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Running head: A BEHAVIORAL SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE ON SEXUALITY 1
When Sex Goes Wrong: A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Individual Differences in Sexual
Attitudes, Motives, Feelings, and Behaviors
Gurit E. Birnbaum Mario Mikulincer Ohad Szepsenwol
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
Phillip R. Shaver
University of California, Davis
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
January 13, 2014
Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D.
School of Psychology
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
P.O. Box 167
Herzliya, 46150, Israel
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 2
In the research program summarized here, we adopted a behavioral systems approach to explain
individual differences in human sexual behavior. In the first stage, we developed the Sexual
System Functioning Scale (SSFS) – a self-report instrument for assessing hyperactivation and
deactivation of the sexual system. Sexual hyperactivation involves intense but anxious
expressions of sexual desire, whereas sexual deactivation includes inhibition of sexual
inclinations. In subsequent stages, we administered the SFSS to 18 samples to determine its
structural, convergent, discriminant, and predictive validity as well as its nomological network.
We found that SSFS deactivation and hyperactivation scores are meaningfully associated with
existing measures of sexual attitudes, motives, feelings, and behaviors and with measures of
personal and interpersonal well-being. Moreover, the scores predict cognitive, affective,
physiological, and behavioral responses to sexual stimuli. Implications of our findings for
understanding the potential of sex for both joy and distress are discussed.
Key words: attachment; behavioral systems; individual differences; sexuality; sexual
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 3
When Sex Goes Wrong: A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Individual Differences in Sexual
Attitudes, Motives, Feelings, and Behaviors
According to attachment theory (Bowlby, 1982; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988),
sexual behaviors are regulated by an inborn sexual behavioral system that evolved to facilitate
the passing of one’s genes to the next generation (Buss & Kenrick, 1998). The sexual behavioral
system motivates and reinforces reproductive acts by arousing sexual desire and providing
hedonic pleasure (Diamond, 2003). Indeed, sexual desire is among the strongest forces that
motivate human behavior, and sexual gratification is one of the greatest human pleasures. Yet
some people have mixed emotions about sexuality (e.g., Birnbaum, 2003; Birnbaum & Laser-
Brandt, 2002; Janssen, Vorst, Finn, & Bancroft, 2002), which may interfere with their desire to
have sex and their ability to enjoy it. In the research described here, we have applied Bowlby’s
(1982) behavioral-system concept to explain some of the individual differences in human sexual
behavior, including their effects on mental health and adjustment.
The Sexual Behavioral System
In an attempt to understand how evolved mechanisms shaped various kinds of human
behavior, Bowlby (1982) borrowed the ethological concept of behavioral systems. These goal-
oriented neural programs organize an individual’s behavior in ways that increase the likelihood
of survival and reproductive success in the face of specific environmental demands. Different
behavioral systems (e.g., attachment, caregiving) have distinct adaptive functions (e.g., self-
protection, kin-care), proximal goals (e.g., maintaining a sense of security, providing protection),
and characteristic cognitive-behavioral patterns that constitute the primary strategy of the system
for attaining its goal. These strategic patterns are automatically activated by situations that make
a particular goal salient, are directed toward goal attainment, and are deactivated by stimuli that
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 4
signal the attainment of this goal or its perceived unattainability. Successful goal attainment
depends on actual transactions with the social world, making it necessary for individuals to
adjust their behavioral systems to fit changing contextual demands.
Because different people experience different social interactions, their expectations about
strategies conducive to goal attainment may be different as well, and so may be the emotions and
attitudes resulting from these experiences. These unique expectations (internal working models
of self and others, in Bowlby’s, 1973, terms) are integrated into the behavioral system’s
cognitive-behavioral "programming" and constitute the basis for individual differences in the
components of the system: triggers, motives, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors (Bowlby,
1982). Hence, the extent to which particular tactics succeed in reaching the system's goal may
affect cognitions and attitudes in the system’s particular domain. The reverse causal direction is
also likely to operate: Attitudes about one’s functioning in the specific domain may exert an
influence on the selection of strategic behaviors. In particular, recurrent failure to attain the
system’s goal may create negative expectations, thereby encouraging the adoption of alternative
("secondary") strategies for coping with the ensuing negative affect.
Applying Bowlby’s (1982) theory to sexual behaviors, we propose that human mating is
governed by an inborn sexual behavioral system and that individual differences in sexual
motives, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors reflect variations in the functioning of this system.
The sexual system is part of the developmental plan of human beings, as it is of all sexually
reproducing species. Hence, its basic existence is not dependent on socialization processes or
environmental triggers. This is not to suggest that the sexual system operates in a vacuum.
Clearly, the regulation of the sexual system may be shaped by the attachment system, which is
the earliest developing social behavioral system in humans (Bowlby, 1982; Shaver et al., 1988),
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 5
and joint operation of these two systems is typical of ongoing romantic relationships (Birnbaum,
2010; Hazan & Zaifman, 1994). Still, sexual mating and attachment are governed by separate
motivational systems that are presumed to have arisen during human evolution (Fisher, 1998;
Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li, & Brown, 2002). The processes underlying sexual desire and
affectional bonding are therefore functionally distinct and their activation is mediated by
different physiological processes (see review by Diamond, 2013).
In evolutionary terms, the sexual system serves the function of reproduction by
facilitating sexual intercourse and pregnancy (Buss & Kenrick, 1998). Accordingly, encountering
a sexually desirable partner may activate the sexual behavioral system and launch motivated,
goal-directed behavioral tactics for attaining sexual access (Fisher, 1998). Once the system is
activated, the primary strategy is typically to approach the desirable partner, entice her or him to
have sex, and engage in sexual intercourse (Fisher, 1998; Fisher et al., 2002). The behaviors that
constitute this primary strategy involve asserting one’s sexual interest while being sensitive to a
partner’s signals. Optimal functioning of the sexual system requires coordination of the two
partners' desires and responses and typically involves a gradual rise in physical and emotional
intimacy (Rubin & Campbell, 2012). Such mutually coordinated sexual interactions may
promote feelings of being desired along with feelings of mutual affection (e.g., Birnbaum, 2014)
and therefore have the potential to affect well-being (Levin, 2007; Stephenson & Meston, in
press). Furthermore, optimal functioning of the sexual system contributes to the quality of
romantic relationships, which are also important for overall well-being (see reviews by Impett,
Muise, & Peragine, 2013; Sprecher & Cate, 2004).
Despite its considerable potential for gratification and delight, human sexuality is
sometimes constrained by aversive feelings (Brauer et al., 2012; Fisher, Byrne, White, & Kelley,
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 6
1988) and negative mental representations of sexual experiences (Birnbaum & Gillath, 2006;
Birnbaum & Laser-Brandt, 2002; Birnbaum & Reis, 2006). Such negative sexual responses can
result from cumulative unpleasant sexual experiences or sexual experiences with negative
outcomes (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy), which lead to associating
sex with negative feelings (e.g., pain, anxiety, disappointment; Janssen et al., 2002). These
negative outcomes often include doubts about one’s sexual desirability and skill (Andersen,
Cyranowski, & Espindle, 1999) and are likely to generate relationship conflict and erode
relationship satisfaction (Birnbaum, 2007a; Hassebrauck & Fehr, 2002). In theoretical terms,
these negative processes can interfere with the primary strategy of the sexual system.
Consequently, alternative strategies of responding to sexual arousal may replace the primary
strategy. As with dysfunctions of other behavioral systems, these strategies can be conceptualized
in terms of hyperactivation and deactivation, both of which put a person at risk for emotional
problems (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007, 2012; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2006).
Hyperactivation of the sexual system involves intensifying the primary strategy (i.e.,
increasing one’s mating efforts) and keeping it chronically activated by maintaining an intense
desire for sex. This desire is accompanied by performance anxieties and worries about sexual
rejection. Sexual hyperactivation is best conceptualized as a regulatory strategy that is centered
on avoiding the negative affect associated with perceived sexual inadequacy by pursuing the
positive affect associated with sexual consummation. Thus, sexual hyperactivation is
characterized by low activation and high deactivation thresholds of the sexual system. This
strategy may be rooted in repeated experiences of rejection by mating targets that are
interspersed with occasional experiences of sexual acceptance. Sexual hyperactivation may have
various cognitive, emotional, and behavioral manifestations. Specifically, people who pursue
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 7
hyperactivating strategies tend to overemphasize the importance of sex in their relationships and,
at the same time, tend to be preoccupied with worries about their sexual desirability and
performance. This psychological constellation may induce a sense of urgency for sexual
fulfillment that fuels impulsive and intrusive behavior, without adequate consideration of a
partner's wishes and concerns. Such insensitive behavior may bother potential partners and lead
to further failures in the sexual realm (e.g., experiences of rejection and sexual frustration),
creating a vicious cycle of heightened sexual arousal and sex-related anxiety.
In contrast, deactivation of the sexual system involves suppression of sexual needs and
rejection of sex as a valuable source of pleasure. Such avoidance responses may result from
consistent disappointments in the sexual domain (e.g., recurrent rejections by potential sexual
partners) or from being punished for expressions of sexual desire. These aversive experiences
may teach a person to suppress sexual needs in order to avoid the pain associated with their
expression. As a result, the sexual behavioral system is likely to be kept chronically deactivated
despite not having attained its goal. Adopting such strategies often leads an individual away from
the desired sense of felt sexual security by inhibiting her or his sexual desires. People who
pursue deactivating strategies tend to deemphasize the importance of sex in their relationships,
experience sexual indifference, and distance themselves from erotic stimuli, including sexually
desirous partners, so as to avoid sexual frustration. In so doing, they are likely to deny
themselves the opportunity to alter their construal of sex as unfulfilling. This is not to say that
sexually deactivated individuals avoid sex altogether, but rather that their sexual activities are
less motivated by sexual pleasure.
Dysfunctions of the sexual system and individual differences in its functioning have been
conceptualized previously within other theoretical models (e.g., Basson, 2000; Janssen &
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 8
Bancroft, 2007; Toates, 2009). Although such models provide some insight into the underlying
mechanisms and complexity of human sexuality, they suffer from theoretical fragmentation, and
to date, relatively little effort has been made to link the existing models in an integrated
framework (Finkel & Baumeister, 2010; Toates, 2009). Moreover, these models, and the studies
they have instigated, are not adequately grounded in major relationship theories (Dewitte, in
press), which is surprising, given that sexual activity often occurs in the context of ongoing
romantic relationships (see review by Willetts, Sprecher, & Beck, 2004). This lack of theoretical
grounding detracts from a deep understanding of the ways in which sexual functioning affects
relationship processes, and the ways in which non-sexual relational dimensions compensate for,
or contribute to, dysfunctions of the sexual system (Impett et al., 2013).
