I vividly remember the first time I had sex.

That line is what marketers call a ‘hook,’ a short statement designed to elicit interest or prompt further interaction, and if you are reading this, you see how effective a good hook can be. I considered others, like:

“Do you remember the first time you had sex? I don’t. Because I wasn’t there the first time you had sex.”

And of course sometimes simplicity sells, so I could have just gone with the tried and true “Sex! SEX! SEX! S-E-X!!!!

Remember when the serpent tried to sell Eve that great looking piece of fruit from the ‘do not touch’ tree? If his first sales pitch failed, he was planning to follow up with, “Adam will find you super hot if you eat this.” Alas he didn’t have to, but for as long as there have been humans (or talking animals) trying to sell things, sellers have known we are wired to respond to sex, hence: “Sex sells.” This simple belief is why ads sometimes make no real sense, like when a car ad features two models, one sprawled half naked across the hood of the other.

Sex has been used at one time or another to sell virtually everything, including such obvious things as sex itself, and such unintuitive ones as religion; I suppose if serving lunch afterward isn’t convincing people to attend church, then offering the services of a prostitute might ‘take it to the next level’ in your outreach efforts. The sexual drive is so deeply wired into us that sexual imagery and ideas can bypass our normal inhibitions and lead us to do things we might not otherwise do; for marketers in an increasingly crowded and noisy marketplace, it’s tempting to go back to the basics and sex is as basic as it gets.

The funny thing is, sex does not actually sell. We know this because we can now slide people into a brain scanner and see how they respond to ads that include sex, so here is the revised version, taken from real live sciencey science: “Sex gets people’s attention, but sex does not sell.” In other words, sex works well as a hook to capture your interest, but it does very little to close the deal. The woman posed uncomfortably on the car hood will definitely catch your eye (after all, how often do you see a woman on a car hood?), but after looking, you are no more likely to pull out your checkbook. Plus she may so thoroughly distract you that you find yourself no longer interested in car shopping at all, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Considering the sheer volume of sex being thrown around in media and ads today, we might reasonably conclude that sex is the ultimate goal in life, and that sex (the more the better!) is a sure source of happiness. Two studies help us understand how time in the bedroom can increase your satisfaction for the rest of the day, and as so often happens, it’s not as straight-forward as it first seems. Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which a delinquent teenager breaks into a stranger’s house and steals their food? During this home invasion she finds some food too hot, some too cold, and some just right, which kind of sums up the question of “How much sex will make me happy?” On average, couples find that their relationship satisfaction increases as the frequency of sex increases (no surprise there), but that this only occurs up to a certain point (just right), after which there is no relationship between the two (between sex and happiness, not between the two people). For most couples this magic frequency is about once a week, though it can vary widely.

The second group of studies echoes my last post, in which we learned that happiness is usually found as a by-product of other things, and not through dogged pursuit (chasing happiness can actually keep you from finding it). To sum up these four studies, think back to the woman on the car hood, which got your attention and peaked your interest, but wasn’t really the point of the ad. Like many other studies, these found that couples who had sex weekly were more satisfied with life and their relationship than those who didn’t.

But in a shocking twist, the researchers found that it was not actually the sex itself that predicted happiness, but the things that went with it, like affectionate touching, talking afterward, demonstrating affection and concern outside the bedroom, and generally investing emotionally in one another. Without these ‘extras,’ the relationship between frequent sex and happiness vanishes. And since these kinds of activities are rarely found outside an ongoing relationship, random sex with random people may deliver pleasure, but generally has no impact on well-being or happiness. The first study (the Goldilocks one) found this as well: having more sex only made people more satisfied if the relationship was good to start with. In other words, you can’t sex your way to happiness if your relationship has serious issues.

In reading all this research, it seems that the actual sex act serves as a sort of hook. We advertise it, fantasize about it, look forward to it, and romanticize it, yet in many ways it is not the sex itself that benefits us (though it does reduce physical stress) so much as the other things that it facilitates: affection, caressing, discussion, and focusing solely on one another for a few minutes, despite our hectic schedules. In the end, the act itself almost seems to be there to lead us to the other things that are so good for our relationships and so positive for our general life outlook.

I read recently that married sex is generally good, sometimes not so hot, and occasionally amazing, which is why we bother to keep doing it. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the real story turned out not to be the sex itself (which everybody talks about), but all the things that go with it (which almost nobody does)? It wouldn’t be the first time people have gotten so fixated on the hook that they forgot to make the purchase.


You can read the full scoop on the four sex/happiness studies here.

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