Sex and Death

Sex and death; these aren’t topics that tend to appear in the same article, I grant you. But you’ll be pleased to know it’s not actual death we’re concerned with here; but it is actual sex, which I presume you’ll also be pleased to know.

Mortality salience means the extent to which you are aware that life is finite and someday you will die. Obviously this is a fluid concept, and it can be increased just by bringing up the topic, such as I have just done – your mortality salience has now increased. You’re welcome.

Mortality salience has an interesting effect on people. When reminded of death, people tend to deepen their identification with cultural symbols, as though they are trying to latch on to things that are more permanent than they are. It’s called Terror Management Theory, and some interesting results have come up; when reminded of death, people are less likely to deface flags and crosses, and people in capitalistic societies become more materialistic. But what’s the relationship between sex and death?

Credit: Micky the pixel

Well clearly it would depend on the relevance and meaning that sex (and death, presumably) holds for people. Tests of this would be expected to come out differently in different cultures and for different people.

In one test, researchers reminded participants of their mortality, and then asked them if they would – hypothetically – be likely to have a casual fling with someone. The men said they would, the women said they wouldn’t, on average. Then a second test was done, with different people. This time, the participants were asked if they would want sex following a romantic date, and both genders were up for it.

That ties in pretty nicely with the socially accepted sexual behaviours of the genders (the old “A man can sow his oats freely but a woman gets labelled a slut” things), and also evolutionary ideas of the different mating strategies for men and women.

But there is a big criticism here, which I’ll be returning to again and again with the research on dating, sex, relationships and attraction in psychology – the test was not a real situation! Scientifically speaking, the study says nothing about what people would actually do, only what they say they would do. This limitation has particularly strong ramifications in this particular design.

Think about this for a moment. Terror management theory predicts that people will fall into their cultural roles when people are reminded of their own mortality. So how do we know that, for example, women are not falling into the cultural role of not talking about having one nights stands, especially with someone who is stood there with a clipboard, recording it for all eternity? The very theory being tested seems to deepen the response biases of the participants, particularly the women.

So is there a link between sex and death salience? Although these results are consistent with that, I think it’s premature that start using “You’re going to die!” as your new chat up line!

BIRNBAUM, G., HIRSCHBERGER, G., and GOLDENBERG, J. (2011). Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation.

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