The Present Research
In the research described here, we used sexual hyperactivation and deactivation as
organizing constructs within an overarching behavioral systems framework, and conducted
several studies to test our reasoning about the sexual behavioral system. Most previous studies of
individual variations in sexuality have examined one or more of five domains: sexual attitudes,
such as the tendency to respond to sexual stimuli along a continuum from negativity
(erotophobia) to positivity (erotophilia; e.g., Fisher et al., 1988); sexual motives, such as the
reasons for engaging in sex (e.g., Cooper, Shapiro, & Powers, 1998; Hill & Preston, 1996);
physiological aspects of sexuality, such as sexual arousal (e.g., Chambless & Lifshitz, 1984);
sexual behaviors, such as the willingness to have sex without relational commitment (e.g.,
Simpson & Gangestad, 1991); and cognitive representations of sexuality, such as the sexual self-
concept (e.g., Andersen, Cyranowski, & Espindle, 1999) or conceptions of sexual intercourse
(e.g., Birnbaum & Laser-Brandt, 2002).
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 9
Although none of these existing measures have been explicitly designed to assess sexual-
system hyperactivation and deactivation, we can gain important insights from what is measured
by these scales. For example, the Erotophilia-Erotophobia scale assesses the tendency to respond
to sexual stimuli in approach or avoidance terms, and this comes close to our understanding of
the sexual deactivation dimension (e.g., “I feel no pleasure during sexual fantasies”). The
Experience of Heterosexual Intercourse scale assesses some of the anxiety that we propose to be
associated with sexual hyperactivation (e.g., “Bothersome thoughts disturb my concentration
during sexual intercourse”) and some of the distancing aspects of sexual-system deactivation
(e.g., “During sexual intercourse, I feel alienated and detached”). But these measures do not
adequately capture the various cognitive, emotional, motivational, and behavioral aspects of the
two secondary sexual strategies we conceptualize within a behavioral systems framework.
In the research reported here, we used the constructs of sexual hyperactivation and
deactivation to organize the many kinds of individual differences in sexuality within one
parsimonious theory that can account for various psychological phenomena in a theoretically
coherent way. In particular, we pursued a multi-stage program of research aimed at assessing
individual differences in the functioning of the sexual behavioral system and the implications of
these differences for personal and interpersonal well-being.
In the first stage of the research program, we constructed a two-factor scale tapping
individual differences in sexual hyperactivation and deactivation, the Sexual System Functioning
Scale (SSFS). The two-factor structure of this scale is parallel to that of the Experiences in Close
Relationships scale (ECR; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998), which measures hyperactivation
and deactivation of the attachment system. Specifically, we developed a pool of items that assess
either anxious hyperactivation or avoidant deactivation of the sexual system. We then
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 10
administered the new scale to 17 independent Israeli samples and one American sample (see
Table 1 for demographic features of these samples). Due to the large number of samples and
materials used in our research, we did not structure the remaining sections of this article in the
standard way of reporting findings from each sample separately in a study-by-study sequence.
Rather, we structured the article according to the specific issues we examined in each section.
Therefore, after describing the generation of the SSFS items, we report findings evaluating the
two-factor structure of the scale, its replicability across samples and cultures, and its stability
over time and across reporters and measure type. Next, we report findings concerning the
convergent, discriminant, and construct validity of the SSFS. Finally, we report findings
concerning the extent to which SSFS scores can predict responses to sexual stimuli and the
involvement of sexual desire in dyadic exchanges.
Developing the Sexual System Functioning Scale (SSFS)
Item generation. In the first stage of scale development, we constructed a pool of 52
items designed to tap the two secondary sexual strategies: hyperactivation and deactivation. In
writing these items we attempted to capture the various cognitive, emotional, motivational, and
behavioral aspects of sexual hyperactivation and deactivation described earlier in this article. For
example, the 26 items designed to assess sexual hyperactivation focused on the urgent and
exaggerated need for sex as well as the experience of sex-related anxieties, worries, and doubts
(e.g., “Being sexually desirable is extremely important to me,” “I worry about not being ‘good
enough’ in bed,” “When I haven’t had sex for a while, I begin to feel anxious and insecure”). The
26 items designed to assess sexual deactivation focused on uneasiness with sex, attempts to
avoid sexual activities, and deemphasizing one’s own sex-related feelings, thoughts, and needs
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 11
(e.g., “During sexual activity, I sometimes feel uninvolved and uninterested,” “I often find it hard
to experience pleasure during sexual activity,” “I usually have sex only when my partner
pressures me or really wants me to”). These items were written to capture feelings and thoughts
not only during sexual acts but also before and after sexual activities.
Eight independent judges (Israeli psychology students) who had been taught our
conception of the sexual system rated the goodness of fit of each item to each theoretical
dimension (hyperactivation or deactivation) as a check on its face validity. Ratings were made on
a 7-point scale. Items that averaged lower than 5.5 across the 8 judges were omitted. This
resulted in 48 items (24 items for each strategy) with high face validity.
Items were written in Hebrew and immediately translated into English by two bilingual
psychologists. The English items were then translated back into Hebrew by two bilingual
psychologists. This back translation yielded items similar to those in Hebrew, confirming the
congruence of the Hebrew and English versions.
Scale reduction. A sample of 278 Israeli undergraduates (Sample 1 in Table 1)
completed the 48 SSFS items. For each item, participants rated the extent to which it was
descriptive of their feelings during sexual activities. The ratings were made using a 7-point scale
ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The items did not refer to a specific
situation or relationship partner, but rather to one’s typical sex-related thoughts, feelings, and
behaviors. That is, the SSFS measures a person’s general orientation to sex rather than feelings
and thoughts in a particular situation or relationship, although the items could easily be adapted
to assess relationship-specific sexual strategies, as is sometimes done with the ECR scale
(Brennan et al., 1998; Fraley, Heffernan, Vicary, & Brumbaugh, 2011) when measuring
attachment patterns in specific relationships.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 12
A principal components analysis with varimax rotation indicated the existence of two
robust factors (eigenvalues > 1), with sexual hyperactivation items loading strongly on one factor
(loadings > .40) and sexual deactivation items loading strongly on the other factor. This analysis
explained 35.97% of the variance in the item scores, with the hyperactivation factor explaining
20.33% and the deactivation factor explaining 15.64%. We then reduced the number of items on
each subscale following two guiding principles: maintain good content validity and adequate
scale reliability. We first identified within each subscale pairs of items that were similarly
worded and highly correlated (r > .50). Such items were considered redundant, and the item with
the lower item-total correlation was discarded. Second, item-total correlations were recalculated
for the remaining items, and items that had the weakest correlations with their subscale were
discarded. This process continued until we were left with 12 items on each subscale (see the
Appendix for the 24-item SFSS). Third, we conducted a principal components analysis with
varimax rotation of the 24 items (see Table 2). As expected, sexual hyperactivation and
deactivation items loaded high (> .45) on their respective factors and relatively low (< .25) on
the other factor. Moreover, both subscales had adequate Cronbach α coefficients (see Table 2).
Evaluating the Two-Factor Structure of the SSFS
Replicability of the SSFS factorial structure across samples. Principal components
analyses with varimax rotation of the 24 SSFS items were conducted separately in nine other
samples of Israeli participants with Ns greater than 100 (Samples 2-8, 15, and 17; see Table 1).
Scree plots for the nine samples consistently indicated two factors with eigenvalues > 1, with the
12 deactivation items loading highly on one factor and the 12 hyperactivation items loading
highly ( > .40) on the other factor. Proportions of variance explained by the two factors ranged
from 38.68% to 51.08%, and both subscales exhibited high internal consistency in each of the
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 13
nine samples (see Table 2). Moreover, the two-dimensional structure was fully replicated when
factor analyses were conducted separately for men and women in the various samples, thereby
supporting the invariance of the two-factor structure across sexes. We therefore computed two
total scores – sexual hyperactivation and deactivation – by averaging items on each subscale.
As intended, the correlation between the hyperactivation and deactivation scores was not
statistically significant in most of the samples (rs ranging between .01 and .18, see Table 2).
Moreover, the significant correlations in six of the samples were not high (rs ranging between .
21 and .34, see Table 2). Overall, the two SSFS subscales seem to be nearly orthogonal and to
form a two-dimensional space in which different sexual system patterns can be represented. This
relative independence of the two SSFS scores resembles the independence of attachment
hyperactivation (anxiety) and attachment deactivation (avoidance) scores on the ECR scale. In
both cases, the independence may stem from two forces operating in opposite directions. First,
both hyperactivation and deactivation of the sexual or attachment systems represent problems in
the system’s functioning, which may push their correlation in a positive direction. Second, they
reflect opposite strategies – more intense engagement in sex/attachment activities or withdrawal
for these activities – which may push their correlation in a negative direction. The opposite
forces may result in near-zero correlations between the two scales.
Confirmatory factor analysis. To further validate the SSFS structure, we combined
Samples 2 through 8 and conducted a Confirmatory Factor Analysis (N = 1016). Fit indices for
the two-factor model indicated good fit (CFI = .94, SRMR = .05, RMSEA = .05). Moreover, this
model outperformed other models, including a single-factor model [Δχ²(1) = 1677.09, p < .001].
Cross-cultural replicability of the SSFS factor structure. To assess the cross-cultural
replicability of the SSFS factor structure, we conducted a principal components analysis of the
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 14
English version of the scale in a sample of American undergraduates (Sample 9 in Table 1). As
can be seen in Table 2, the two-factor structure of the SSFS was fully replicated in the American
sample. That is, the underlying constructs of sexual hyperactivation and deactivation appear to be
relatively invariant across the two societies.
Stability over Time and across Reporters and Measure Type
In an examination of the temporal stability of the SSFS scores, a sample of 92 Israeli
undergraduates (Sample 10 in Table 1) completed the SSFS four times at one-month intervals.
