The Enigma of Sexual Motivation: A Neurobiological Perspective


An ancient Chinese proverb posits, “Without copulation, no population” (Malmnäs, 1973). Although not universally applicable, this maxim holds true for species with internal fertilization. This article explores the intricate relationship between copulation and reproduction, delving into the realms of human and animal sexual behavior.

The goal is to connect established conceptual models of sexual motivation with neurobiological events, shedding light on the mechanisms governing this fundamental aspect of life.

In the realm of human experience, sexual motivation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that transcends cultural boundaries and holds a prominent place in the intricate tapestry of human behavior. At its core, sexual motivation can be delineated as the compelling urge to establish sexual connections with others or to engage in individualistic sexual activities, such as masturbation or the consumption of sexually explicit content. This chapter delves into the nuanced layers of sexual motivation, examining its potential variability, underlying causes, and the challenges of operationalizing and measuring this abstract concept.

The Spectrum of Sexual Motivation

Sexual motivation, like many psychological constructs, operates on a spectrum. At one extreme, there exists a state of absolute disinterest in any form of sexual activity, while at the other end, an elusive maximum represents a continuous pursuit of sexual engagement, momentarily interrupted only by fundamental physiological needs such as sleep, nourishment, and excretion. Despite this conceptual framework, there is a dearth of empirical evidence documenting individuals reaching the theoretical pinnacle of sexual motivation. Moreover, the existence of a completely asexual human or non-human animal remains a topic of contention.

Variability in Sexual Motivation

The study of sexual motivation is further complicated by the vast inter- and intra-individual variations that exist. While some individuals may exhibit consistently high levels of sexual motivation, others may experience fluctuations influenced by factors such as hormonal fluctuations, psychological states, or environmental cues. The precise determinants of these variations remain elusive, underscoring the complexity of the interplay between biological, psychological, and environmental factors in shaping sexual motivation.

Conceptualizing Motivation

Motivation, as an abstract concept, serves as an intervening variable that explains the variable intensity of response to a constant stimulus. Drawing parallels with hunger, another primal motivator, the concept of sexual motivation becomes tangible when observed through behavior. For instance, the voracious eating of a rat in response to food pellets reflects its high motivation to eat. Similarly, the manifestations of sexual motivation are discernible in behavioral cues, requiring inference from observable actions rather than direct measurement of the abstract concept itself.

Operationalizing Sexual Motivation

To make sexual motivation amenable to scientific study, an operational definition is imperative. In this context, sexual motivation is operationalized as determining the probability of displaying sexual behavior when a potential mate is present or assessing the intensity of that behavior when exhibited. This definition extends to encompass the intensity of approaching a potential sexual partner and the magnitude of genital responses to sexually relevant stimuli. These quantifiable variables serve as proxies for the underlying, abstract construct of sexual motivation.

Quantifying Sexual Motivation

Quantifying sexual motivation involves navigating the intricacies of measuring its various manifestations. Behavioral probabilities, intensity of approach, and physiological responses are key domains for measurement. In non-human animals, the intensity of approach can be meticulously quantified, while in humans, direct measures of genital responses provide insight into the level of motivation. The challenge lies in establishing reliable, valid, unambiguous, and unbiased measures that capture the essence of sexual motivation across diverse contexts and individuals.

The Sexual Encounter Sequence

Before delving into the nuances of measurement, understanding the sequence of events in a sexual encounter is paramount. This involves delineating the behavioral, psychological, and physiological components that characterize the progression from motivation to action. A comprehensive exploration of the sexual encounter sequence lays the foundation for dissecting the intricacies of sexual motivation measurement.

In subsequent sections, we will explore the existing measures of sexual motivation, evaluating their efficacy and addressing the complexities of applying these measures across different populations and cultural contexts. As we navigate this terrain, the aim is to shed light on the elusive nature of sexual motivation and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of this fundamental aspect of human behavior.

The Sexual Encounter Sequence: Unraveling Complexity

Understanding the sequence of events in a sexual encounter is akin to deciphering a complex symphony, where the interplay of various instruments contributes to the overall composition. The sexual encounter sequence encompasses a series of behavioral, psychological, and physiological events that unfold in a dynamic and interconnected manner.

