Thursday, October 25, 2012

Women with stable but not-so-sexy mates become more distant, critical during periods of high fertility

Long after women have chosen Mr. Stable over Mr. Sexy, they struggle unconsciously with the decision, according to a new study by UCLA researchers who look at subtle changes in behavior during ovulation. At their most fertile period, these women are less likely to feel close to their mates and more likely to find fault with them than women mated to more sexually desirable men, the research shows. "A woman evaluates her relationship differently at different times in her cycle, and her evaluation seems to be colored by how sexually attractive she perceives her partner to be," said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and senior author of the study. Nevertheless, the negative feelings appear fleeting, and they don't seem to affect a woman's long-term commitment to her romantic relationship, the study found. "Even when these women are feeling less positive about their relationship, they don't want to end it," said Christina Larson, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate in social psychology at UCLA. The findings are scheduled to appear in the November issue of the peer-reviewed journal Hormones and Behavior. Through a series of high-profile studies, Haselton's lab has revealed telling changes that take place in women's behavior during ovulation. Possibly to increase the odds of attracting suitable mating partners, these behaviors include a tendency to dress up and to speak in a higher-pitched, more feminine voice and — in a potential inbreeding-avoidance mechanism — to refrain from contact with male kin. In addition, the lab has found that women whose mates are less sexy and masculine tend to be more attracted to other men during the few fertile days leading up to ovulation. "A lot of research has shown that women's preferences change over the course of the cycle, but this is the first time that these changes have been shown to have implications for relationship functioning," Larson said. She and Haselton began the study by pinpointing the ovulation cycles of 41 undergraduate women involved in long-term heterosexual relationships. They asked the women to rate the sexual attractiveness of their mates by answering such questions as "How desirable do you think women find your partner as a short-term mate or casual sex partner, compared to most men." They also asked the women a series of questions designed to measure their partner's stability or suitability as a long-term mate, including questions about how his present and future financial status compares with that of most men. Then at two different points in her monthly cycle — at high fertility (just before ovulation) and at low fertility — each woman was asked about the quality of her romantic relationship. The researchers, who used a questionnaire designed exclusively for the study, found no significant change across the cycle in how the women perceived their level of commitment to the relationship or, at least initially, in their satisfaction with it. But an exercise that required the women to rate how close they felt to their men yielded dramatic results. As women mated to less sexually attractive men moved from their least fertile to most fertile period, their closeness scores dropped one point on a seven-point scale. Women mated to the most sexually attractive men, meanwhile, experienced the opposite effect. As these women moved from their least to most fertile period, their closeness scores rose by a point. "Women with the really good, stable guy felt more distant at high-fertility periods than low-fertility periods," Haselton said. "That isn't the case with women who were mated to particularly sexually attractive men. The closeness of their relationships got a boost just prior to ovulation." To ensure that the findings were not an anomaly, Haselton and Larson repeated the experiment with 67 other co-eds in long-term relationships. This time, however, the researchers administered a better-recognized measure for relationship satisfaction than the one they originally used. They also administered a questionnaire aimed at illuminating a dimension not studied in the first round: pickiness. The questionnaire asked the women to rate how characteristic such faults as being moody, childish, emotional, thoughtless and critical were of their mate. The researchers found that women mated to the less sexually attractive men were significantly more likely to find fault with their partners and, again, feel less close to their partners during the high-fertility period than the low-fertility period. Women who rated their mates as more sexually attractive, meanwhile, did not exhibit these changes and instead reported being more satisfied with their relationship at high fertility than at low fertility. The researchers believe the findings shed light on a suite of conflicting behaviors that stem from mating strategies that might have provided an evolutionary benefit to women's female ancestors of long ago but today probably serve no other purpose than to stir the domestic pot. "Since our female ancestors couldn't directly examine a potential partner's genetic makeup, they had to base their decisions on physical manifestations of the presence of good genes and the absence of genetic mutations, which might include masculine features such as a deep voice, masculine face, dominant behavior and sexy looks," said Haselton, who is affiliated with UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture. "It is possible that we evolved to feel drawn to these visible markers because, at least in the past, they proved to be indicators of good genes," she said. "Ancestral women who were attracted to these features could have