Both SSFS scores demonstrated high test-retest reliability over three months. For deactivation, rs
between consecutive measurements ranged from .80 to .84, and the correlation between the first
and fourth measurements was also high (.72). For hyperactivation, rs between consecutive
measurements ranged from .78 to .81, and the correlation between the first and fourth
measurements was high (.70). In Sample 18 (see Table 1), both members of 58 Israeli dating
couples completed the SSFS three times at four-month intervals. Both SSFS subscales were
temporally stable over a period of eight months. Among women, rs for hyperactivation ranged
from .78 to .88 and for deactivation from .70 to .75. Among men, rs for hyperactivation ranged
from .60 to .72 and for deactivation from .64 to .82.
For another sample of 29 Israeli undergraduates who completed the SFSS (Sample 11,
Table 1), we asked their romantic partners to use the SFSS items to describe the participants.
Significant correlations were found between self-reports and partner-reports regarding both the
hyperactivation and deactivation dimensions (rs of .54 and .50, ps < .01). That is, the SFSS
seems to measure, in part, behavioral tendencies that can be observed by a romantic partner.
In an additional sample of 65 Israeli undergraduates (Sample 12, Table 1), we conducted
a two-session study to see whether SFSS scores were related to people’s open-ended accounts of
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 15
their experiences during sexual activities. In the first session, participants completed the SFSS,
and in the second session, they recalled three instances of having sex, and described what
happened in each case. Two judges (graduate students in a Clinical Psychology program), blind
to participants’ SSFS scores but familiar with the theoretical dimensions of sexual
hyperactivation and deactivation, read each participant’s narratives and rated (on a 7-point scale)
the extent to which cognitive, motivational, affective, and behavioral signs of hyperactivation
and deactivation appeared in each narrative. Correlations between ratings of the two judges were
reasonably high (.59 for hyperactivation ratings and .65 for deactivation ratings), thereby
allowing us to average ratings across judges. Significant associations were found between these
ratings and participants’ SFSS scores (r = .52 for deactivation and r = .47 for hyperactivation, all
ps < .01). Thus, a person’s self-reports on the SFSS appear to be valid indicators of sex-related
thoughts and feelings, at least as reflected in narratives about sexual experiences.
To assess convergent validity, we correlated the SSFS with existing measures of (a) sex-
related feelings and attitudes, (b) sex-related self-views, (c) sexual functioning, (d) sexual
fantasies, (e) sex-related personality traits, and (f) sex-related motives in six Israeli samples
(Samples 3-8) and the American sample (Sample 9). Our predictions were as follows:
1. The SSFS hyperactivation score would be positively associated with measures of sexual
arousal, sexual desire, frequency of sexual fantasies, erotophilia (liking sex), and sex-related
worries and anxieties, as well as with measures of coercive and opportunistic sexuality aimed
at securing immediate rewards (e.g., casual sex, short-term mating). Moreover, because
sexual hyperactivation is also characterized by highly valuing sex as one of life’s most
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 16
important activities, the SSFS hyperactivation score would be associated with the perception
of sex as a means of achieving a wide array of personal motives, such as self-affirmation and
enhancement, relationship maintenance, and distress regulation.
2. The SSFS deactivation score would be positively associated with measures of restrictive and
withdrawn sexuality, erotophobia, sexual inhibition, and lack of interest in short-term mating
and casual sex. Moreover, people scoring high on sexual deactivation would fantasize about
sexual themes less frequently and would not tend to perceive sex as a means of achieving
other personal motives beyond procreation.
3. The two SSFS scores would be associated with sexual dysfunctions, negative sex-related
self-views, sex-related negative emotions, and sexual dissatisfaction.
Associations with sex-related feelings and thoughts. To measure sex-related attitudes
and feelings, we used the Sexual Opinion Survey (SOS; Fisher et al., 1988), the Anxiety subscale
of the Sexual Arousability Inventory – Expanded (SAI-E; Chambless & Lipshitz, 1984), and the
Experience of Heterosexual Intercourse Scale (EHIS; Birnbaum & Laser-Brandt, 2002). Based
on the acceptable Cronbach αs we found for all of the scales (see Table 3), we computed (a) the
total SOS score tapping negative attitudes toward sex (“erotophobia”), (b) the SAI-E sexual
anxiety score, and (c) three EHIS scores tapping worry-centered, relationship-centered, and
pleasure-centered feelings during sexual intercourse.
As can be seen in Table 3, Pearson correlations indicated that participants scoring
relatively high on either sexual hyperactivation or sexual deactivation scored higher on sexual
anxiety and were more likely to experience worries and negative affect during sexual intercourse
(EHIS score). In addition, participants scoring higher on sexual deactivation scored higher on
erotophobia and were less likely to experience warm feelings toward their partner and pleasure-
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 17
orgasmic feelings during sexual intercourse (EHIS scores). In contrast, participants scoring
higher on sexual hyperactivation were more likely to experience warm feelings toward their
partner during sexual intercourse (EHIS scores), although they also reported relatively high
levels of anxiety and worry during sex (see Table 3)1.
Associations with sex-related self-views. Variations in sexual-system functioning should
be manifested in a person’s sex-related self-views. Therefore, we administered the SFSS together
with the Self-Perceived Mate Value scale (SPMV; Landolt, Lalumiere, & Quinsey, 1995), the
Sexual Esteem scale from the Sexuality Scale (Snell & Papini, 1989), and the Sexual Desire
scale (Andersen, Anderson, & deProsse, 1989). Based on the acceptable Cronbach αs we found
for all of the scales (see Table 3), we computed the following scores for each participant: (a) self-
perceived value as a mate, (b) positive sexual self-esteem, and (d) sexual desire.
Participants scoring higher on either sexual hyperactivation or deactivation were less
likely to perceive themselves as an attractive mate and scored lower on positive sexual self-
esteem (see Table 3). In addition, sexual hyperactivation was positively associated with sexual
desire, whereas sexual deactivation was negatively associated with desire (see Table 3). Thus,
although both SSFS scores were associated with negative sexual self-views, participants scoring
higher on hyperactivation still reported relatively high levels of sexual desire.
Associations with sexual functioning and arousal. The convergent validity of the SSFS
was further examined by correlating it with measures of sexual functioning and arousal: the
Sexual Arousability Inventory (SAI; Hoon, Hoon, & Wincze, 1976), the Israeli Sexual Behavior
Inventory (ISBI; Kravetz, Drory, & Shaked, 1999), the Sexual Inhibition and Sexual Excitation
scales (SIS/SES; Janssen, Vorst, Finn, & Bancroft, 2002), and the Sexual Satisfaction scale
(Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Campos, & Altemus, 2006). Based on the acceptable Cronbach αs we
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 18
found for all of the scales (see Table 3), we computed (a) a total SAI score tapping sexual
arousal, (b) seven ISBI scores measuring sexual arousal, sexual satisfaction, sexual intimacy,
orgasmic dysfunction, penile erection dysfunction (for men), premature ejaculation (for men),
and vaginismus (for women), (c) three SIS/SES scores tapping propensities for sexual excitation,
sexual inhibition due to threat of performance failure (e.g., losing an erection), and sexual
inhibition due to threat of performance consequences (e.g., unwanted pregnancy), and (d) a total
sexual satisfaction score.
Participants scoring higher on either sexual hyperactivation or deactivation scored lower
on sexual satisfaction (see Table 3). In addition, participants scoring higher on sexual
deactivation scored lower on sexual excitation, sexual arousal, and sexual intimacy, and were
more likely to report orgasmic dysfunction, vaginismus, and sexual inhibition due to either threat
of performance failure or threat of performance consequences. Although the hyperactivation
score was not significantly associated with reports of sexual arousal, participants scoring higher
on sexual hyperactivation scored higher on sexual excitation and were more likely to report
premature ejaculation problems (perhaps due to their high level of sexual excitation).
Associations with mating strategies. We examined associations between the SSFS and
measures of mating preferences and behaviors: the Sexual Coercion in Intimate Relations scale
(Shackelford & Goetz, 2004), the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI, Simpson &
Gangestad, 1991), the Sexual Mating Preferences scale (SMPS, Gillath & Schachner, 2006), and
the Mating Effort scale (MES, Rowe et al., 1997). In addition, participants in Sample 7 provided
information about the number of sexual partners they had in the previous five years and the
frequency of sexual activities (number of sexual acts per week) during the last year. Based on the
acceptable Cronbach αs we obtained for all of the scales (see Table 3), we computed (a) a total
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 19
sexual coercion score, (b) a total SOI score indicating willingness to engage in casual,
uncommitted sex, (c) two SMPS scores tapping long-term and short-term mating preferences,
and a total MES score indicating the perceived effort allocated to attracting sexual partners.
As can be seen in Table 3, participants scoring higher on sexual deactivation were less
willing to engage in casual, uncommitted sex and to allocate time and energy to attracting sexual
partners. Moreover, they were less likely to prefer short-term sexual relationships and reported
having fewer sexual partners and less frequent sexual activities. Participants scoring higher on
sexual hyperactivation scored higher on sexual coercion, preferred more short-term sexual
relations, and were more likely to invest efforts in attracting sexual partners. In addition, they
reported having more sexual partners and more frequent sexual activities.
Associations with sexual fantasy. People's sexual fantasies can provide a window on
their sex-related desires, goals, and preferences that may not always be acted on. Therefore, we
administered the SSFS together with the Sexual Fantasy Checklist (Birnbaum, 2007b), which
assesses the frequency of sexual fantasies and the themes that dominate a person’s sexual
fantasies (emotionally detached fantasies, emotionally invested fantasies, control-related
fantasies). As expected, sexual hyperactivation was associated with a higher frequency of sexual
fantasies (see Table 4), reflecting heightened sexual arousal and desire. Moreover, participants
scoring higher on sexual hyperactivation were more likely to report emotionally detached and
control-related (e.g., exerting dominance over one's sexual partner) sexual fantasies.
Unexpectedly, deactivation was not associated with frequency of sexual fantasies (see Table 4).
Future studies should explore potential moderators (e.g., objective ratings of sexual
attractiveness, recent exposure to sexual stimuli) to help explain whether and why only some
people scoring high on sexual deactivation are less likely to fantasize about sexual themes.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 20
Associations with sex-related personality dimensions. We also examined associations
between the SSFS subscales and the Sexy Seven Scale (Schmitt & Buss, 2000), tapping seven
sex-related personality dimensions (see Table 4). As expected, participants scoring higher on
sexual hyperactivation were more likely to perceive themselves as erotophilic (liking sex) and
less likely to report a feminine orientation and a preference for exclusivity in sexual relations. In
contrast, participants scoring higher on sexual deactivation were more likely to report a feminine
orientation and to perceive themselves as sexually restrained. In addition, they were less likely to
perceive themselves as sexually attractive and erotophilic and less likely to be emotionally
invested in sexual relations (see Table 4).
