What Exactly Is Sexual Satisfaction?

Is sexual satisfaction strictly subjective, or can it be objectively measured?

Posted Jan 11, 2015

Sexual satisfaction is associated with relationship quality; indeed, there is a clinical consensus that sexual dissatisfaction in an indicator of relationship difficulties.  While this conclusion is in no way a new finding, some researchers have been looking at this association from a novel perspective.  Instead of asking whether a person is or is not sexually satisfied in his or her current relationship, they are asking a more nuanced question: “How does one define sexual satisfaction in a relationship?”  Or, in other words, does everyone experience sexual satisfaction in the same way?

Many studies ask participants to rank their sexual satisfaction beginning at 1 as “not at all satisfied” onto higher numbers indicating increasing levels of sexual satisfaction (e.g., “5 = extremely satisfied”).  However the use of a single-item measure to assess a complicated construct such as sexual satisfaction leaves open the real possibility that sexual satisfaction might be defined very differently among participants.  Is my ranking of “5” similar to your ranking of “5”?   Even more comprehensive measures of sexual satisfaction used for research purposes encounter a similar problem, and a 2014 comparison of several scales concluded there were systematic differences between these measures.[i]

What then is sexual satisfaction?  Are we reliant strictly upon subjective experience, or are there identifiable objective components that create sexual satisfaction?

A 2014 study asked 760 participants (449 women and 311 men), “How would you define sexual satisfaction?”  While there was a diversity of responses, two primary themes emerged: personal sexual well-being and dyadic processes.  In regards to the former, the experience of pleasure encompassed more than orgasm and included positive feelings during sexual activity; desiring one’s partner; lacking inhibitions during sexual activity; feeling aroused and excited; and the mutuality of these experiences for the individuals involved.  In regards to the dyadic process, expression of feelings, courtship and romance, and creativity (i.e., novelty and surprise) were highlighted.[ii]

Researchers in the field have expressed a need for an agreed-upon definition of sexual satisfaction.  For professionals, there has been an unfortunate focus upon impediments to sexual satisfaction, particularly sexual dysfunction and relational conflict, with an assumption that their absence is indicative of satisfaction.  The additional reliance on subjective single-item measures of sexual satisfaction, which is very much standard practice in sexual research on the topic, does not allow us to agree upon a singular understanding of the construct. Does, for example, sexual satisfaction have the same meaning for a couple that has been together for several months as it does to a couple that has been together for ten years?   The study described in this posting offers us a preliminary approach: sexual satisfaction consists of more than pleasurable sensations, and, according to the study’s authors, “[S]exual satisfaction relates more to the presence of positive aspects of sexual experience (i.e., sexual rewards) than to the absence of negative aspects (i.e., sexual costs)… Measures that focus on the positive aspects of sexual satisfaction should be preferred for research purposes…”[iii]

[i] Kristen P. Mark, Debby Herbenick J. Dennis Fortenberry, Stephanie Sanders & Michael Reece, “A Psychometric Comparison of Three Scales and a Single-Item Measure to Assess Sexual Satisfaction,” Journal of Sex Research 51, no. 2 (2014).

[ii] Patrícia Monteiro Pascoal, Isabel de Santa Bárbara Narciso & Nuno Monteiro Pereira, “What is SexualSatisfaction? Thematic Analysis of Lay People’s Definitions,” Journal of Sex Research 51,no. 1 (2014).

[iii] Ibid., 27-28.