Sex: What Do Women (and Men) Really Want?

by Theresa Notaré, M.A.

From all corners — magazines, movies, TV and "talk shows" — there's no escaping the message: What people want and need is the latest car, a leaner body, more sex and more money. Such things can be alluring, but their pleasure is fleeting, and ultimately unfulfilling. They bring neither lasting happiness nor love.

The false cultural messages are not without impact. You may spend more than you can afford on the car you thought you couldn't live without. Or buy gym equipment to get into shape that ultimately ends up as a clothes tree in the corner of a room. But when people allow themselves to be misled with regard to sexuality, love and marriage the impact can be serious and destructive.

When dealing with the gift of human sexuality, we need to see beyond the beguiling enticements and look very critically at the facts.

Science provides a wealth of information about human fertility. Not only do we know what constitutes a healthy reproductive life of males and females, but we know how to suppress fertility with contraceptives or facilitate it with reproductive technologies. Within this world of techno-wizardry, few stop to ask if manipulating fertility is healthy or good.

There are many devices and chemicals to control a woman's fertility and they all have serious side effects. In April 2004, for example, an 18-year old New York woman reportedly died from a blood clot, resulting from her use of the contraceptive "patch."1 Norplant can cause irregular bleeding and increase the risk for ovarian cysts, blurred vision and migraine headaches. Various forms of "the Pill" increase the risk of blood clots, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, cervical cancer, migraines, heart disease, and depression. Hormonal contraceptives can also act as abortifacients. This is clearly not healthy or good for women.

Today's obsession with controlling human fertility has led millions of women and men to unknowingly put their health and fertility at risk. The dominant societal message that sexual activity is morally neutral — as long as it is in private and consensual — has fostered the practice of multiple sexual partners and given rise to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). After the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it took only two decades for the U.S. to reach epidemic levels of STDs.2

By 1999 there were 70 million Americans infected with one or more STDs.3 The lifetime risk of becoming infected with an STD is estimated to be over 20%.4

Certain strains of human papilloma virus (HPV), one of the most common viral STDs, are responsible for over 99% of all cervical cancer.5 Genital herpes, an incurable disease, afflicts 45 million Americans, and one million new cases are added each year.6 Some STDs are lethal. HIV/AIDS, for example, has caused the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans since the epidemic began, and over 22 million worldwide.7

The fact is that the human body cannot handle multiple sexual partners. From the perspective of the physical body alone, the only thing that makes sense is to practice abstinence or monogamy. One's health and happiness may depend upon it.

Emotional Health

Science also sheds light on our emotional well being. Sociological research shows that since the 1960s there has been a steady increase in non-marital sexual activity in Western developed countries. In 1998, the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago reported an average of 7.8 sexual partners after the age of 18 — an increase over the 1990 level of 7.0 partners — but significantly lower than the 9.5 partners mean reported in 1996.8 In May 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that one in five teens has sex before age 15, 37% between the ages of 15 and 17, and 80% between the ages of 18 and 24.9

Today it is estimated that half of newly married couples cohabited prior to marriage. In the 2000 Census, there were 5.5 million cohabiting unmarried couples (up from 3.2 million in 1990).10


Given these facts, are people happier? Does this behavior aid growth in emotional or sexual maturity? Does it make people more generous or better able to persevere in difficult situations? What impact does this behavior have on marriage and family life? Are those who have multiple sexual partners better able to form lasting relationships? Better prepared to put the needs of loved ones above their own desires? Research provides answers to many of these questions.11

Over 25 percent of sexually active teenage girls 14-17 report being depressed all, most or "a lot" of the time, a rate of depression more than three times that of teenage girls who are not sexually active (7.7 percent).12 Sexually active boys 14-17 report being depressed all, most or a lot of the time at a rate 2 times greater than boys who are not sexually active (8.3 percent vs. 3.4 percent). "A full 14.3 percent of girls who are sexually active report having attempted suicide [in the past 12 months]. By contrast, only 5.1 percent of sexually inactive girls have attempted suicide."13 The contrast between sexually active boys (6.0 percent of whom attempted suicide in the past 12 months) and boys who were not sexually active (0.7 percent) is even greater — almost 8 times higher. Do teens regret having become sexually active? 72% of sexually active girls and 55% of sexually active boys said they wished they had waited longer before starting to be sexually active.14

And a 2002 study on the attitude of young men toward marriage is telling. Included in the top ten reported reasons why men won't commit to marriage are: "they can get sex without marriage," "they fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises," "they want a house before they get a wife," and "they want to enjoy single life as long as they can."15 Such reasons lend support to the belief that non-marital sexual activity fosters immaturity and materialism.