Associations with sexual motives. The motives underlying people's sexual behavior can
be revealing about the functioning of their sexual system. Hence, we examined the associations
between SSFS subscales and measures of sexual motivation: the Sexual Behavioral System
Subgoals scale (SBSS; Birnbaum & Gillath, 2006), the Sex Motives scale (SMS; Cooper et al.,
1998), and the Affective and Motivational Orientation Related to Erotic Arousal questionnaire
(AMORE; Hill & Preston, 1996). Based on the acceptable Cronbach αs we obtained for all of the
scales (see Table 5), we computed (a) four SBSS scores tapping beliefs related to the pursuit of
sexual-system subgoals, (b) six SMS scores indicating specific reasons for having sex, and (c)
eight AMORE scores assessing specific desired sex-related outcomes.
Pearson correlations indicated that although both SSFS hyperactivation and deactivation
scores were positively associated with viewing sex as a cause of negative feelings, they had quite
different associations with sex-related motives (see Table 5). Sexual hyperactivation was
positively associated with self-serving sexual motives (i.e., using sex to affirm one's self, to gain
in social reputation, to enhance one’s power, and to feel valued by a partner), relationship-
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 21
oriented sexual motives (i.e., using sex to maintain a relationship, to enhance emotional intimacy,
to experience the power of a partner, and to value and nurture a partner), and affect-regulation
motives (i.e., using sex to cope with distress, to reduce relational insecurities, to reduce negative
affect). Sexual deactivation was positively associated with the use of sex for the sake of
procreation (see Table 5). It was also positively associated with using sex for instrumental
reasons (i.e., to avoid losing love or to enhance social reputation), but negatively associated with
using sex for romantic purposes or pleasure2.
To assess discriminant validity, we correlated the SSFS with demographic variables and
social desirability measures in Samples 3-9. We expected no significant associations between
SSFS scores, social desirability measures, and sociodemographic variables. We also expected
that these variables would not be able to explain the associations between SSFS scores and
measures of sex-related attitudes, feelings, cognitions, and behaviors.
We first assessed associations between SSFS scores and demographic variables: sex, age,
relationship status (whether or not participants were currently in a romantic relationship), and
education. For this purpose, we calculated a weighted average of these correlations across all the
samples. SSFS hyperactivation and deactivation scores were not significantly associated with a
participant’s age, relationship status, years of education, or sex (rs ranging from .01 to .09),
supporting the discriminant validity of the scale.
Although many sex-related self-report measures have been shown to be valid and
reliable, some of such measures may be susceptible to social desirability biases. Hence, we
measured SSFS scores together with scores on the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale
(Crowne & Marlowe, 1960) and the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR;
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 22
Paulhus, 1984). No significant associations were found between SSFS scores and the measures
of socially desirable responding, including social desirability, impression management, and self-
deception (rs ranging from -.09 to -.18, all ps > .05), implying that responses to SSFS items are
not much affected by social desirability or impression management biases.
Strengthening our confidence in the discriminant validity of the SSFS, partial correlations
(not reported here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that the associations reported in Tables 3-6
between SSFS scores and other related constructs remained significant after statistically
controlling for social desirability scores or age, relationship status, education, and sex. That is,
the observed patterns of correlations for each SSFS score could not be explained by social
desirability or sociodemographic variables.
We sought to broaden our understanding of individual differences in the functioning of
the sexual system by examining the nomological network of SSFS scores. Specifically, we
examined associations between these scores and measures of relational orientations, personality
traits, affect, psychological well-being, and psychological resources. Because sexual
hyperactivation and deactivation reflect problems in enjoying sex, are thought to result from a
history of sexual failure, pain, and frustration, and are associated with sex-related worries,
anxieties, and dysfunctions, we predicted that the two SSFS scores would be associated with
relationship insecurities, stronger negative affectivity, higher neuroticism scores, lower
psychological well-being, and poorer psychological resources for managing distress and dealing
with life’s problems.
Associations with relational orientations. To examine the network of associations
between SSFS scores and relational orientations, participants completed the Passionate Love
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 23
Scale (PLS; Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986) and the ECR attachment scales (Brennan et al., 1998)
measuring attachment anxiety and avoidance (see Cronbach αs in Table 6). As expected,
participants scoring higher on either sexual hyperactivation or deactivation were more likely to
report relational insecurities, as evidenced by higher attachment anxiety and avoidance scores
(see Table 6). That is, problems in sexual-system functioning were positively associated with
more general relational insecurities. In addition, participants scoring higher on sexual
hyperactivation scored higher on passionate love (see Table 6), suggesting that passionate love
involves, to some extent, sexual hyperactivation and the worries associated with it.
Due to similarity in the ways of coping with attachment-related and sex-related problems,
one could expect a one-to-one mapping of sexual hyperactivation to anxious attachment and
sexual deactivation to avoidant attachment. However, our findings indicated that both SSFS
scores are positively correlated with both attachment anxiety and avoidance. This finding, which
we also observed when examining associations between attachment insecurities and dysfunctions
in the power-dominance system (Shaver, Segev, & Mikulincer, 2011), suggests that a specific
dysfunction in a behavioral system should not necessarily be reflected in a similar dysfunction in
other behavioral systems. Rather, dysfunctions in different systems can be more complexly
associated, suggesting that each domain and its pattern of associations should be examined
carefully and systematically. For example, sexual hyperactivation may be associated with the two
attachment scores because, like attachment anxiety, it is associated with negative affectivity and
neuroticism, and, like avoidant attachment, is associated with a preference for casual, non-
committed sex. Sexual deactivation may be associated with the two attachment scores because,
like avoidant attachment, it reflects a restrained, withdrawal orientation toward others, and, like
anxious attachment, is associated with negative self-views and distress.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 24
In Samples 5 and 9, we conducted multiple regression analyses examining unique effects
of SSFS scores on sex-related measures while controlling for attachment orientations (ECR
scores). Standardized regression coefficients (not reported here for the sake of parsimony)
revealed that the associations reported in Tables 3-5 between SSFS scores and sex-related
measures remained significant after statistically controlling for attachment anxiety and
avoidance. That is, it seems that the SSFS taps unique aspects of sexuality not captured by
measures of attachment insecurities, thus supporting the incremental validity of the scale.
Associations with personality measures. To explore the personality correlates of SSFS
scores, participants completed various personality scales: The Big Five Inventory (BFI; John &
Srivastava, 1990), the Behavioral Inhibition/Behavioral Activation Scales (BIS/BAS; Carver &
White, 1994), the Zuckerman-Kuhlman personality questionnaire (ZKPQ; Zuckerman, Kuhlman,
Joireman, Tefa & Kraft, 1993), the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS; Zuckerman, Eysenck, &
Eysenck, 1978), and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Hall, 1979). Based on
the acceptable Cronbach αs obtained for all of the scales (see Table 6), we computed the
following scores for each participant: (a) BFI extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience,
conscientiousness, and agreeableness scores; (b) behavioral inhibition and behavioral activation
scores; (c) ZKPQ activity level, aggressiveness, sociability, impulsivity, and neuroticism scores;
(d) a total sensation-seeking score; and (e) a total narcissism score.
As can be seen in Table 6, both sexual hyperactivation and deactivation were positively
associated with neuroticism (BFI and ZKPQ scores), highlighting the negative affectivity
associated with suboptimal functioning of the sexual system. In addition, participants scoring
higher on sexual deactivation scored lower on extraversion, sociability, openness to experience,
sensation seeking, and behavioral activation. These associations imply that sexual deactivation is
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 25
part of a nomological network of restricted and withdrawn personality characteristics, which
manifests itself in drive inhibition, including inhibition of the sexual drive, and withdrawal from
enjoyable, rewarding activities in the social, cognitive, and sexual domains.
Participants scoring higher on sexual hyperactivation scored higher on sensation seeking,
impulsivity, and behavioral inhibition, and lower on conscientiousness and agreeableness (see
Table 6). These associations highlight the dual nature of sexual hyperactivation, which can also
explain its association with both attachment anxiety and avoidance. On the one hand, it is part of
a nomological network of impulsive and expansive personality characteristics, which manifests
itself in sensation seeking, impulsivity, and immediate drive gratification, even at the cost of
quarreling with and creating tension for partners. On the other hand, sexual hyperactivation is
part of a nomological network of anxious, neurotic personality characteristics dominated by
worries, negative affect, and a heightened focus on potential threats (behavioral inhibition score),
mapping onto the anxious attachment pattern (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). Findings also
revelaed no significant associations between SSFS scores and narcissism, implying that sexual
hyperactivation and deactivation are not necessarily associated with grandiose narcissism.
In Samples 4 and 9, we conducted multiple regression analyses examining unique effects
of SSFS scores on sex-related measures while controlling for the variance explained by the Big
Five personality traits (BFI scores). In Sample 7, we conducted the same regressions while
controlling for either BIS/BAS scores or ZPKQ scores. Standardized regression coefficients (not
reported here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that the associations reported in Tables 3-5
between SSFS scores and sex-related measures remained significant after statistically controlling
for personality traits. That is, SSFS scores tap unique aspects of sexuality not captured by
personality trait measures, thereby supporting the incremental validity of the scale.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 26
Associations with affect and well-being. To examine the affective correlates of SSFS
scores, participants completed various measures of affect and well-being: the Positive and
Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), the Mental Health
Inventory (MHI; Veit & Ware, 1983), the Test of Self-Conscious Affect (TOSCA; Tangney,
Wagner, & Gramzow, 1989), the anger and hostility subscales of the Aggression Questionnaire
(Buss & Perry, 1992), the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD; Hamilton, 1980), and
the Trait subscale of the State and Trait Anxiety Index (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene,
Based on the acceptable Cronbach αs obtained for all the scales (Table 6), we computed
the following scores for each participant: (a) two PANAS scores reflecting positive mood and
negative mood, (b) two MHI scores indicating psychological well-being and psychological
distress, (c) TOSCA scores for shame-proneness, and (d) total scores on anger, hostility,
depression, and trait anxiety. As can be seen in Table 6, participants scoring higher on either
sexual hyperactivation or deactivation were more likely to report negative mood, psychological
distress, shame-proneness, anger, hostility, depression, and anxiety. In addition, they were less
likely to report positive mood and psychological well-being. Importantly, standardized regression
coefficients (not reported here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that the reported associations
between SSFS scores and measures of affect and well-being remained significant after
statistically controlling for attachment scores, neuroticism, or self-esteem (Sample 9). That is,
SSFS scores tap unique aspects of affect and well-being not captured by attachment, neuroticism,
or self-esteem, thereby supporting the incremental validity of the scale.