  • Appetitive Phase: Craving Connection At the onset of the sexual encounter sequence lies the appetitive phase, characterized by the initiation of sexual desire. This phase involves the recognition of a potential mate and the activation of neural circuits associated with motivation and reward. Behavioral cues during this phase may include increased proximity, eye contact, and non-verbal communication expressing interest and receptivity.
  • Approach and Engagement: Bridging the Divide – Following the appetitive phase, individuals transition into the approach and engagement stage. This involves the active pursuit of a sexual partner, marked by a combination of verbal and non-verbal communication aimed at establishing connection and rapport. The intensity of approach becomes a crucial indicator of sexual motivation, reflecting the individual’s commitment to the pursuit of sexual interaction.
  • Consummatory Phase: The Nexus of Desire and Action – The consummatory phase represents the culmination of sexual motivation, where desire transforms into overt sexual behavior. This phase involves the physical and intimate interaction between individuals, encompassing a spectrum of activities from kissing and caressing to more explicit forms of sexual engagement. The intensity and duration of these behaviors provide valuable insights into the level of sexual motivation at its zenith.
  • Post-Encounter: Reflection and Recalibration – As the sexual encounter concludes, individuals may experience a post-encounter phase marked by reflection and emotional processing. This phase is integral to understanding the aftermath of sexual motivation, including feelings of satisfaction, connection, or potential changes in motivation for future encounters.

Challenges in Measurement: From Behavior to Quantification

Quantifying sexual motivation necessitates translating these intricate phases into measurable variables. Behavioral manifestations, such as approach intensity and consummatory behaviors, provide tangible indicators. However, challenges arise in standardizing measurements across diverse populations, accounting for cultural nuances, and ensuring the reliability and validity of the chosen metrics.

  • Behavioral Measures: Deciphering Cues – Behavioral manifestations offer a window into sexual motivation. Quantifying the frequency, duration, and intensity of approach behaviors provides valuable data. However, cultural variations in acceptable behaviors and individual differences in expression pose challenges in establishing universal metrics.
  • Physiological Responses: Unveiling the Unconscious – Physiological responses, especially genital responses, serve as direct indicators of sexual motivation. Measurements such as genital blood flow or arousal patterns can offer objective insights. Nevertheless, ethical considerations, participant comfort, and the potential influence of contextual factors on physiological responses add layers of complexity to this approach.
  • Self-Report Measures: Bridging Subjectivity and Objectivity – Self-report measures, such as questionnaires and interviews, offer a subjective lens to understand sexual motivation. These measures capture individual perceptions, desires, and experiences. However, they are susceptible to social desirability biases, inaccurate reporting, and cultural variations in expressing sexual motivation.

The Quest for Reliable Measures

As we navigate the intricacies of sexual motivation measurement, the challenge lies in developing measures that align with the diverse nature of human experience. The subsequent chapters will scrutinize existing methodologies, exploring their strengths and limitations, and embark on a quest to ascertain whether reliable, valid, unambiguous, and unbiased measures of sexual motivation truly exist. In doing so, we aim to contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the understanding of human sexuality and motivation.


Understanding sexual motivation in humans presents a unique set of challenges, particularly when attempting to quantify the intensity of sexual approach behaviors. Despite the potential for evaluating such behaviors, existing studies have primarily relied on questionnaires, introducing uncertainties about the reliability of self-reported data. The conventional approach, as exemplified by the Spector et al. (1996) questionnaire, often falls short due to the inherent unreliability associated with self-reports on sexual behaviors. Issues such as social desirability and irrelevant influencing factors further complicate the accurate assessment of sexual motivation using this method. Attempts to mitigate response bias, such as the “bogus pipeline” technique, remain rare and their reliability uncertain, leading to the proposition that questionnaires may not yield usable data for quantifying sexual motivation.

