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Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology

2011, 5(2), 21-24.

Book Review


Iris J. Holzleitner*
Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

Why Women Have Sex: Sexual Motivation from Adventure to Revenge And Everything
in Between. By Cindy M. Meston & David M. Buss. The Bodley Head: London, 2009;
ISBN: 0805088342

Lets start with what Cindy Mestons and David Buss recently published book
Why Women Have Sex is not: A boring or technical textbook on sex. Instead, it
provides a popularized account to sexology, enlightening female sexual motivation from
a psychological, clinical, physiological, cultural and evolutionary point of view. Both
authors of Why Women Have Sex currently hold positions at the University of Texas -
Cindy Meston is a clinical psychologist specialized on the psychophysiology of womens
sexuality, David Buss is an evolutionary psychologist and expert on human mating
The book is based on a previous study by the books authors (Meston & Buss,
2007) in which people had been asked to list reasons why they, or anyone they knew, had
previously engaged in sexual intercourse. The resulting list of 237 reasons was used in a
follow-up study, in which undergraduates were asked to indicate the degree to which
those reasons applied to them (on a scale from none of my sexual experiences to all of
my sexual experiences). Meston & Buss then identified four main factors why women
and men have sex: Physical, Emotional, Goal Attainment, and Insecurity, further
dividable into subcategories such as love and commitment or social status. The book
revolves around these subcategories by dedicating a chapter to each of the identified
motivation clusters, which have been slightly rearranged for the book. What makes this
book really unique, though, is that (clinical) observations, psychological considerations
and scientific hypotheses aiming to explain observable patterns are accompanied by the
voices of real women: Over a period of nearly 3 years, 1,006 women took part in an
online study, each woman describing specific sexual experiences for each of the reasons
that she has ever had sex.
The most frequently named reason to have sex is pure attraction to the other
person. Chapter 1 thus answers the question What Turns Women On?, dealing with all
the facets of attraction, from spatial proximity, over physical attributes such as scent,
body height and build, facial attractiveness, voice, body movement, to social and

AUTHOR NOTE: Please direct correspondence to Iris J. Holzleitner, Department of

Anthropology, University of Vienna, Althanstrae 14, 1090 Vienna, Austria. Email:

2011 Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology

Why women have sex

psychological factors such as personality, fame/status, similarities and individual

preferences. Chapter 2, The Pleasure of It, disproves the common misconception that
men have sex for pleasure, but women for love. It discusses, inter alia, gender differences
in arousal, and anatomical and physiological fundaments of the physical pleasure sex
brings along. The third chapter, The Thing Called Love, examines the human universal
love, its (neuro)biology, and how sex is a means to express, but also to get love and
emotional commitment. Chapter 4, The Thrill of Conquest, tackles female sexual
competition and resulting strategies to outcompete rivals - which involve having sex-,
whereas Chapter 5, Green-Eyed Desire, looks at what happens when rivalry turns
defensive, and jealousy - and provoking jealousy - enter a womans sexual motivations
(p. 99). Chapter 6, A Sense of Duty, is basically all about why women do not want to
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This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

have sex, but still comply to it (a few women cited to have had sex because they felt it
was the nice thing to do). Chapter 7, A Sense of Adventure, describes motivations and
consequences of womens sexual adventurism, from devalued virginity to how women
use sex to assuage their curiosity, decide on whether a relationship is worth continuing,
and to broaden their sexual expertise. In Chapter 8, Barter and Trade, economic
aspects of having sex are highlighted, with assets encompassing money, chores or simply
physical pleasure, as in friends-with-benefits. Chapter 9, The Ego Boost, discloses
how women use sex to enhance their self- and social esteem, to exert control and
influence over a sexual partner, and how sexual submission might be related to feelings
of power. The Dark Side of sex, and reservations about including this facet of sex in the
book are the topic of Chapter 10 - deception, coercion, rape and abuse might have
nothing to do with female sexual motivation, but still are reasons why women have sex,
as the authors reason. The final chapter deals with Sexual Medicine - although for some
women headache is a reason not to have sex, other women use it as painkiller, or to lose
Meston & Buss explain in the introduction how they felt that female sexuality -
and especially female sexual motivation - has been a surprisingly neglected field of
research. Indeed, by including not only those reasons (and personal experiences) that are
statistically relevant, but also those that might have been only named twice out of a
thousand times, the book fulfills its claim to show womens sexuality in all of its
textures (p. xxi).
Although Meston & Buss note Why Women Have Sex has not been designed as
a self-help book, at times it reads like one - one can find explicit pieces of advice, as
for example on page 47, where an excellent step-by-step guide for conducting directed
masturbation exercises is named. Language and explanations on how erogenous zones
are defined and where they can be found (p. 29), or that vaginas in an unaroused state
might best be imagined as uncooked cannelloni noodles (p. 31), strengthen the
impression that Why Women Have Sex is mainly (though not exclusively) addressed to
the lay audience. By getting rid of misconceptions about female sexuality, filling gaps of
knowledge, and explaining the theory behind why particular motivations found their way
into womens sexual psychology, Meston & Buss might be right when they say at the
outset that they believe the book will aid more informed sexual decision making (p. xxii).
Still, I feel it wouldnt have lessened the enjoyability of the book, also not for a
wider audience, if more details on reasoning (evolutionary or other) and its empirical
basis had been provided - maybe even at the expense of other parts. Being trained as a
biologist, I found that for example Sternbergs theory on the triangularity of love in
Chapter 3 (pp. 51-52) does not contribute to a better, or deeper understanding of female

Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology ISSN 1933-5377 Volume 5(2). 2011.