Associations with psychological resources. The psychological distress associated with
both sexual hyperactivation and deactivation can be manifested in impoverished psychological
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 27
resources for dealing with obstacles, failures, and frustrations. Therefore, we examined
associations between SSFS subscales and various measures of psychological resources: Sense of
Mastery (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978), Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1979), Subjective Vitality
Scale (Ryan & Frederick, 1997), Self Actualization Scale (Jones & Crandall, 1986), a measure of
optimism (Life Orientation Test; Scheier & Carver, 1985), and a measure of psychological
hardiness (Personal Views Survey II; Maddi, 1997). As can be seen in Table 6, both sexual
hyperactivation and deactivation scores were significantly and inversely associated with
participants’ sense of mastery, self-esteem, sense of vitality, self-actualization tendencies,
optimism, and psychological hardiness. In line with our expectations, the two secondary sexual
strategies were associated with impoverished psychological resources that make it more difficult
to cope with life threats and to manage distress.
Beyond examining the nomological networks of the SSFS variables, we also examined
the predictive validity of these scores. Specifically, we examined the extent to which
hyperactivation and deactivation scores predicted a person’s cognitive, affective, physiological,
and behavioral reactions to actual sexual stimuli in controlled laboratory settings. Notably, small
samples were involved in some of these studies due to the complexities of conducting
experiments in laboratory settings. In examining the predictive validity of the SSFS scores, we
also examined the incremental contribution of SSFS scores above and beyond the contribution of
(a) other scales that assess sexual cognitions, emotions, motives, and behaviors, (b) attachment
orientations, and (c) other relevant personality variables such as neuroticism and sociosexuality.
Predicting cognitive reactions to sexual stimuli. According to our conceptualization of
the two secondary sexual strategies, hyperactivation strategies should predispose people to
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 28
monitor and rapidly detect sex-related stimuli, and deactivation should predispose them to ignore
and dismiss such stimuli. Therefore, we predicted that people scoring higher on the SSFS
hyperactivation scale would show faster detection and processing of sex-related words. In
contrast, people scoring higher on the SSFS deactivation scale would show slower detection and
processing of sex-related words.
To test these predictions, we had 40 Israeli undergraduates (Sample 13, see Table 1)
complete the SSFS and other questionnaires (ECR, SAI) during regular lecture time; then 2-3
weeks later they came to a laboratory and performed a computerized lexical-decision task in
which they read each of several strings of letters and were asked to decide whether or not each
was or was not a word. The task was run on a Pentium IBM-PC, with an SVGA color monitor,
and was programmed using DirectRT software. The letter strings were displayed in black
lettering on a white background in the middle of the monitor screen. Each participant completed
120 trials. Each trial consisted of the presentation of one of 24 target letter strings (for 1000 ms).
Participants judged as quickly as possible whether the letter string was or was not a word by
pressing “1” on the keyboard number pad if they thought the string was a word or “3” if they
thought it was not a word.
The target letter strings were divided into three categories: (a) 12 non-words (e.g.,
tonobkoe, nowdiw) presented in 60 trials; (b) six neutral words (e.g., notebook, chair, pencil)
presented in 30 trials; (c) and six sex-related words (e.g., Hebrew for intercourse, penis, orgasm)
presented in 30 trials. Each word was presented in five trials. The letter strings were presented in
different random orders to different participants. The words in each category were equally long
(in Hebrew), F < 1, p > .10. The reaction time (RT) for each trial was used as a measure of the
time it took to process a letter string. For each participant, we averaged RTs for each letter-string
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 29
category (sex-related words, neutral words, and non-words). RTs shorter than 300 ms or longer
than 1500 ms were omitted, as were erroneous responses (identifying non-words as words or
vice versa). Strong correlations were found between RTs in the three categories (rs from .71 to .
76), strengthening our confidence in the reliability of the RTs.
The data were analyzed in a multiple regression analysis in which we simultaneously
entered deactivation and hyperactivation scores as predictors of RTs for sex-related words. In this
regression, we also simultaneously entered both RTs for non-words and RTs for neutral words as
covariates to statistically control for their contribution to RTs for sex-related words and to
discover the unique contribution of SSFS scores. This regression yielded significant unique
effects for both deactivation (β = .37, p < .01) and hyperactivation (β = -.30, p < .05). In line with
our predictions, participants scoring higher on deactivation were slower to detect sex-related
words (longer RTs), and participants scoring higher on hyperactivation were quicker to detect
these words. The introduction of participant’s sex into the regression models did not modify the
above findings (βs of .38 and -.29, ps < .05) and the interactions between SSFS scores and
participant’s sex were not significant (βs of .02 and -.03, ps > .10).
Overall, SSFS scores predicted people’s cognitive reactions (recognition times) to sex-
related words. Importantly, regressions performed on RTs for non-words or neutral words did not
yield any significant effects of SSFS scores. Moreover, the contribution of SSFS scores to RTs
for sex-related words remained the same after introducing attachment orientations (ECR scores)
or sexual arousal (SAI) as covariates into the regression, thereby contributing to the incremental
validity of SSFS scores.
Predicting physiological and affective reactions to sexual stimuli. Consistent with our
hypotheses, individuals scoring relatively high on sexual deactivation expressed less positive
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 30
attitudes toward sex (see Tables 3-5). These individuals tend to view sexual stimuli as a potential
source of distress and therefore attempt to avoid sexual stimulation. Accordingly, we predicted
that people scoring higher on sexual deactivation would report more negative affect and show
physiological signs of distress (e.g., heightened salivary cortisol) in response to sexual stimuli. In
contrast, we predicted that individuals scoring high on sexual hyperactivation would report more
positive affect in response to sexual stimuli. People scoring high on sexual hyperactivation might
experience sex-related distress primarily when the threat of sexual failure becomes more salient
(e.g., when encountering a potential partner for sex). Mere exposure to sexual stimulation might
not be sufficient for eliciting distress among them because they would be mainly overloaded with
To test this prediction, we asked 17 Israeli undergraduate men (Sample 14, see Table 1) to
complete the SSFS and the neuroticism subscale of the Big Five Inventory (BFI) during regular
lecture time and to come to a laboratory 2-3 weeks later, where they were presented with erotic
pictures while we assessed their affective and physiological reactions. The laboratory session
included three stages. In the first stage, participants completed the PANAS (Watson et al., 1988)
as a baseline measure of mood, and provided salivary cortisol samples. In the second stage,
participants looked at 15 neutral landscape pictures (one per minute) on a computer monitor, and
provided salivary cortisol samples again. These two cortisol measurements (before and after
exposure to neutral pictures) were averaged to create a measure of baseline cortisol level. In the
third stage, participants saw 15 erotic pictures (12 pictures of nude attractive women and 3
pictures depicting sexual activities between heterosexual partners) on a computer monitor at a
rate of one per minute, and provided salivary cortisol samples immediately afterwards. They then
completed the PANAS again and answered five questions about their current level of sexual
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 31
arousal on a 7-point scale (e.g., How much do you feel sexually aroused by these pictures?”).
The Cronbach α for these five items was .81. Strong correlations were found between cortisol
levels at the various assessment times (rs from .63 to .72).
The data were analyzed in a series of multiple regression analyses. In regressions
assessing the contribution of SSFS scores to predicting PANAS scores after sexual pictures and
salivary cortisol levels immediately after sexual pictures, we entered baseline measures of affect
and cortisol as covariates to control statistically for their contributions and then examined the
effects of SSFS scores on pre-post changes in affect and cortisol levels. As expected, individuals
scoring higher on sexual hyperactivation reported more sexual arousal following exposure to the
erotic pictures (β = .77, p < .01). Sexual hyperactivation was also associated with higher reported
positive affect following exposure to the erotic pictures relative to baseline (β = .39, p < .05).
However, no significant association was found between sexual hyperactivation and negative
affect or salivary cortisol, all ps > .05.
In contrast, sexual deactivation was associated with higher reported negative affect
following exposure to the erotic pictures relative to baseline (β = .70, p < .01). Moreover, sexual
deactivation was associated with increased cortisol levels (relative to baseline) immediately after
exposure to the erotic pictures (β = .67, p < .01).
Overall, sexual deactivation was a significant predictor of physiological and affective
responses to erotic stimuli. Moreover, standardized regression coefficients revealed that the
contribution of sexual deactivation to changes in self-reported affect and salivary cortisol
remained significant after statistically controlling for BFI neuroticism (βs of .68 and .64, ps < .
01), thereby contributing to the incremental validity of SFSS scores. However, one should take
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 32
into account that the small sample size (17 participants) weakens the generalizability of the
findings. Future studies should attempt to replicate these findings in larger samples.
Predicting complex affective reactions to sexual stimuli among people scoring high on
SSFS hyperactivation. The heightened sexual arousal and positive affect reported by people
scoring high on sexual hyperactivation in response to erotic pictures fit well with the observed
associations between hyperactivation and measures of sexual arousal, desire, and excitation (see
Table 3). However, the finding that people scoring high on sexual hyperactivation did not show
any sign of distress in response to the erotic pictures is inconsistent with the observed positive
associations between SSFS hyperactivation and measures of sex-related distress (see Table 3).
We believe that sexual hyperactivation leads people to approach erotic stimuli, thereby
heightening positive affect in the presence of such stimuli (e.g., erotic picture). However, when
the encounter with erotic stimuli also involves actually having sex with another person, sexual
hyperactivation can include anxieties related to sexual performance failure and its consequences.
This then introduces negative affect into what would otherwise be expected to produce pleasure.
Therefore, we predicted that asking people to think about an erotic movie would increase
negative affect (as compared to neutral thoughts) only among people scoring high on sexual
deactivation, but not among those who score high on sexual hyperactivation. However, asking
people to think about having sex with a romantic partner would increase negative affect among
people scoring high on sexual hyperactivation as well as deactivation.