Genital Responses as Indicators of Sexual Motivation

In the pursuit of more objective measures, the focus turns to the physiological responses associated with sexual motivation, particularly genital responses. The figure illustrating the sequence of events during a sexual encounter emphasizes the significance of penile and clitoral engorgement as specific manifestations of heightened activity in the sexual central motive state. While various other responses, such as increased heart and respiratory rates, are indicative of general arousal, genital responses are unique to the sexual central motive state. These responses are not only specific to sexually relevant stimuli but are also beyond voluntary control, offering an automatic and unbiased estimate of sexual motivation.

The automaticity of genital responses has been extensively studied, debunking misconceptions such as the belief that some erections occur without sexual motivation or that individuals can consciously control these responses. The connection between the sexual central motive state and genital responses is automatic and unconscious, reinforcing the idea that genital responses provide a reliable indicator of sexual motivation.

Objective Measures of Genital Responses

In a landmark study by Bouchard et al. (2019), young women were exposed to varying sexual scenes, revealing a direct relationship between the central motive state’s activity and the magnitude of genital responses. Similar observations were made in young men, underscoring the universality of this relationship. Objective measures of genital responses in men and women are readily available through methods such as penile plethysmography for men and photoplethysmography for women.

For men, penile plethysmography involves fitting a strain gauge transducer to the base of the penis, measuring changes in penile circumference to quantify erection intensity. Volumetric plethysmography, though less common, allows for the direct measurement of penile volume. Other measures, such as penile skin temperature and rigidity, offer additional avenues for assessment.

In women, photoplethysmography measures vaginal pulse amplitude, a sensitive indicator of changes in vaginal blood volume during a heartbeat. This method can be adapted for clitoral measurement, while laser Doppler flowmetry provides an alternative by directly recording vaginal blood flow.

These non-invasive, quantitative methods offer precise recordings of genital responses in men and women, directly reflecting the intensity of sexual motivation. Given their objectivity and ethical feasibility, these measures present a clear advantage over traditional questionnaires, raising questions about the continued reliance on less reliable methods in the study of sexual motivation. The abundance of available methods underscores the need for a shift towards more accurate and objective approaches in research on human sexual motivation.

Copulation and Reproduction Disparity:

In species with internal fertilization, copulation is a prerequisite for reproduction. However, the frequency of copulatory behavior surpasses what is strictly necessary for maximal reproduction. In Sweden, it has been estimated that there are 1,100 copulations per birth in humans (Lewin et al., 1998), and similar patterns are observed in rats and primates (Chu and Ågmo, 2014; Tutin, 1979; Watts, 2007). This disparity raises questions about the underlying motivations for engaging in sexual activities beyond reproductive needs.

Sex as Pleasure and Leisure:

The notion that sex is not solely a reproductive behavior but also a source of ephemeral pleasure is widely accepted (Boul et al., 2009). Humans and animals engage in sexual activities not just for reproduction but also for the enjoyment derived from the act. Sex, decoupled from reproduction, can be likened to a leisure activity, akin to other forms of recreation (Berdychevsky and Carr, 2020). Nature, in its wisdom, seems to have endowed sex with such pleasure that individuals across species engage in it far beyond what is necessary for reproduction.

Sexual Frequency and Well-being:

The rewarding properties of sexual acts have led to the recognition of sex as a source of happiness and well-being (Anderson, 2013). However, contrary to popular belief, the association between sexual frequency and happiness is not linear. Studies suggest a curvilinear relationship, with well-being and frequency of sex being positively associated up to a frequency of once per week (Muise et al., 2015). Beyond this point, increased sexual frequency does not necessarily correlate with greater well-being, particularly for individuals in relationships.

Sexual Dysfunction and Therapeutic Challenges:

While sexual acts contribute to well-being, the absence of satisfactory sexual function can diminish the quality of life (Naeinian et al., 2011). Unfortunately, the search for efficient treatments for sexual dysfunction has met with limited success. Erectile deficiencies aside, pharmacological treatments for paraphilias, lack of sexual interest, and hypersexuality remain elusive (Jaspers et al., 2016; Spielmans, 2022). The therapeutic efficacy of drugs approved for hypoactive sexual interest is questionable, with effects often comparable to placebos.

