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Sexual Frequency May Be Driven By Our Unconscious Attitudes

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The frequency with which newlywed couples engage in intercourse is associated with their unconscious attitudes toward one another (Hicks et al., 2016). These unconscious attitudes are usually called implicit attitudes. Implicit attitudes are defined as our “spontaneous affective reactions” (Eastwick et al., 2011). These automatic or “gut” reactions are often contrasted with our explicit or consciously expressed attitudes, and they can reveal a lot about our romantic relationships. For example, having a more positive implicit attitude toward your current partner is associated with a more secure attachment style (Zayas and Shoda, 2005), and having a more positive implicit attitude toward an ex-partner is associated with experiencing more distress and regret after a break-up (Imhoff and Banse, 2011). Furthermore, the more positive your implicit attitude toward your romantic partner, the less your marital satisfaction declines over a four-year period (McNulty et al., 2013). 

In the research connecting sexual frequency with positive implicit attitudes, the researchers studied heterosexual newlywed couples (Hicks et al., 2016). These couples reported their sexual frequency as well as their explicit (conscious) attitudes toward their relationships and their spouses. The couples also performed an “evaluative priming task” to assess their implicit attitudes toward one another, which required couples to classify words as good or bad after being exposed to photographs of their partners, themselves, and strangers. After seeing a photograph of your spouse, the slower you respond to negative words and the faster you respond to positive words, the more positive your implicit attitude is toward your partner (Hicks et al.). In contrast, if you were to respond quickly to negative words and slowly to positive words following photographs of your partner, you would have a more negative implicit attitude toward your partner. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that the couples’ reports of the frequency of their sexual activity were positively associated with their implicit attitudes toward one another, but not their explicit attitudes toward one another (Hicks et al., 2016). In other words, the couples with more positive implicit attitudes toward one another reported engaging in sex more frequently. However couples’ consciously expressed explicit attitudes toward one another were not associated with more frequent intercourse. This finding could mean that having a more positive implicit attitude toward your partner could unconsciously motivate you to engage in more sexual behavior together. Implicit attitudes can be modified using conditioning (Fazio, 2006, as cited by Hicks et al., 2016) and therefore improving spouses’ implicit attitudes may be a viable treatment option for couples wishing to improve their sex lives.  

However, because this research is correlational, it may also be the case that engaging in more frequent sexual behavior may be causing more favorable implicit attitudes toward our partners. In fact, Hicks et al. (2016) also performed a longitudinal study showing that sexual frequency was associated with positive changes in implicit partner attitudes over time. It is also possible that a third variable (like trust or time spent together) might cause both increased sexual frequency and more positive implicit attitudes toward one’s partner. 

Because this research involved only newlyweds (Hicks et al., 2016) it will be important to study these associations in couples with longer relationships. Furthermore, this research examined only heterosexual couples; future research should examine the relationship between implicit attitudes and sexual frequency in same-sex couples. Some evidence suggests that gay men engage in more frequent sexual behavior than their lesbian counterparts (Peplau, 2003). It would be interesting to examine whether gay couples also hold more positive implicit attitudes toward one another versus lesbian couples, or whether some other factor is related to the difference in sexual frequency. 

Although our implicit attitudes toward our partners are not consciously accessible, they can have a large impact on our romantic relationships.

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