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Mental Health Benefits of Partnered Sexual Activity

Lisa Diamond, PhD
University of Utah
Award Year: 2012

Initial Abstract

Historically, research on the health implications of sexual behavior has focused exclusively on its potential for health risks, such as sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies, and sexual assault/abuse. Yet in recent years, researchers have called for greater study of the positive, normative, health-promoting dimensions of sexual functioning, rather than an exclusive focus on sexual risks and problems. In recent years, a number of large-scale prospective studies have found that regular, satisfying sexual activity is associated with longterm reductions in morbidity and mortality, and some studies have even found that greater participation in partnered sexual activity is associated with reduced cardiovascular reactivity to stress. Yet a significant weakness of this body research is its exclusive focus on heterosexual populations and its near-exclusive focus on penile-vaginal intercourse. These studies suggest that penile-vaginal intercourse is associated with greater health benefits than other sexual acts, yet none of these studies have included lesbian and bisexual women, for whom non-intercourse sexual acts might be appraised as more desirable and highly valued, potentially rendering them more beneficial. Hence, the proposed study will investigate the mental and physical health implications of a diverse range of sexual practices pursued by 120 lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual women (all of whom were participants in previous research conducted by the principal investigator). Participants will rate the degree to which they desire and value a range of different sexual activities (i.e., giving and/or receiving manual or oral stimulation of different parts of the body, including the breasts, vulva, anus, and clitoris, manual or penile penetration of the vagina or anus, use of a dildo to penetrate the vagina or anus, use of vibrators or other sex toys, mutual rubbing of body parts). Then, for 4 weeks, women will log on to a secure website each evening and report on their participation, over the previous 24 hours, in each of these sexual behaviors. Women will also report on the nature of their relationship to their sexual partner (i.e., casual versus serious/regular), whether the partner was male or female (or transgendered), whether they wanted the sexual contact, how satisfying they found the sexual contact, and whether they achieved orgasm. The daily online diary will also contain brief measures assessing women’s positive and negative affectivity, anxiety, stress, and physical symptomology. At the end of the 4-week diary assessment, women will visit the principal investigator’s physiological laboratory at the University of Utah, where they will complete a standardized psychological stress protocol, during which their skin conductance and blood pressure reactivity will be assessed. At the end of the 4-week period women will complete a laboratory assessment of their autonomic nervous system reactivity to psychological stress. I will test whether participation in sexual activity that is satisfying, and which is perceived by women as desirable and highly valued, is associated with subsequent day-to-day decreases in negative affect, physical symptoms, anxiety, and stress, and whether women reporting higher overall participation in desired and valued sexual activities have lower autonomic nervous system reactivity to stress.

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