Challenges in Understanding Sexual Motivation:

The inadequate understanding of sexual motivation stems from two main factors. First, the conceptual analysis of sexual motivation lacks precision, with extensive discussions often lacking operational definitions. Second, neurobiological studies fail to establish clear connections between manipulations of nervous activity and the underlying motivational mechanisms.

Connecting Conceptual Models with Neurobiology:

This review aims to bridge the gap between conceptual models of sexual motivation and neurobiological events. Operationalizing rodent and human sexual motivation, the article proposes an abstraction of the central nervous mechanisms involved. This abstraction is then grounded in physical reality by demonstrating how small molecules, such as gonadal hormones, can alter its manifestation. The role of other molecules, including transmitters, in modifying sexual motivation is also discussed.

Neurobiological Manifestation of Sexual Motivation:

The review suggests that these molecules, through their effects on neurons, ultimately alter the frequency of action potentials. Known localization of neurons involved in the materialization of sexual motivation in rodents allows for proposals of specific brain structures as the home for this abstract concept.

Implications for Human Sexual Dysfunction:

The article concludes by exploring the potential impact of detailed neurobiological knowledge on addressing human sexual dysfunction. It poses questions about whether understanding the neurobiology of sexual motivation can aid in solving the challenges posed by sexual dysfunctions and improve our comprehension of normal sexual behavior. The journey through the intricacies of sexual motivation, pleasure, and well-being leaves us pondering the mysteries of a fundamental aspect of human and animal existence.

The Quest for Precision in Conceptual Analysis:

To address the deficiency in understanding sexual motivation, precision in conceptual analysis is paramount. Many discussions on sexual motivation lack operational definitions or fail to propose one through a structured approach, such as a questionnaire. This lack of precision hampers the development of a comprehensive understanding of the motivational forces at play.

Neurobiological Studies: Bridging the Gap:

On the other side of the spectrum, neurobiological studies contribute valuable data on the effects of manipulating nervous activity on specific behavioral patterns. However, a significant challenge lies in establishing a clear link between these behavior patterns, such as latency to ejaculation or lordosis intensity, and the underlying motivational mechanisms. The fragmented nature of existing research has hindered a holistic understanding of sexual motivation.

Operationalizing Sexual Motivation:

To overcome these challenges, this review proposes an approach that involves operationalizing sexual motivation for both rodents and humans. By defining specific parameters and behavioral indicators, researchers can bridge the gap between conceptual models and neurobiological events. This operationalization allows for a more comprehensive exploration of the mechanisms governing sexual motivation.

Abstraction of Central Nervous Mechanisms:

The next step involves proposing an abstraction of the central nervous mechanisms involved in sexual motivation. This abstraction serves as a conceptual framework that can be tested and refined through empirical studies. Anchoring this abstraction in physical reality involves demonstrating how small molecules, particularly gonadal hormones, can modulate the manifestation of sexual motivation.

The Role of Gonadal Hormones:

Gonadal hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen, play a pivotal role in shaping sexual behavior. Experimental evidence suggests that these hormones influence sexual motivation by acting on specific neural circuits. Understanding the interplay between gonadal hormones and the central nervous system provides crucial insights into the modulation of sexual motivation.

Beyond Gonadal Hormones: A Multifaceted Approach:

While gonadal hormones are key players, they represent just one facet of the complex interplay within the neurobiological landscape of sexual motivation. Other molecules, including neurotransmitters, also contribute to the modulation of this abstract concept. The review highlights the interconnectedness of these molecules and their impact on neuronal activity, ultimately influencing the frequency of action potentials.

Localization of Neurons: Unraveling the Mysteries:

In rodents, the localization of neurons involved in the materialization of sexual motivation has been identified. Specific brain structures are proposed as potential homes for this abstract concept. Further research is needed to refine and expand this understanding, unraveling the mysteries of how these neural networks orchestrate the intricate dance of sexual motivation.

Implications for Human Sexual Dysfunction:

The quest to understand the neurobiological underpinnings of sexual motivation holds promise for addressing human sexual dysfunction. By elucidating the mechanisms at play, researchers may identify novel targets for therapeutic interventions. This knowledge could lead to more effective treatments for conditions such as paraphilias, lack of sexual interest, and hypersexuality, where current options are limited.