To test these predictions, we asked 105 Israeli undergraduates (Sample 15, see Table 1) to
complete the SSFS and other questionnaires (ECR, SOI, BFI neuroticism) during regular lecture
time. Then, 2-3 weeks later they came to a laboratory and performed a memory task. In this task,
participants were randomly divided into three conditions (35 participants in each). In the erotic
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 33
movie condition, participants were asked to recall an erotic movie they had watched. In the
sexual intercourse condition, participants were asked to recall having sexual intercourse with a
partner. In the neutral condition, participants were asked to recall a TV program they usually
watched. In all three conditions, participants were asked to briefly list the emotions and thoughts
elicited by the recalled memory. Following this task, all participants completed the PANAS
(Watson et al., 1988) and were asked to rate the extent to which each of the 20 items was
descriptive of their mood during the task. We computed two scores by averaging relevant items:
positive affect (α = .89) and negative affect (α = .92).
PANAS scores were analyzed in two-step hierarchical regression analyses. For these
regressions, we created two dummy variables – one contrasting the erotic movie condition (+1)
with the neutral condition (-1) and the other contrasting the sexual intercourse condition (+1)
with the neutral condition (-1). In step 1 of each regression, we entered the dummy variables and
the SSFS scores (centered around their means) as predictors. In step 2, we added the interactions
between each of the dummy variables and each SSFS score.
The regression analysis performed on the positive affect scores yielded only a significant
interaction between the erotic movie condition and sexual hyperactivation (β = .29, p < .05).
Simple slope analyses revealed that sexual hyperactivation was significantly associated with
heightened positive mood only in the erotic movie condition (β = .45, p < .01), but not in the
neutral condition (β = -.13). Moreover, thinking about an erotic movie significantly heightened
positive affect only when sexual hyperactivation was high (+1 SD, β = .40, p < .01), but not
when it was low (-1 SD, β = -.18). No other effects were significant. This effect mirrors the
higher positive affect reported by participants scoring high on sexual hyperactivation in reaction
to exposure to erotic pictures.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 34
The regression analysis performed on the negative affect scores yielded a significant
unique effect of sexual deactivation (β = .35, p < .01), as well as significant interactions between
deactivation and the erotic movie condition (β = .28, p < .05), deactivation and recalled sexual
intercourse (β = .24, p < .05) and hyperactivation and recalled sexual intercourse (β = .22, p < .
05). Simple slope analyses revealed the following pattern of associations: Sexual deactivation
was significantly associated with heightened negative mood in the erotic movie condition (β = .
63, p < .01) and in the recalled sexual intercourse condition (β = .59, p < .01), but not in the
neutral condition (β = .09). In addition, sexual hyperactivation was significantly associated with
heightened negative mood only in the recalled sexual intercourse condition (β = .45, p < .01), but
not in the erotic movie condition (β = .01) or the neutral condition (β = -.13).
Overall, people scoring higher on sexual deactivation reacted to recalled memories of
either erotic movies or sexual intercourse with heightened negative affect. People scoring higher
on sexual hyperactivation reacted to memories of erotic movies with heightened positive affect,
but they showed heightened negative affect in response to memories of sexual intercourse. The
introduction of participant’s sex into the regression models did not modify the above findings
and the interactions between SSFS scores and participant’s sex were not significant. Moreover,
standardized regression coefficients (not reported here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that
the reported effects of SSFS scores on self-reported affect remained significant after introducing
attachment orientations (ECR scores), sociosexuality (SOI), or neuroticism (BFI) as covariates
into the regression, thereby contributing to the incremental validity of SFSS scores.
Predicting mating preferences. Numerous studies have shown that people typically prefer
physically beautiful partners for engaging in short-term sexual relations (see Buss, 2008, for a
review), because this is a sign of a partner’s “good genes,” which increase the chances of reproductive
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 35
success – the assumed function of the sexual system. Therefore, sexual hyperactivation, which
involves heightened sexual desire (see Table 3), should lead people to rely more heavily on physical
attractiveness as a criterion for choosing dating partners. That is, we expected people scoring high on
sexual hyperactivation to perceive other people mainly in terms of the sexual system’s goal –
reproductive success. In contrast, individuals scoring high on sexual deactivation seem less interested
in sex and in short-term sexual relations (see Table 3). Accordingly, we expected them to rely less
heavily on physical attractiveness while making mating choices and to choose dating partners based
on other criteria, which are less inherent to reproductive success (e.g., expressing warm feelings,
In a test of these predictions, 87 Israeli undergraduates (Sample 16, see Table 1) completed
the SSFS and other questionnaires (ECR, SOI), and then viewed, in randomized order, 37
pictures of opposite-sex individuals. For each picture, they rated the extent to which they would
be interested in a dating relationship with the portrayed person. Ratings were made on a 7-point
scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). Each slide included a photograph of the face of
the potential dating partner, her or his age, and her or his occupation.
To quantify the physical attractiveness of each of the 37 female and 37 male potential
partners, we asked a different sample of Israeli undergraduates (N = 46, 28 women and 18 men)
to rate the physical attractiveness of each portrayed person on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (not
at all) to 7 (very much). Men rated the physical attractiveness of each of the 37 portrayed
women, and women rated the physical attractiveness of each of the 37 portrayed men. We
averaged the ratings made by all of the participants for each picture and this score served as a
measure of each potential partner’s physical attractiveness. The mean physical attractiveness
across all of the pictures was 4.65, with SD = 1.16. Participants in this sample also rated the
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 36
future economic status of each portrayed person (using information about her or his profession),
on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (very low status) to 7 (very high status). We then averaged the
ratings made by all of the participants for each picture, and this score served as the estimated
future economic status of each of the 37 female and 37 male potential partners. The mean
economic status across all of the pictures was 4.08, with SD = 0.82.
A multilevel regression (MLM) was conducted, with physical attractiveness of the
portrayed person at Level I. The Level I model also included the order of slide presentation, the
age of potential partners, and their estimated future economic status (as controls). Level II
variables included participant’s sex and scores on sexual hyperactivation and deactivation. In
addition, interactions of each SSFS score with participant’s sex were examined.
Sexual hyperactivation significantly interacted with physical attractiveness (γ = 0.10, p
< .05). Simple slope analyses showed that hyperactivation was associated with greater attraction
to more physically attractive partners (+1 SD, γ = 0.23, p = .08), but not to physically
unattractive partners (-1 SD, γ = 0.02). Sexual deactivation interacted with physical
attractiveness in the opposite direction (γ = -0.13, p < .05). Simple slope analyses showed that
sexual deactivation was associated with weaker attraction to more physically attractive partners
(+1 SD, γ = -0.20, p < .05), but not to physically unattractive partners (-1 SD, γ = 0.06).
However, this deactivation effect was moderated by participant’s sex (γ = -0.11, p < .05); simple
slopes analyses indicated that the effect occurred mainly among men. That is, men, but not
women, scoring higher on SSFS deactivation were less likely to feel attracted to a physically
attractive partner. One post hoc explanation of this sex difference is that SSFS deactivation can
lead men to attach less value to the sexual and physical aspects of attraction in making mating
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 37
choices, whereas women already attach less value to such aspects regardless their scores on
Overall, SSFS hyperactivation and deactivation scores predicted participants’ mating
preferences in the expected directions. Moreover, multilevel regression coefficients (not reported
here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that the reported effects of SSFS scores on mating
preferences remained significant after introducing attachment orientations (ECR scores) or
sociosexuality (SOI) as covariates into the regression, thereby contributing to the incremental
validity of SFSS scores. Conceptully similar findings were found in a study that examined the
relationship between SSFS scores and mating preferences using video-tapes of potential
romantic partners (Szepsenwol, Mikulincer, & Birnbaum, 2013).
Predicting attraction to a partner following a relationship conflict. A recent study has
shown that the desire to have sex with a romantic partner increases after relational conflicts with
this partner, perhaps as a means of repairing the damage that a conflict can have on a relationship
(Birnbaum, Mikulincer, & Austerlitz, 2013). We would expect secondary sexual strategies to
affect the use of sex as a relationship repairing strategy, with sexual hyperactivation increasing
the use of this strategy and sexual deactivation reducing it. That is, the SSFS scores should
predict changes in sexual attraction to a romantic partner following a relationship conflict.
To test this prediction, we had 125 Israelis who were in a romantic relationship at the
time of the study (Sample 17, see Table 1) complete the SSFS and the ECR scales. About half of
the participants (N = 64) were asked to visualize a situation in which they had experienced a mild
conflict with their romantic partner (e.g., arguing over which movie to see). The rest of the
participants (N = 61) were asked to visualize a neutral situation with their romantic partner (e.g.,
sitting down for dinner). In both conditions, participants were asked to recall the situation as
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 38
vividly as possible and to write about their thoughts and feelings during the situation. Following
this task, all participants completed five items assessing sexual attraction to their partner (e.g.,
"How sexually arousing is your partner?", "How sensual is your partner?"; Cronbach α = .92).
To examine the effect of SSFS scores and the conflict manipulation on attraction to a
partner, we conducted a multiple regression analysis. The predictors were the conflict
manipulation – a dummy variable comparing conflict (1) with control (-1), sexual
hyperactivation and deactivation (centered around their means), participant’s sex, and all two-
way and three-way interactions. The analysis revealed a significant main effect of sexual
deactivation (β = -.56, p < .01) and a significant interaction between conflict and deactivation (β
= -.30, p < .01). Simple slope analyses revealed that visualizing a relational conflict increased
sexual attraction to a romantic partner (as compared to the neutral condition) only when sexual
deactivation scores were low (-1 SD, β = .39, p < .01). This effect was not significant when
sexual deactivation scores were high (+1 SD, β = -.15). Moreover, the negative association
between deactivation and sexual attraction was higher in the conflict condition (β = -.85, p <. 01)
than in the neutral condition (β = -.29, p <. 05). That is, as expected, sexual deactivation
inhibited the use of sex as a relationship-repair strategy following relational conflict. These
findings held for both men and women (no significant interactions were found between SSFS
scores and participants’ sex, all ps > .05). At odds with our predictions, sexual hyperactivation
was not associated with sexual attraction to a partner. It is possible that the sexual worries
associated with sexual hyperactivation inhibited sexual desire in the romantic context made
salient in this experiment. However, this is a post hoc explanation that requires further research.
