaction and the processes involved in achieving sexual satisfaction. The roles of ludic sexuality, sexual self-confidence, and frequency of sexual activity in individuals’ sexual satisfaction should be studied in individuals in different types of relationship as well in as those not currently involved in a relationship.
By studying written definitions of sexual satisfaction by laypeople in the context of committed relationships, we hoped to open the door for future studies that might reveal more complex understandings of sexual satisfaction. Our participants’ definitions reflected key correlates of sexual satisfaction observed in quantitative studies, namely, sexual variables (frequency and functioning) (Smith et al., 2011; Stephenson & Meston, 2010) and relational variables (expression of feelings and intimacy) (Rubin & Campbell, 2012), but the current study has highlighted the interrelatedness of these concepts. Our study provides several modest contributions to the field of sexual satisfaction. A key finding from our study was that participants in our sample tended to define sexual satisfaction in ways that emphasized the presence of pleasure and mutuality, rather than the absence of sexual problems or dysfunction. This indicates that meanings of sexual satisfaction are more associated with positive outcomes and experiences during sexual activity than with the mere absence of sexual costs. This finding stresses the role of positive experiences and goes beyond the view that sexual satisfaction derives from experiencing problem-free sexual activity.
With regard to research with heterosexual samples in committed exclusive relationships, we believe our findings support (a) the definition of sexual satisfaction as a two-dimensional construct with a focus on personal sexual well-being and on dyadic processes, especially intimacy; (b) the theoretical framing of models that stress the role of sexual rewards; and (c) the use of measures of sexual satisfaction that focus on the positive aspects of sexuality rather than on the absence of sexual dysfunction, sexual problems, or relationship conflicts. The findings here suggest that to promote sexual satisfaction, for example, in clinical settings, attention should be given to aspects that are not directly linked to sexual functioning, such as a balance between the desired frequency of sexual activity, creativity, and intimacy. We believe that our findings have clinical implications, in line with Bancroft's (2002) notion that knowing the factors that heighten sexual satisfaction can enable more effective clinical responses to individuals with sexual problems. Overall, our study supports a sex-positive approach to sexual satisfaction as a springboard for future research on this topic.
AcknowledgmentsThis study was supported by a grant with the reference SFRH/BD/39934/2007 from the Foundation of Science and Technology.