Enhancing Understanding of Normal Sexual Behavior:

Beyond dysfunction, the application of neurobiological data and neural models may enhance our understanding of normal, unproblematic sexual behavior. By dissecting the intricate neural circuitry involved in sexual motivation, researchers may uncover insights that contribute to a richer comprehension of human sexuality.


The role of gonadal hormones in shaping human sexual motivation has been a subject of extensive discussion, with debates surrounding the interaction between cultural factors and hormonal influences. The present discussion delves into the findings and implications of studies on both men and women, exploring the nuanced relationship between hormonal changes and sexual motivation.

Human Sexual Motivation: Androgen Dependence in Men

The research on men, particularly those castrated due to prostate cancer or experiencing severe hypogonadism after leuprolide treatment, highlights a clear link between androgens and sexual motivation. Studies have shown a significant reduction in penile response to sexual stimuli in individuals with low androgen levels, suggesting a hormone-dependent, possibly androgen-dependent, nature of sexual motivation in men (Greenstein et al., 1995; Schober et al., 2005). Despite these insights, the precise localization of androgen effects within the central nervous system remains elusive.

The proposal that androgens act exclusively at the androgen receptor for both copulatory behavior and sexual motivation in human males draws from evidence in men and other primates (Phoenix, 1974; Bagatell et al., 1994; Gur et al., 2013; Sartorius et al., 2014). This proposition provides a foundation for understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of sexual motivation in male humans.

Challenges in Understanding Female Sexual Motivation

The situation becomes more complex when examining the role of hormones in female sexual motivation. Unlike men, females produce a higher proportion of estrogens than androgens, leading to initial expectations of estrogen’s involvement in sexual motivation. However, empirical data contradict these expectations, as objective measures show no significant impact of estrogen on sexual motivation in women (Hoon et al., 1982; Morrell et al., 1984; Meuwissen and Over, 1992; Bossio et al., 2014).

The longstanding suspicion that androgens of adrenal origin play a crucial role in female sexuality gains support from studies on amenorrheic women and those with low serum testosterone concentrations. The observed correlation between low testosterone levels and decreased responsiveness to weak sexual stimuli aligns with the hypothesis that androgens influence the central motive state, consequently affecting sexual motivation (Waxenberg et al., 1959; Tuiten et al., 1996).

Testosterone’s Impact on Female Sexual Motivation

The significance of testosterone in female sexual motivation is further emphasized by studies demonstrating that testosterone treatment enhances serum testosterone concentrations, reduces sex hormone binding globulin, and increases the vaginal response to sexual stimuli (Tuiten et al., 2000, 2002; Heard-Davison et al., 2007; van Der Made et al., 2009). This not only supports the role of androgens but also suggests a potential localized action in vaginal tissue, as androgen receptors are identified in the vaginal epithelium, vestibule, and labia minora (Palacios, 2020).

The delayed response to acute testosterone treatment aligns with the genomic nature of testosterone actions, reflecting the intricate temporal dynamics of hormonal influences on sexual motivation (Mhaouty-Kodja, 2018).

Conclusion: Hormonal Control of Sexual Motivation

In summary, the evidence from human studies suggests a compelling role for gonadal hormones, particularly androgens, in shaping sexual motivation. While the precise localization of hormone effects in men remains uncertain, the proposal that androgens act at the androgen receptor provides a conceptual framework. In women, the intricate interplay between estrogen and androgen, particularly of adrenal origin, emerges as a crucial determinant of sexual motivation. The potential local action of testosterone in vaginal tissue adds a layer of complexity to our understanding.

The discussion extends beyond the clinical observations to emphasize the importance of using objective measures, such as the vaginal response to sexual incentives, in assessing sexual motivation. The limitations of existing studies are acknowledged, and the need for further research to elucidate the specific cellular mechanisms and sites of hormone action is underscored.

In conclusion, the discussion presented here aims to contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the hormonal control of sexual motivation, offering a nuanced perspective on the complexities inherent in understanding human sexual behavior.

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