Overall, sexual deactivation predicted less sexual attraction to a partner following
relationship conflict. Moreover, standardized regression coefficients (not reported here for the
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 39
sake of parsimony) revealed that the reported effects of SSFS deactivation on sexual attraction
remained significant after introducing attachment orientations (ECR scores) as covariates into
the regression, thereby contributing to the incremental validity of SFSS scores.
Predicting expressions of sexual desire in a conversation between dating partners.
Beyond examining reactions to actual sexual stimuli, we also wanted to examine whether SSFS
scores would be manifested in expressions of sexual desire during an interaction with a dating
partner. We predicted that participants scoring higher on sexual hyperactivation would express
more desire toward their partners, whereas participants scoring higher on sexual deactivation
would express less desire toward their partners. Because tests of these predictions require the
participation of both members of a couple, we measured SSFS scores and expressions of sexual
desire in both couple members and also explored whether one member’s SSFS scores would
affect the other member’s expressions of sexual desire during a couple interaction.
Two members of 58 Israeli couples who had been dating between 2 and 4 months (M =
3.17, SD = 0.89) completed the SSFS, the ECR, the SOI, and the BFI online and, one week later,
participated in a video-recorded laboratory session (Sample 18, see Table 1). No significant
correlation was found between couple members’ hyperactivation (.20) or deactivation (-.15)
scores. During the laboratory session, couple members were seated in two chairs facing each
other, close enough together so that they could touch each other, and discussed satisfying and
unsatisfying aspects of their sexual relationship for 10 minutes.
The video-recorded interactions were coded by two trained independent judges, graduate
students in psychology who were blind to participants’ SSFS scores. Each judge watched the
video-recorded interactions and rated each dyad member's verbal and nonverbal expressions of
sexual desire (e.g., verbal expressions of desire to have sex, seductive smiles or eye contact) in a
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 40
single overall behavioral coding of sexual desire. Ratings were made on a 7-point scale ranging
from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). Inter-rater reliability was adequate (ICC for women's
expressions = .78, ICC for men's expressions = .77). Hence, judges’ ratings were averaged for
each participant. The average expression of sexual desire was 4.39 (SD = 1.15) for men and 4.31
(SD =1.06) for women. A moderate association was found between men’s and women’s
expressions of desire within a couple (r = .33, p < .05).
Actor and partner effects of sexual hyperactivation and deactivation on men's and
women's behavioral expressions of desire were assessed simultaneously using a multilevel
regression (MLM) in accordance with the actor-partner interdependence framework (APIM;
Cook & Kenny, 2005). In this analysis, the dependent variable was judges’ rating of a
participant’s behavioral expression of desire during the conversation. The predictor variables
were participant’s sex, participants’ SSFS scores, their partner’s SSFS scores, and the
interactions between sex and the actor and partner SSFS scores. Findings indicated that sexual
deactivation was associated with lower expressions of desire by both actor (β = -.24, p < .05) and
partner (β = -.32, p < .001). This effect was not significantly moderated by participant’s sex.
None of the sexual hyperactivation effects were significant.
Overall, participants scoring higher on the SSFS deactivation scale were less likely to
express sexual desire toward a dating partner while interacting with her or him. Moreover,
partners of these participants also expressed less sexual desire toward the sexually deactivated
participant, thereby creating a dyadic self-exacerbating cycle of sexual inhibition. The lack of
significant effects of sexual hyperactivation may reflect the complex attitudes and feelings
associated with this strategy in romantic relationships, which in turn may inhibit the expression
of heightened sexual desire for one’s romantic partner. Importantly, standardized regression
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 41
coefficients (not reported here for the sake of parsimony) revealed that the reported effects of
SSFS scores on sexual desire remained significant after introducing attachment orientations
(ECR scores), sociosexuality (SOI), or higher-order personality traits (BFI scores) as covariates
into the regression, thereby contributing to the incremental validity of SFSS scores.
Sexual activity offers one of the greatest physical and emotional pleasures in human life
(Shaver et al., 1988). However, just as the sexual system may increase positive affect and sexual
motivation, it may also produce strong negative affect that can impair its functioning (e.g.,
Birnbaum & Gillath, 2006; Birnbaum & Reis, 2006). In the present research, we used Bowlby’s
(1982) conceptualization of behavioral systems as a theoretical framework capable of explaining
the dual potential of the sexual system in generating both joy and distress. Specifically, we
theorized that individual differences in the functioning of the sexual system can be
conceptualized in terms of anxious hyperactivation or avoidant deactivation (see also Mikulincer
& Shaver, 2012) and that variations in these two strategies underlie a person’s sexual attitudes,
motives, feelings, and behaviors and influence the extent to which sex can be a source of
pleasure or distress.
Based on this conceptualization of individual differences in sexual-system functioning,
we developed the Sexual System Functioning Scale (SSFS), a self-report instrument assessing
variations in sexual-system hyperactivation and deactivation. We then used 18 samples and
multiple methodologies to examine the two-factor structure of the SSFS, its psychometric
properties, its convergent validity with existing sex-related measures, its nomological network of
associations with personality, relational orientations, affect, well-being, and psychological
resources, and the extent to which its scores can predict responses to sexual stimuli. Our findings
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 42
clearly indicate that the SSFS is reliable and valid, and they support our theoretical analysis of
the cognitive-affective meanings and psychological implications of sexual-system
hyperactivation and deactivation.
Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses conducted in Israel and the US, in English
and Hebrew, yielded the anticipated two factors of sexual-system hyperactivation and
deactivation. In addition, similar to the ECR scales measuring attachment orientations (Brennan
et al., 1998), the sexual-system hyperactivation and deactivation dimensions were consistently
found to be essentially orthogonal. Thus, variations in the functioning of the sexual system can
be conceptualized as regions in a two-dimensional space. Sexual comfort, which reflects the
optimal functioning of the sexual system, is located in the region in which both anxious
hyperactivation and avoidant deactivation are low, and is defined by confidence in one's sexual
desirability and skill. Higher scores on sexual hyperactivation and/or deactivation reflect
deviations from this region of sexual comfort and make sex a source of distress rather than
pleasure. Whereas people scoring high on sexual-system hyperactivation experience this distress,
but continue to experience sexual excitation as well and seek sexual satisfaction, people scoring
high on sexual-system deactivation withdraw from sexual stimuli and activities, perhaps as a
means of defending against the pain and discouragement that sexual activities can produce.
The SSFS scores were shown to be temporally stable and to concur with both partner
reports of participants’ sexual strategies and judges’ ratings of these sexual strategies as
manifested in participants’ narratives of sexual activities. This correspondence implies that the
SSFS identifies distinct behavioral tendencies that can be observed by partners and are evident in
people’s accounts of their own sexual experiences. Additionally, the SSFS scores have
convergent validity with respect to preexisting self-report measures of sexual attitudes, motives,
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 43
feelings, and behavior. They also exhibited discriminant validity with respect to measures of
socially desirable responding and socio-demographic variables. Moreover, the SSFS scores
displayed incremental validity in predicting sex-related beliefs and feelings beyond variance
explained by other personality and relational measures.
SSFS hyperactivation and deactivation scores were systematically associated with other
sex-related constructs. For example, sexual-system hyperactivation was associated with sexual
excitation as well as sexual arousal and positive affect following exposure to erotic stimuli. At
the same time, however, it was associated with experiencing sex-related worries and aversive
feelings during sexual intercourse. The ambivalent nature of sexual-system hyperactivation was
also demonstrated by its association with both approach and avoidance sexual motives (e.g.,
having sex to promote intimacy, having sex out of insecurity, respectively). This ambivalence
toward sexuality possibly reflects the distress caused by sexual frustration and the insistent (but
not necessarily successful) attempts to resolve it by gratifying sexual needs. Indeed, sexual-
system hyperactivation was related to a higher frequency of sexual fantasies that involve
unrestricted sex and dominance themes and to corresponding behavioral tendencies, such as
making intense efforts to initiate sexual activities, even including sexual coercion.
Sexual-system deactivation, like sexual-system hyperactivation, was accompanied by
heightened sex-related anxieties, as well as by negative sexual self-representations. This
similarity implies that both strategies are motivated by sexual frustration and serious doubts
about sexual attractiveness and performance. And yet, hyperactivation and deactivation strategies
entail opposite responses to coping with doubts and distress (i.e., fight vs. flight). In particular,
the flight responses characterizing sexual-system deactivation involve aversive reactions toward
sexual cues and inhibition of sexual expressions. This distinctly negative stance toward sexuality
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 44
takes many forms, such as holding erotophobic attitudes, withdrawal from sexual activities, and
reluctance to engage in casual sex and other short-term sexual relations. It also takes the form of
slower cognitive processing of sexual stimuli, elevated cortisol reactions, and heightened
negative affect following exposure to erotic stimuli as well as lower levels of pleasure and higher
levels of aversive feelings during sexual intercourse and a weakened tendency to use sex as a
means of repairing relational tensions.
The findings also indicate that both sexual-system hyperactivation and deactivation may
lead a person further away from the desired state of sexual comfort and satisfaction and put her
or him at risk for sexual dysfunctions. Still, the two sexual-system strategies may have different
consequences for sexual well-being. The intrusive and aggressive responses characterizing
hyperactivation strategies, albeit potentially unappealing to partners, can at least facilitate sexual
encounters. Sexual-system deactivation, by comparison, may deprive sex of intimacy and deny
the option of corrective sexual experiences, thereby possibly impairing sexual functioning more
Suboptimal functioning of the sexual system may not only erode sexual well-being, but
also have negative implications for general well-being. This is largely because sexual
experiences, whether positive or negative, are likely to be encoded in internal working models of
self (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012) and thus to become central to one's self-view (e.g., Andersen,
Cyranowski, & Espindle, 1999; Rehbein-Narvaez, Garcia-Vazquez, & Madson, 2006).
Consequently, individual differences in sexual functioning may be manifested in the ways people
think about themselves (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012). Specifically, sexual-system hyperactivation
and deactivation may heighten doubts about one’s sexual attractiveness and performance (see
Table 3), which can lead to negative self-perceptions. Indeed, both sexual-system hyperactivation
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 45
and deactivation were found to be associated with negative representations of self. These
negative self-perceptions, in turn, may undermine emotional well-being (e.g., Kwan, Bond, &
Singelis, 1997) and underlie the observed links between SSFS scores and heightened negative
affectivity and lowered psychological well-being.
