According to research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in August, the answer is “Yes,” sexual cues can directly influence a person’s relationship-oriented behaviors.
The researchers conducted a number of experiments to try and determine whether an association exists between erotic stimuli (sexually explicit words and pictures) and attributes that might increase a person’s tendency to want to be in a close relationship with another person.
Participants were divided into four groups — two were shown sexual photos, and two were shown neutral photos. Within each set of groups, one group was shown the photos for 30 ms (subliminal) and the other was shown it for 500 ms (supraliminal). The sexual photos shown were erotic but not pornographic pictures (an attractive naked, reclining man shown from the groin up for the female participants; an attractive, naked, kneeling woman photographed from behind for the male participants). The neutral photos were abstract pictures.
The effects of “sexual priming” on the tendencies to initiate and maintain a close relationship were measured using a variety of psychological and self-report tests.
The researchers’ findings? Subliminal exposure to these sexual stimuli increased participants’:
- Willingness to self-disclose
- Accessibility of intimacy-related thoughts
- Willingness to sacrifice for one’s partner
- Preference for using positive conflict-resolution strategies
This study’s findings seem to indicate that exposure to sexual or erotic stimuli can create a psychological environment conducive to relationship-oriented behaviors. There were no gender differences observed in the study related to sexual priming, and only the subliminal, not the supraliminal, stimuli had an effect on sexual priming. (The researchers believe this is because “subliminal exposure bypasses conscious beliefs and attitudes about sexuality and socially appropriate reactions to sexual stimuli.”)
These studies were conducted on university students, however, who may not behave or have the same relationship or sexual motivations one has later in adulthood. And the situations were artificial, lab-created experiments with much of the data coming from simple self-report. (Who knows how these same people might behave in a real situation with objective observers.)
Nonetheless, while you may think sex can have nothing to do with a relationship (or you don’t need one to have the other), unconsciously, your brain may very well be working toward a different goal.
Think about that the next time you think you’re just having “casual” sex.
Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Birnbaum, G.E. & Shaver, P.R. (2008). When sex primes love: Subliminal sexual priming motivates relationship goal pursuit. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1057-1069.