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This Approach To Sex Tends To Backfire — Here's Who's Most Likely To Do It

Kelly Gonsalves
November 10, 2020
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Couple attachment style
Image by SERGEY FILIMONOV / Stocksy
November 10, 2020

People have different approaches to being in a relationship, and people also have different ways of approaching sex.

In terms of relationships, people can have one of several attachment styles. Your attachment style is your way of viewing and behaving in relationships, and according to psychological theory, it’s based on what your relationship to your earliest caregivers was like. One particular attachment style—called avoidant attachment—describes people who learned early on that other people can't be trusted, and so they tend to avoid getting too close to their partners and prefer being independent.

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And according to a recent study1 published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, people with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to have a specific approach to sex, too: viewing it as an exchange of sexual favors.

Exchanging sexual favors. 

Sexual exchange norms (as it's called in psychology-speak) describes the tendency to approach sex as an equal trade: There's an equal give and take of sexual benefits between both partners, and keeping that exchange fair is a priority. That might sound like a good thing, but it can make sex seem less intimate and more transactional.

"When people endorse exchange norms, they give benefits with the expectation of receiving equal or comparable benefits in return and are concerned with keeping track of benefits to keep things even between partners," Stephanie Raposo, M.A., a Ph.D. candidate at York University and lead author on the study, and her colleagues write.

The opposite of sexual exchange norms is sexual communal norms, which describes people who are intrinsically motivated to meet their partner's sexual needs just because they want to. This approach to sex is all about giving for the sake of giving, without an expectation of reciprocation. There's trust that their partner will also care about their pleasure too, so there's less concern about keeping track of who's done what.

Raposo and her team surveyed and observed a total of 711 adults in committed relationships, asking them questions to understand their perspective on sex, how their sex life was in the relationship, and how the relationship was in general. Their findings showed that couples who had a more communal approach to sex—rather than a trade-and-barter style—tended to be happier with both their sex life and their relationship. 

"When people endorsed exchange norms in their sexual relationship (i.e., they track and trade sexual benefits with the goal of keeping things even), they did not report greater sexual satisfaction, and, if anything, they feel less committed and have more negative sexual interactions," the researchers write. 

Avoiding intimacy, exchanging sex.

The researchers found that people higher in attachment avoidance—aka people with a more avoidant attachment style, who tend to pull away from getting too close to anyone—were more likely to have the "equal exchange" approach to sex.

"Given avoidantly attached people fear of intimacy, their distancing tendencies may become triggered in sexual interactions with a romantic partner," Raposo and colleagues write. "Keeping track of favors may enable them to avoid closeness and maintain independence from their partner."

In other words, for people with an avoidant attachment style, viewing sex as an equal exchange may be less about ensuring both partners get equal pleasure and more about making sure your own needs get met. This approach can also allow them to feel like they're not getting too close to their partner, or at least feel like they have a reason for giving someone pleasure that doesn't have to do with creating real intimacy with them.

"Avoidantly attached people may be less inclined to meet their partner's needs because they lack trust and have low expectations that a partner will be responsive to their needs," the researchers write. Trading and tracking sexual favors also offers the benefit of "limiting intimate sexual favors to situations of repayment rather than understanding and aiming to be responsive to a partner's sexual needs as they arise."

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How it plays out in relationships. 

Although the sexual-exchange approach might feel safer and more beneficial to people with avoidant attachment styles, there are some consequences to the approach.

In one of their experiments, the researchers had 121 couples keep a daily log about their relationship, sex life, and approaches to sex. The researchers found partners who had a more communal approach to sex—that is, giving without expecting something in return—tended to have better sex. Those couples also tended to be more committed to each other.

In comparison, people who were more exchange-oriented in their approach to sex tended to have more bad sexual experiences. When the researchers checked on these couples three months later, those exchange-oriented people were also more likely to have a decline in relationship satisfaction.

"Endorsing sexual exchange (compared to sexual communal) norms in the bedroom does not benefit, and may actually detract from, sexual and relationship quality," the researchers write.

The researchers also found people whose partners had an avoidant attachment style also tended to steer toward a more exchange-oriented approach to sex.

The takeaway. 

It's great to have an equitable approach to the bedroom, and closing that orgasm gap is a worthwhile goal. But your motivation matters, too. If your approach to sex is totally centered around keeping track of who's doing more of what, you might find that you're losing a lot of what makes sex great: sharing pleasure together. Meanwhile, if both partners are motivated to meet each other's sexual needs just for the sake of it, sex usually does end up being more pleasurable for both parties.

For people with an avoidant attachment style, connection and closeness may not be a goal of your sexual endeavors—which is OK—but the exchange approach also doesn't seem to come with a lot of sexual benefits. In comparison, being more motivated to meet your partner's needs tends to correlate with better sex.

For avoidants who are in relationships that they're really trying to make work, rethinking your mindset around sex to be more attuned to your partner's needs may help make sure you're building an intimate, committed, sexually amazing relationship.

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Kelly Gonsalves author page.
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

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