Those who frequently engage in cognitive reappraisal — a coping strategy that involves changing one’s interpretation of a situation — tend to have heightened sexual desire, according to new research published in Scientific Reports.
Cognitive reappraisal is a technique commonly used in cognitive-behavioral therapy and involves actively reinterpreting a situation to change the emotional impact it has on an individual. By changing the way they think about the situation, they can reduce the intensity of their emotional response and feel more in control. The new findings suggest that this emotion regulation strategy is beneficial for sexual functioning.
“Sexuality and sexual health are topics that are still understudied despite being an integral part of our lives, with our ability to experience sexual desire as something that affects our physical-, mental-, and sexual well-being,” said study author Kristian Westbye Sævik, a master’s student at the clinical psychology program at the University of Copenhagen.
“My interest in the specific topic came from current and earlier research on sexuality, especially sexual desire, seeing a trend of diminishing sex differences in the strength of sexual desire over the last decades of research. I remember also many of whom I conversed with about my research plans where some showed excitement and others labeled it as ‘taboo’ – which in all honesty did the opposite of making me shy away from the idea.”
The researchers used an online survey to study sexual desire, expressive suppression, cognitive reappraisal, and sexual shame in 218 Norwegian adults who were 18 years old or older. Most of the participants were between 18-23 years old and single. The researchers also asked about the participants’ relationship status and found that most were either single or in a relationship but not living with their partner. Additionally, the majority identified as monogamous.
Sævik and his colleague, Carolien Konijnenberg, found that how people think about and interpret their sexual feelings (cognitive reappraisal) was related to how much they desired sex. However, feelings of shame about sex and trying to hide or suppress emotions during sexual experiences (expressive suppression) were unrelated to sexual desire.
The researchers used a statistical method called multiple regression analysis to see if cognitive reappraisal, emotional suppression, and sexual shame together could predict how much people desire sex. They found that cognitive reappraisal was the only factor that predicted sexual desire, particularly for women.
“Not finding any significant relationship between expressive suppression and sexual desire was rather surprising, although a much larger sample would be needed to support this,” Sævik noted.
The researchers also looked at different types of sexual desire, such as wanting to have sex with a partner or by oneself. They found that cognitive reappraisal predicted partner-focused sexual desire and general dyadic sexual desire for an attractive person, but not solitary sexual desire. Expressive suppression did not predict any type of sexual desire. Sexual shame did predict solitary sexual desire, but not partner-focused sexual desire or general dyadic sexual desire for an attractive person.
Overall, the study suggests that cognitive reappraisal is important for how much they desire sex, but feelings of shame or trying to hide emotions during sex may not be as important. Those with a high level of cognitive reappraisal agree with statements such as “When I want to feel more positive emotion, I change the way I’m thinking about the situation.”
The researchers also found that gender only had a significant effect on expressive suppression, with men being more likely to suppress their emotions than women. However, there were no significant differences between men and women regarding sexual desire or sexual shame.
“The average person reading the study will hopefully learn something new about sexual desire as a phenomenon, and that it could be related to how we regulate our emotions in our everyday lives,” Sævik told PsyPost. “With the former presumptions of sex differences in strength of sexual desire now no longer being supported in research, hopefully, this will receive some attention as well.”
The study had limitations related to the sample size and demographics of the participants. The majority of participants were young adults from Norway, which limits the generalizability of the results to older populations and populations outside Norway. To verify the results and understand potential generational differences, the researchers recommended future studies with larger and more diverse samples.
“Since sex differences are according to the current research diminishing in at least Western societies, perhaps there are other factors or components that are more significant determinants of the phenomenon,” Sævik said. “If these could be identified, it could also help in the further understanding of sexual disturbances as well, such as hyposexual desire disorder (HSSD) which today is (at least in the United States, to my knowledge) a disorder that is medically treated.”
“The medical treatment for HSSD for women in the United States is flibanserin, which according to a systematic review and meta-analysis by Jaspers et al. 2016 was shown to have little to no significant clinical benefit for the medicated but with both clinically and statistically significant adverse effects.”
“Hopefully, the current study facilitates future studies to at least consider including other factors such as cognitive reappraisal in evaluating and measuring sexual desire; to either support or critique the findings of the study,” Sævik added.
The study, “The effects of sexual shame, emotion regulation and gender on sexual desire“, was published March 10, 2023.