Current sociological research overwhelmingly demonstrates "strong correlations between the practices of premarital sex and/or cohabitation and divorce."16 Some of the more prominent studies:

As early as 1974 the correlation between premarital sex and divorce was known. Robert Athanasiou and Richard Sarkin. "Premarital sexual behavior and postmarital adjustment," Archives of Sexual Behavior 3 (May 1974).

A 1991 study suggested a "relatively strong positive relationship between premarital sex and divorce." Joan Kahn and Kathryn London. "Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce," Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991):845-55.

• In May 2003, a study concluded that women who had their first sexual experience before marriage with partners other than the man they eventually marry, are about 34% more likely to experience divorce than women who did not. This increased risk is not present with women whose only premarital sex involved the man they married. This study also notes that cohabitation is considered to be "one of the most robust predictors of marital dissolution that has appeared in the literature." Jay Teachmen. "Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution Among Women," Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (May 2003).
Bottom line? It seems safe to say that sex outside of marriage causes emotional harm and also seems to harm marriage and the family. Ultimately, for the emotional health of the individual, the family and society itself, only married couples should engage in sexual intercourse.

God's Design for Love
Early Christian thinkers taught that God originally created marriage to signify His relationship with every soul. But sin entered our world and warped God's creation. With regard to the male/female relationship, St. Augustine said that what was to be a "patriarchy of love, service and cooperation," because of sin turned into "aggression, power and envy."17

When we consider the problems surrounding human sexuality, it is worthwhile to ask: "How has Christ redeemed human sexuality?" Christ's death on the cross restored human sexuality to what God originally intended. Human sexuality is not "tinged" with sin, nor is it morally neutral. Although we can misuse even the best of God's gifts, that does not change the fact that sex is God's gift of life and love to each of us.


God's command "to be fruitful and multiply" (Gen.1:28) was considered by our Christian ancestors to be an officium — a holy office.18 In the earliest life of the Church when marriage was attacked by various philosophies, procreation was identified as the principle good of marriage. But procreation did not stand alone; it was linked to the education and nurture of children. Sexual intercourse is not a leisure activity to be enjoyed on its own. It is the way that a man and a woman can cooperate with God to bring a new life, a new soul, into existence. When society tried to take the baby out of sex by promoting contraceptive use, it devalued this awesome possibility of creating new life, and put personal pleasure over the common good. No more are children unqualified "bundles of joy." They are "expenses," "burdens," and things that "tie you down."

Unless, of course, you are infertile. Today fertility has been turned into a commodity. "Designer" gametes are sold on the Internet. Infertile couples can expect to pay an average of $66,000 to become pregnant and have a live-born baby, if IVF succeeds in the first cycle. They'll pay an average of $114,000 per delivered baby if treatments are not successful before the sixth cycle.19 And today, cloned human embryos are trumpeted as the future key to curing a host of diseases.


Sexual intercourse is a powerful event of interpersonal communion. It involves the whole person — body, mind, emotions, and soul. Our faith tells us that Christian marriage is a sign of Christ's presence in the world. St. Paul is the first to articulate this when he says, "This is a great mystery; I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph. 5:32). As Christians we accept on faith that human sexuality is caught up in God's transformation of a man and woman into "one flesh" which in turn reflects how Christ loves us, His Church. This indeed is a charism of the Sacrament of Marriage. Christian marital love is therefore unconditional, generous, faithful, life-giving, and sacrificial.

