Lust: What we Know about Human Sexual Desire


Pamela C. Regan & Ellen Berscheid

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Sage Series on Close Relationships

    Series Editors

    Clyde Hendrick, Ph.D., and Susan S. Hendrick, Ph.D.

    In this series


    by Susan S. Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick


    by Rodnev M. Cate and Sally A. Lloyd


    by Rosemary Blieszner and Rebecca G. Adams


    by Lucia Albino Gilbert


    by Valerian J. Derlega, Sandra Metts,

    Sandra Petronio, and Stephen T. Margulis


    by Susan Sprecher and Kathleen McKinney


    by William R. Cupach and Sandra Metts


    by Steve Duck


    by Lawrence H. Ganong and Marilyn Coleman


    by Daniel J. Canary, William R. Cupach, and Susan J. Messman


    by Renee F. Lyons, Michael J. L. Sullivan, and Paul G. Ritvo with James C. Coyne


    by Beverley Fehr


    by Carolyn E. Cutrona


    by Judith Feeney and Patricia Noller


    by Barbara A. Winstead, Valarian J. Derlega, and Suzanna Rose


    by Janice M. Steil


    by Pamela C. Regan and Ellen Berscheid


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    “What Makes a Woman Bedable?” (Cosmopolitan)

    “60 Wild, Erotic Ways to Excite Your Lover” (Woman's Own)

    “Love vs. Lust: How You'll Know the Difference” (Woman's Own)

    “How to Spark His Desire (Again & Again & Again)” (Red-book)

    “Guy Expectations: How to Get What You Want” (Teen)

    “Sex Made Easy” (Men's Health)

    “Hot, Fast Sex: The Quick and the Bed” (Men's Fitness)

    “Supercharged Sex: How to Find a Like-Minded Partner” (Exercise & Health)

    “Sex-cess! Get Lucky… Tonight!” (Exercise & Health)

    “What Women Really Want” (Men's Fitness)

    These quotations, taken from the headlines of several contemporary men's and women's magazines, underscore the almost obsessive fascination with which the media and the reading public approach the topic of sexual desire. Popular music, television, and film provide countless depictions of sexually passionate relationships, alternately glorifying and vilifying the desires of the flesh. On a daily basis, talk show hosts and their invited guests tell us how to behave in a sexually desirable manner, what to say to communicate sexual desire to an attractive other, and what clothes to wear to ignite sexual desire in our current flames. Should this advice fail, we can always turn to the countless self-help books that promise to teach us in 10 easy steps how to rekindle the sexual ashes of our fading romances, once-torrid love affairs, or weatherbeaten marriages. All of these events conspire to teach us that sexual desire is a necessary ingredient in our romantic relationships and that sexual desirability is something we each should strive to attain.

    That sexual desire is associated with and has implications for several meaningful experiences in human life will come as no surprise to our readers. What will come as a surprise, perhaps, is the fact that sexual desire has only recently emerged as a topic considered worthy of rigorous scientific investigation. As a result, although as private citizens we may think a lot (and think we know a lot) about sexual desire, there is a dearth of research and theory on this topic in the professional literature. In addition, what little information there is can be found buried here and there within a variety of disciplines, including biology and medicine, psychology and philosophy, sex and marital therapy, sociology and anthropology, and ethology (to name a few). Because traditionally there has been very little communication among these disciplines, the interested student of this aspect of human experience finds himself or herself faced with an unorganized mishmash of contradictory theoretical statements and confusing empirical data.

    Our goal in writing this monograph is to dispel some of this confusion by reviewing and bringing together in one volume past and present theory, supposition, and knowledge about sexual desire. Although we write primarily from a social psychological perspective, our general approach is interdisciplinary in that we incorporate material from a multitude of fields. The eight chapters encompass a wide range of theoretical and empirical work. Chapter 1 sets the stage by considering the study of sexual desire from a historical perspective. In particular, we discuss how the emphasis placed by early sex researchers on abnormal sexuality, on animal sexuality, and on overt physiological and behavioral sexual responses contributed to the neglect of such subjective, psychological sexual phenomena such as sexual desire. We then review work in clinical and social psychology that led to the emergence of sexual desire as a topic worthy of scientific scrutiny.

    Of course, any discussion of sexual desire must first specify the characteristic manifestations of this experience. Thus, Chapter 2 focuses on the phenomenon of sexual desire—what it is and what events serve to indicate its occurrence. We describe characteristics of a state of (general) desire, distinguish sexual desire from both sexual arousal and sexual activity, and present the various theoretical approaches to sexual desire and its measurement.

    We are particularly interested in reviewing research pertinent to the causal dynamics of sexual desire. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the “body” of desire—that is, all the hormonal, biological, and physical factors that contribute to and influence the experience of sexual desire. We examine how people's feelings of sexual desire are related to hormone levels and hormonally mediated life events (e.g., menstruation), chronological age, biological sex, physical health, and drug use.

    In Chapter 5, we turn from the physical to the mental. In particular, we explore how social norms, affective expectancies, previous experiences, personality variables, mood, and emotional state may contribute to the experience of sexual desire. Because what people believe about sexual desire may influence their behavior, we also present data from our own descriptive research on men's and women's beliefs about the nature and causes of sexual desire.

    Emotions, expectancies, and beliefs often are experienced about and within a specific relationship with a particular partner. Chapter 6 considers various partner characteristics that may incite sexual desire, including physical attractiveness, physique and physique display, social status and dominance, novelty, and pheromones. In addition, we review research on the association between sexual desire and relational events (e.g., communication, satisfaction, adjustment).

    Chapter 7 continues our exploration of the interpersonal aspects of sexual desire by focusing on the relationship between sexual desire and passionate love. The first part of this chapter examines theoretical statements about the link, if any, between these two experiences; the second reviews indirect and direct empirical evidence that speaks to this question.

    We conclude, in Chapter 8, by considering the personal, interpersonal, and societal implications of sexual desire—the experience itself, as well as beliefs about its nature, causes, and meaning.

    Sexual desire plays an important role in human lives and human interpersonal relationships. We hope that this book sheds some small degree of light on this fascinating and understudied topic.


    We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of several individuals who contributed in various ways to this work. In particular, we would like to thank Susan and Clyde Hendrick for their initial interest in and their sustained commitment to this project; C. Terry Hendrix for believing that a book on sexual desire would make an important contribution to the literature and to the Sage Series on Close Relationships; David Soltz (Dean, School of Natural and Social Sciences) and Michael Roffe (Chairperson, Department of Psychology) of California State University, Los Angeles for providing the first author with leave time to complete this work; and our friends, colleagues, and family (human and nonhuman) for their guidance, support, and encouragement during the tenure of this project.

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    About the Authors

    Pamela C. Regan is Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her research interests are in the areas of close relationships and human sexuality, with an emphasis on passionate love, sexual desire, and mate preference. She directs the Social Relations Lab at CSU Los Angeles and has published numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews on sex, love, and mating.

    Ellen Bersheid is Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. She received her degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her research interests are in the areas of close relationships, interpersonal attraction, and emotion. In 1998, she was honored by the American Psychological Association and by the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships for her outstanding contributions to the field of psychology and to the science of close relationships.

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