As a culture, we spend more time, money, and energy on the pursuit of sex than on just about anything else. But does that make us passionate, or does it make us obsessed? That's one of the questions researchers Frédérick Philippe and Robert Vallerand set out to answer in a series of five studies that investigated passion, obsession, and how those phenomena affect our sexual experiences—as well as other areas of our lives.
Obsession versus passion, explained.
Most of us tend to interpret passion and obsession as two different things. The former is a fiery (but healthy) interest in a person, thing, or idea; the latter is an unhealthy fixation with destructive consequences. But Philippe and Vallerand hypothesized that sexual passion, long believed to be a one-dimensional phenomenon, was really a two-sided coin with harmony on one side, obsession on the other.
Interestingly, Philippe and Vallerand found that the two types of sexual passion—harmonious and obsessive—can "lead to clearly distinct subjective, relational, and cognitive outcomes." More specifically, obsessive sexual passion was associated with a detachment of sexual desire from other parts of a person's life. The less integrated a person's sexuality is with the rest of their world, the narrower their perspective on sex becomes. That leads to a greater sense of urgency and goal-orientation—a feeling of being controlled by sex rather than being in control—which, as we know, tends to make sex less enjoyable and climax less likely.
On the flip side, harmonious sexual passion is characterized by a sense of freedom in exploring and indulging one's sexual desires without defensiveness and the feeling that a person's sexuality is aligned with their identity and interests in other areas of life. People who experience harmonious sexual passion are able to enjoy sex without creating conflict within themselves.
The type of passion someone experiences actually changes the way they process sexual information.
People who obsess about sex tend to experience more negative emotions both during sex and during other activities. The narrow, goal-oriented perspective of obsessive types not only diminishes enjoyment of the act while it's happening, but also detracts from engagement in and enjoyment of the pursuit of nonsexual goals. On top of that, obsessive passion was correlated with a conflict in attention to relationships/partners.
Perhaps most unsettling is the finding that obsessive sexual passion is "related to violent actions under threat of romantic rejection, as well as greater dissolution of romantic relationships over time."
Harmonious sexual passion, however, was associated with a more balanced interpretation of sexual representations outside of sex encounters, greater control over the sex drive, fewer intrusive sexual thoughts, and had no negative impact on relationships. Harmonious sexual passion appears to lead to higher-quality relationships over time.
Obsessive sexual passion does not translate to greater sexual desire.
That's right—Harmonious and obsessive sexual passion showed an equal correlation with sexual desire. So, what causes it? And can an outlook of harmonious sexual passion be encouraged? Being taught to perceive sex as a performance to be judged, a goal to be achieved, or a secret to be ashamed of breeds those feelings of detachment so indicative of obsessive passion. As for the antidote? A supportive, accepting, sex-positive environment throughout life is a major predictor of harmonious sexual passion in adulthood, and a worthy starting point.
Want more insight on love and sex? Check out these four signs you need to rethink your boundaries and explore whether or not casual sex could take your personal growth to the next level.