produced offspring who were more successful in attracting mates and producing progeny." But as any mother with mounting bills and laundry can attest, women do not look only for good genes in a potential partner. "In the reproductive arena, women probably evolved to desire men who could contribute both quality care and good genes," Haselton said. "The problem is that there is a limited number of potential mates who are high in both. So many women are forced to make trade-offs." She calls the urge for a stable long-term partner along with the increased desire for a more sexually attractive mate during periods of high fertility the "dual mating hypothesis." Haselton and Larson next plan to look at whether fault-finding and the feelings of distance and dissatisfaction have any long-term destabilizing effects on the relationships of women with less sexually attractive men. They also plan to look into how, if at all, the behavior is perceived by the male partners of these women. "We don't know if men are picking up on this behavior, but if they are, it must be confusing for them," Larson said.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How to Prove a Sexual Addiction

The idea that an individual might suffer from a sexual addiction is great fodder for radio talk shows, comedians and late night TV. But a sex addiction is no laughing matter. Relationships are destroyed, jobs are lost, lives ruined. Yet psychiatrists have been reluctant to accept the idea of out-of-control sexual behavior as a mental health disorder because of the lack of scientific evidence. Now a UCLA-led team of experts has tested a proposed set of criteria to define "hypersexual disorder," also known as sexual addiction, as a new mental health condition. Rory Reid, a research psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, led a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists that found the proposed criteria to be reliable and valid in helping mental health professionals accurately diagnose hypersexual disorder. The results of this study — reported in the current edition of the Journal of Sexual Medicine — will influence whether hypersexual disorder should be included in the forthcoming revised fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), considered the "bible" of psychiatry. The importance of the study, Reid said, is that it suggests evidence in support of hypersexual disorder as a legitimate mental health condition. "The criteria for hypersexual disorder that have been proposed, and now tested, will allow researchers and clinicians to study, treat and develop prevention strategies for individuals at risk for developing hypersexual behavior," he said. The criteria, developed by a DSM-5 sexual and gender identity disorders work group for the revised manual, establish a number of symptoms that must be present. These include a recurring pattern of sexual fantasies, urges and behaviors lasting a period of six months or longer that are not caused by other issues, such as substance abuse, another medical condition or manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder. Also, individuals who might be diagnosed with this disorder must show a pattern of sexual activity in response to unpleasant mood states, such as feeling depressed, or a pattern of repeatedly using sex as a way of coping with stress. Part of the criteria also states that individuals must be unsuccessful in their attempts to reduce or stop sexual activities they believe are problematic. "As with many other mental health disorders," said Reid, "there must also be evidence of personal distress caused by the sexual behaviors that interfere with relationships, work or other important aspects of life." In order to evaluate the criteria for hypersexual disorder, Reid and his colleagues conducted psychological testing and interviews with 207 patients in several mental health clinics around the country. All of the patients were seeking help for out-of-control sexual behavior, a substance-abuse disorder or another psychiatric condition, such as depression or anxiety. The researchers found that the proposed criteria for hypersexual disorder accurately classified 88 percent of hypersexual patients as having the disorder; the criteria were also accurate in identifying negative results 93 percent of the time. In other words, the criteria appear to do a good job of discriminating between patients who experience hypersexual behavior and those who don't, such as patients seeking help for other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or substance abuse. "The results lead us to believe that the proposed criteria tend not to identify patients who don't have problems with their sexual behavior," Reid said. "This is a significant finding, since many had expressed concerns that the proposal would falsely classify individuals." Reid also noted that the ability of the criteria to accurately identify hypersexual disorder in these patients was quite high and compared favorably to other psychiatric diagnoses. Another significant finding of the study, he said, was that patients who met the criteria for hypersexual disorder experienced significantly greater consequences for their sexual activities, compared with individuals with a substance-abuse diagnosis or a general medical condition. Of the 207 patients they examined, 17 percent had lost a job at least once, 39 percent had a relationship end, 28 percent contracted a sexually transmitted infection and 78 percent had interference with healthy sex. "So an individual meeting the criteria for hypersexual disorder can experience significant challenges and consequences in their life," Reid said. "Our study showed increased hypersexual behavior was related to greater emotional disturbance, impulsivity and an inability