The history of the Sacrament of Marriage is enlightening with regard to God's message about human sexuality and fertility. St. John Chrysostom (347-407) taught that the "one flesh" of the spouses is "not an empty symbol": "They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself."20

On the nature of marital love, St. Augustine (354-430) said that "conjugal charity" is not so much a "feeling"as a "doing." It is "oblative love" — love that shares on all levels, an offering of one to the other. Thus husbands and wives are instruments of each other's salvation. The Carolingian bishops (c. 700 — 899) emphasized both husband and wife as being made in the image and likeness of God which created a spiritual equality and enabled the wife to be thought of as a "friend," rather than a "servant."

Fast forward to the 20th century. Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) said that marriage in its nature is fundamentally a community of love and that this love involves total giving of the spouses' selves one to the other. This completeness makes marital love exclusive and permanent. Contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft says that with the creation of human fertility and sexual intercourse, God designed a sacred door as the way He would continuously enter the world to perform His greatest miracle — new life. And the new innocent life, adds Kreeft, is God's message that He hasn't lost hope in humanity.

"Authentic married love," says Vatican II, "is caught up into Divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ."21 "Hence the acts in marriage by which the ... union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable ... [it] fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses."22


Catholicism teaches that sexual intercourse realizes a profound gift of self between spouses. It teaches that fertility is to be respected and sexual intercourse should be treated with reverence. God created sex to involve the whole person — body, mind and soul. When this vision of human sexuality is understood, and we strive to live it, there will be true freedom, growth in emotional maturity, holiness and peace. In short, we will be happier for living this truth. Our Lord reminds us of what God has planned for us.

As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (Jn. 15:9-11)

What do men and women really want? To love and be loved the way God designed it — generously, faithfully and unconditionally.

Theresa Notaré, M.A. is assistant director to the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  1. M. Weiss and K. Sheehy, "Lethal Birth Control," New York Post online edition, April 7, 2004. Available at (Last visited April 13, 2004).
  2. See M.F. Goldsmith. "Silent Epidemic of Social Disease Makes STD Experts Raise Their Voices." Journal of the American Medical Association 26 (1989):3509-3510.
  3. W. Cates, American Social Health Association Panel. "Estimates of the incidence and prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States," Sexually Transmitted Diseases 26 (1999): 52-57.
  4. E. Laumann et al. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  5. N. Munoz, International Agency for Research on Cancer. "Human papilloma virus and cancer: the epidemiological evidence," Journal of Clinical Virology 2000, Oct. 1; 19 (1-2); 1-5.
  6. D.T. Fleming et al. "Herpes simplex virus type 2 in the United States, 1976 to 1994." New England Journal of Medicine 1997: 337: 1105-1111.
  7. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Workshop Summary — Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention, July 20, 2001. Available at:
  9. T. Smith, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, American Sexual Behavior: Trends, Socio-Demographic Differences, and Risk Behavior, available at
  10. Kaiser Family Foundation. National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes and Experiences, 15 (May 2003) available at, (Last visited August 4, 2003); Quoted by Helen Alvaré, "Saying 'Yes' Before Saying 'I Do': Premarital Sex and Cohabitation as a Piece of the Divorce Puzzle," p. 21, paper to be published in the Journal of the University of Notre Dame School of Law. "Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households: 2000," Census 2000 Special Reports, Feb. 2003.
  11. J. Fields and L. M. Casper. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: March 2000." Current Population Reports, P20-537, p. 12. Quoted by Alvaré, p. 23.
  12. For a summary of classic research and links to studies, see the web sites of the Heritage Foundation, ; Family Research Council, ; The National Marriage Project,
  13. R. Rector et al., Sexually Active Teenagers are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide. A Report from the Heritage Center for Data Analysis, June 2002.
  14. Id.
  15. Id., citing National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, June 2000.
  16. B. Whitehead and D. Popenoe. The State of Our Unions, Why Men Won't Commit.Exploring Young Men's Attitudes About Sex, Dating and Marriage. The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002. Available from
  17. See note 6, Alvaré, p. 25.
  18. See especially Augustine's On the Good of Marriage, and The City of God.
  19. Both Bonaventure (1217-1257) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) called this an officium naturae — a holy office in service of nature (the human race).
  20. P. Neuman et al., "The Cost of a Successful Delivery with in Vitro Fertilization," New England Journal of Medicine 33 1:239-243 (July 28, 1994).
  21. See Homily 12.
  22. Gaudium et spes, #48.
  23. Ibid., #49.