Why women have sex

sexuality but is of a rather semantic nature (when it is used, for example, to classify
relationships into seven different love styles, p. 54). In fact, I even found this part a bit
confusing - according to this theory love consists of three different components, namely
intimacy, passion, and commitment, but later in the book Meston & Buss go on to
distinguish between love and emotional connectedness (intimacy) by saying that indeed,
feelings of connectedness trigger a sense of peacefulness and relationship security that is
not unlike the emotional experience of love (p. 65). But that might be considered a play
on words too.
Though being very short and not central to the chapter, another piece from this
section was a bit unconvincing: The claim that men appear to stay in love longer and that
they tend to suffer more from break-ups than women (pp. 59-61). Following the
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

interpretation of the original study, a socioeconomic approach is discussed quite

lengthily: Men, being in a more powerful economic position and thus being independent
of their partners wealth, could afford the luxury of [...] staying in relationships simply
for the romance (p. 60). There is not even a hint to an alternative account at this point.
Although it is indicated that women are less prone to fall in love at first sight and more
likely to initiate break-ups, there is no mention of the evolutionary psychologists
reasoning - that this might not necessarily be the case because men are more romantic
for they have less to lose in terms of money, but because women have more to lose in
terms of parental investment.
Generally, an interested reader might have profited from being provided more
references to existing work, or in some cases maybe other references than those given. In
Chapter 1, for instance, the reader gets a brief, engaging overview on what might be
considered state-of-the art regarding mate attraction. However, basics are not further
cited or they are illustrated by exemplarily singling out studies, which may be not the
most representative ones (e.g., the only study on the link of MHC complex and odor
preferences named in the book is Santos et al., 2005; straightforward topics like body
height, on the other hand, are backed by a number of citations and references to
summaries). Some of the references in Chapter 1 got mixed up (e.g., pp. 13, 18, 19), and
once in a while references are missing entirely (for example in Chapter 4, where it says
Studies conducted in Germany... (p. 84), but no reference is to be found in the
Some aspects of sexual motivation are difficult to disentangle, which caused some
motives to occur under more than one heading and makes the book slightly redundant
sometimes (e.g., there is a section called The Winners High in Chapter 4 that discusses
the feeling of conquest by outcompeting other women or sex as a means to gain status
among peers, both motives also being tackled in Chapter 9). Indeed, as Meston & Buss
note in the conclusion, reasons to have sex are often complex and might be composed of
varying combinations of motivations, some of which might be even in conflict with one
another; throughout the book, women report success, but also failures for having sex for a
specific reason. Although the book is overall captivating, I found some parts to be more
coherent than others. Also, I found the section and evidence on rape fantasies in
themselves, and as defense mechanism against rape (Chapter 10, pp. 233-234) though
interesting for now still too speculative to be presented to a wider audience (the authors
themselves remark similarly).
Why Women Have Sex is an entertaining read, often humorous and drawing
interesting connections to songs, movies or mythology. While compromises concerning
the depth of explanations have to be made in a book that is to reach the wider public, at

Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology ISSN 1933-5377 Volume 5(2). 2011.

Why women have sex

times the book might have benefited from delving deeper and including more references
to existing work. This does not belittle its achievement of merging different theoretical
approaches into a comprehensive view on female sexual motivation. Why Women Have
Sex gives a wittily written peek into (other) womens minds and bedrooms. Not only for
the lay audience, it provides a thorough - and at this time also probably the most
exhaustive - overview of all the aspects that are to female sexual motivation. Thus, even
those that might not learn too much new from an evolutionary psychologists point of
view might want to buy it. Or, as one satisfied customer of an online bookstore put it, it is
a must-read for women asking themselves Am I the only one who feels this way?, and
men who find themselves wondering What the hell is going on with her? (Noble,
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

Received January 5, 2011; Revision received April 19, 2011; Accepted April 21, 2011


Meston, C.M. & Buss, D.M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior,
36(4), 477-507.
Carvalho Santos, P.S., Schinemann, J.A., Gabardo, J., Da Graa Bicalho, M. (2005) New
evidence that the MHC influences odor perception in humans: A study with 58
Southern Brazilian students. Hormones and Behavior, 47(4), 384-388.
Noble, A. (2010). An important question. [Informal review of Why Wome Have Sex:
Sexual Motivation from Adventure to Revenge And Everything in Between]
Retrieved online April 28, 2011:

Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology ISSN 1933-5377 Volume 5(2). 2011.