to manage stress." Interestingly, the researchers found that 54 percent of the hypersexual patients felt their sexual behavior began to be problematic before the age of 18. Another 30 percent reported that their sexual behavior began to be problematic during their college-aged years, from 18 to 25. "This appears to be a disorder that emerges in adolescence and young adulthood, which has ramifications for early intervention and prevention strategies," Reid said. The study also examined the types of sexual behavior that hypersexual patients reported. The most common included masturbation and excessive use of pornography, followed by sex with another consenting adult and cybersex. The study noted that hypersexual patients had sex with commercial sex workers, had repeated affairs or had multiple anonymous partners — amounting to an average of 15 sex partners in the previous 12-month period. "It's not that a lot of people don't take sexual risks from time to time or use sex on occasion to cope with stress or just escape, but for these patients, it's a constant pattern that escalates until their desire for sex is controlling every aspect of their lives and they feel powerless in their efforts to change," Reid noted.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Age of First Sexual Experience Predicts Romantic Outcomes in Adulthood

It’s a common lament among parents: Kids are growing up too fast these days. Parents worry about their kids getting involved in all kinds of risky behavior, but they worry especially about their kids’ forays into sexual relationships. And research suggests that there may be cause for concern, as timing of sexual development can have significant immediate consequences for adolescents’ physical and mental health. But what about long-term outcomes? How might early sexual initiation affect romantic relationships in adulthood? Psychological scientist Paige Harden of the University of Texas at Austin wanted to investigate whether the timing of sexual initiation in adolescence might predict romantic outcomes – such as whether people get married or live with their partners, how many romantic partners they’ve had, and whether they’re satisfied with their relationship – later in adulthood. To answer this question, Harden used data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health to look at 1659 same-sex sibling pairs who were followed from adolescence (around 16) to young adulthood (around 29). Each sibling was classified as having an Early (younger than 15), On-Time (age 15-19), or Late (older than 19) first experience with sexual intercourse. Her findings are reported in a new research article published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. As expected, later timing of first sexual experience was associated with higher educational attainment and higher household income in adulthood when compared with the Early and On-Time groups. Individuals who had a later first sexual experience were also less likely to be married and they had fewer romantic partners in adulthood. Among the participants who were married or living with a partner, later sexual initiation was associated with significantly lower levels of relationship dissatisfaction in adulthood. The association held up even after taking genetic and environmental factors into account and could not be explained by differences in adult educational attainment, income, or religiousness, or by adolescent differences in dating involvement, body mass index, or attractiveness. These results suggest that the timing of first experience with sexual intercourse predicts the quality and stability of romantic relationships in young adulthood. Although research has often focused on the consequences of early sexual activity, the Early and On-Time participants in this study were largely indistinguishable. The data suggest that early initiation is not a “risk” factor so much as late initiation is a “protective” factor in shaping romantic outcomes. According to Harden, there are several possible mechanisms that might explain this relationship. It’s possible, for example, that people who have their first sexual encounter later also have certain characteristics (e.g., secure attachment style) that have downstream effects on both sexual delay and on relationship quality. They could be pickier in choosing romantic and sexual partners, resulting in a reluctance to enter into intimate relationships unless they are very satisfying. It’s also possible, however, that people who have their first sexual encounter later have different experiences, avoiding early encounters with relational aggression or victimization that would otherwise have detrimental effects on later romantic outcomes. Finally, Harden explains that it’s possible that “individuals who first navigate intimate relationships in young adulthood, after they have accrued cognitive and emotional maturity, may learn more effective relationship skills than individuals who first learn scripts for intimate relationships while they are still teenagers.” Future research can help to tease apart which of these mechanisms may actually be at work in driving the association between timing of first sexual intercourse and later romantic outcomes. In previous studies, Harden and her colleagues have found that earlier sexual intercourse isn’t always associated with negative outcomes. For example, using the same sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, she found that teenagers who experienced their first sexual intercourse earlier, particularly those who had sex in a romantic dating relationship, had lower levels of delinquent behavior problems. She explains, “We are just beginning to understand how adolescents’ sexual experiences influence their future development and relationships.”