Young adulthood is often associated with exciting developments in intimacy and relationships, but research showing increased sexual dysfunction among the 18-25 age group has emerged in recent years. A study published in The Journal of Sex Research explores how sexual dysfunction in young adulthood may be related to anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and childhood victimization.
Sexual difficulties are often thought of as something that occurs in old age, but current research shows over 75% of young adults report experiencing some form of sexual dysfunction. Some forms of dysfunction have even been found to be more prevalent in young adults than they are in the elderly.
Previous research has linked sexual difficulties with more maladaptive forms of attachment, such as anxious and avoidant, but this has not been extended and confirmed for a young adult population specifically, which this study aims to address.
For their study, Caroline Dugal and colleagues utilized a sample of 437 French-Canadian emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Participants were predominantly female, Canada-born, heterosexual, and educated. The sample was recruited through social media, email, and community locations.
All participants needed to have at least one sexual or romantic partner in the past 6 months. Participants completed the study online and completed measures on demographics, romantic attachment, sex motives, sexual difficulties, and childhood interpersonal victimization.
Results showed that insecure attachment, including anxious and avoidant attachment styles, can affect sexual dysfunction due to the reasons that people decide to have sex. “Results of the current study shed light on key interpersonal and sexual factors that are associated with sexual difficulties experienced by emerging adults. Specifically, the study suggests that attachment insecurities might play a role in the reasons for which emerging adults engage in sex, which in turn, can shape their experience of sex,” the researchers wrote.
Anxious attachment style is characterized by a fear of abandonment, a preoccupation with the relationship, and a tendency to be emotionally reactive. Avoidant attachment style is characterized by a fear of intimacy and a tendency to distance oneself from emotional connection.
People who reported having sex for pleasure tended to have lower levels of sexual dysfunction. People with anxious attachment styles were more likely to report having sex for partner approval, self-affirmation, and coping motives. Of these, only the partner approval motive was significantly linked with sexual dysfunction.
These relationships varied as a product of childhood victimization. Participants who experienced low levels of victimization in childhood and were anxiously attached were more likely to endorse having sex as a form of coping, which was associated with difficulty achieving vaginal lubrication or erection.
Participants with avoidant attachment who experienced low levels of childhood victimization reported lower arousal and difficulty achieving orgasm regardless of sexual motives. For participants who experienced high levels of childhood victimization, having avoidant attachment was associated with having sex for partner approval, which was related to problems with sex drive, arousal, and the physiological mechanisms associated with sex.
This study took important steps into better understanding how both attachment style and interpersonal childhood victimization related to sexual dysfunction for emerging adults. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample was predominantly female, Canadian, and educated. Future research could utilize a more diverse sample.
Additionally, this study did not explore how correlations may change between relationship statuses; future research could explore differences in sexual dysfunction between single or partnered individuals.
The study, “Romantic Attachment, Sex Motives and Sexual Difficulties in Emerging Adults: The Role of Childhood Interpersonal Victimization“, was authored by Caroline Dugal, Audrey Brassard, Pierre-Yves Kusion, Audrey-Ann Lefebvre, Katherine Péloquin, and Natacha Godbout.