In addition to potentially affecting well-being through self-representations, sexual-system
activation may be directly associated with mood. Hyperactivation and deactivation strategies
may reduce the occurrence of positive emotions associated with smooth sexual functioning, and
instead generate negative emotions. In fact, both sexual-system hyperactivation and deactivation
were inversely correlated with measures of positive psychological states and positively
correlated with greater psychological distress and negative affectivity. These findings corroborate
the notion that hyperactivation and deactivation of the sexual can be viewed as risk factors for
developing emotional and interpersonal problems (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).
Dynamic, Structural, and Developmental Aspects of Sexual-System Functioning
The negative psychological states associated with sexual-system hyperactivation and
deactivation may go along with dysfunctions of other behavioral systems, primarily those
involved in romantic love (attachment and caregiving; Shaver et al., 1988). For example, to the
extent that a person feels chronically insecure about being loved, whether this is manifested in
relational worries or in being uncomfortable with intimacy, it is unlikely that the person’s sexual
system will function optimally. Consistent with this contention, we found that both forms of
attachment insecurity, anxiety and avoidance, were associated with the two SSFS scores.
Similarly, a growing body of research has indicated that even though anxious and avoidant
attachment are associated with different approaches to sex (ambivalent vs. detached), they both
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 46
bias the functioning of the sexual system (e.g., Birnbaum, 2007a, 2010; Birnbaum, Reis,
Mikulincer, Gillath, & Orpaz, 2006).
Of course, influences in the reverse direction, from sexual-system activation to
attachment processes, are also possible. Because sexual desire encourages physical proximity
and intimate contact, it is likely to contribute to the formation and maintenance of attachment
bonds (e.g., Birnbaum, 2014; Hazan & Zeifman, 1994). This line of theorizing implies that just
as optimal sexual functioning can promote the development of attachment relationships, so can
disruptions in sexual-system functioning lead to corresponding disruptions of attachment
processes. For example, sexual-system deactivation may be particularly maladaptive in the
context of emerging romantic relationships, wherein disinterest in sex can be interpreted as
disinterest in the relationship. Suppression of sexual urges and systematic rejection of a partner's
sexual advances are potentially detrimental to relationship well-being in later stages as well, as
they are likely to leave a partner sexually frustrated and feeling unwanted. By comparison,
sexual-system hyperactivation may be especially disruptive to relationship harmony when it
undermines commitment. Still, even if infidelity is not involved, sex-related worries may impair
sexual functioning (e.g., Birnbaum & Reis, 2006) and eventually lead to relationship
dissatisfaction (Birnbaum, 2007a).
The interrelations among hyperactivated and deactivated forms of sexual and attachment
responses raise the possibility that they reflect basic personality differences that are expressed in
the domain of intimate relationships. However, although sexual deactivation and hyperactivation
correlate with broader personality traits (see Table 6), the associations are moderate. In addition,
SSFS scores capture aspects of sexual-system functioning that are not fully explained by broad
personality traits. Thus, the two strategies cannot be considered as mere expressions of
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 47
personality constructs. Instead, the personality profile associated with each sexual strategy may
be viewed as one that facilitates the pursuit of this specific strategy more effectively. In
particular, the cluster of personal characteristics possessed by people who anxiously
hyperactivate their sexual desire is marked by impulsive features. Hence, it is likely to help these
individuals pursue sexual activity (but not necessarily sexual satisfaction) more successfully.
Equally, the constellation of characteristics possessed by people who deactivate their sexual
desire is marked by behavioral inhibitions and lower levels of openness to new experiences. It is
therefore likely to help these individuals limit their exposure to sexual stimuli and suppress
sexual urges. Whether chronic dysfunctions of the sexual system enhance the expression of
certain traits or vice versa, or whether both are affected by early and ongoing experiences, is a
question for future research.
These possibilities raise questions about how and why the sexual system develops either
optimally or non-optimally. Bowlby (1982, 1973) claimed that individual differences in the
functioning of any behavioral system are almost exclusively created by the history of positive
and negative outcomes of system activation in various contexts across the lifespan. Behavioral
genetic studies challenged Bowlby's view by showing that, at least in the case of the attachment
system, heritable factors may explain some of these individual differences (e.g., Crawford et al.,
2007). Evolutionary life history models emphasize that certain familial environments may also
shape variability in sexual strategies. These models posit that unpredictable childhood
environments predispose individuals to develop unrestrained sexual behavior that leads to more
offspring. In such environments, a fast strategy, which involves seizing opportunities to
reproduce quickly and often, would have better chances of being successful in terms of ultimate
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 48
gene dissemination than a slower strategy, which involves long-term planning and investment
that might fail to materialize (e.g., Belsky, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2012; Chisholm, 1993).
It is thus possible that genetic factors, coupled with certain life experiences (e.g., parental
attitudes toward sex, early sexual experiences, the type of early environment a person grew up
in), increase the likelihood of adopting one sexual strategy over another. Regardless of the source
or nature of the adopted strategy, its related emotions and cognitions are likely to be integrated
into the sexual-system’s cognitive-behavioral "programming" and reflected in its working
models. These sexual working models, in turn, should remain malleable in response to potential
changes in the social context (e.g., partners' responses, social norms of sexuality) over the life
span and therefore function as a vehicle for additional changes in sexual-system functioning.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Sex has the potential to motivate intensely meaningful experiences whose nature and
quality may vary across individuals and contexts. Sex may promote enduring bonds between
adult romantic partners. Yet, sex may be what causes partners to grow apart. Sex may generate
both positive and negative affect, and it has the potential to verify one's desirability and talent or
skill as much as to threaten one's self-esteem. Various theories, models, and constructs have been
designed to account for individual differences in human sexuality. Although some of these
models have been supported by a wide variety of studies, they have failed to integrate the various
dimensions of individual differences in sexuality and related findings into one overarching
theory. For example, some of these approaches describe prior developmental processes that may
affect sexual strategies, but do not specify the proximate mechanisms through which
developmental trends may be calibrated in response to ongoing transactions with the social world
(e.g., life history models; Belsky et al, 2012). Other models describe proximate regulatory
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 49
mechanisms (e.g., affect regulation), but fail to delineate developmental and relational processes
that may underlie sexual response (e.g., the dual control model; Bancroft & Janssen, 2000).
Here, we have introduced a behavioral systems approach to human sexuality and used the
concept of sexual behavioral system as an organizing framework to better understand variability
in human sexual response. In doing so, we have elaborated on the sexual-system construct and
provided empirical support for the view that individuals differ in the degree to which they
hyperactivate or deactivate their sexual responses. We have also provided evidence that these
sexual strategies are relevant to personal and interpersonal well-being. Our research suggests
important questions about how these sexual strategies interact with changes in social situations
(e.g., fluctuations in the quality of couple interactions) to shape sexual and relational
experiences. For example, it is unclear whether and how individual differences in sexual
functioning fluctuate across different stages of relationship development and how they affect
relationship quality and longevity. It is also unclear whether sexual-system hyperactivation and
deactivation would manifest differently in men and women at different relationship phases.
Although we did not find any significant gender differences in sexual-system hyperactivation
and deactivation, a recent study did indicate that these strategies have different implications for
men's and women's mating patterns, at least in the stage where they are seeking a partner
(Szepsenwol et al., 2013).
Relatedly, it is unclear how the balance between the systems that are theorized to be
involved in romantic love (attachment, caregiving, and sexual mating; Shaver et al., 1988)
changes throughout the course of relationships. How do these systems influence one another and
how do they operate jointly to affect relationship quality during relationship development?
Would expressions of sexual-system activation be particularly important in early stages of
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 50
emerging relationships, before attachment between partners has become well consolidated?
Would these sexual expressions become relatively less important to relationship quality as the
relationship progresses? We hope our new measure will encourage future studies that will
address these questions and explore the sources and consequences of individual differences in
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A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 61
1. The SOS, Sex Anxiety, SAI, SIS/SES, SOI, Sexual Mating Preferences, SBSS, ECR, BFI,
the BIS/BAS, Sensation Seeking, PANAS, and Self-Esteem scales were completed by
both Israeli and American participants, and the correlations with the SSFS scores were
similar in the two countries (see Tables 3, 5, and 6).
2. It is important to note that all of the reported associations (see Tables 3-6) remained the
same when the two SSFS scores were simultaneously entered into a multiple regression
analysis. That is, the reported findings represented well-differentiated patterns of
associations between each SSFS score and other assessed variables while controlling for
the other SSFS score. It is also worthy of note that due to the correlational design of the
studies conducted with Samples 3-9, we do not have evidence about the direction of
causality of the correlations or about whether the assessed variables are antecedents,
correlates, or consequences of SSFS scores. Therefore, we treated all of the variables as
correlates of SSFS scores and as means of strengthening our confidence in the validity of
the SSFS. We were not attempting to establish causality.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 62
participants in a
1 278 74.10% 58.63% 14.57 (1.95) 25.70 (5.23)
2 238 53.36% 48.74% 12.56 (1.12) 23.67 (2.49)
3 168 53.57% 31.54% 13.97 (2.37) 24.45 (3.15)
4 118 54.24% 31.36% 14.62 (2.33) 25.72 (3.36)
5 130 54.62% 34.11% 14.05 (2.56) 25.62 (3.40)
6 122 56.56% 33.61% 14.63 (2.20) 25.93 (3.46)
7 115 58.26% 39.13% 14.28 (2.98) 26.12 (3.54)
8 125 60.80% 31.45% 14.61 (2.50) 26.25 (4.70)
9a229 67.26% 41.48% 12.74 (1.54) 20.81 (2.31)
10 92 54.17% 36.96% 14.65 (1.80) 26.04 (3.50)
11 29 27.59% 100% 14.86 (2.20) 27.93 (3.60)
12 65 48.22% 78.79% 14.88 (1.86) 29.53 (5.08)
13 40 67.50% 37.50% 14.00 (1.93) 26.45 (3.57)
14 17 0% 54.23% 13.92 (2.45) 25.34 (3.31)
15 105 51.43% 35.24% 13.36 (1.72) 25.45 (5.95)
16 87 51.72% 40.23% 12.51 (1.31) 23.81 (2.58)
17 125 51.20% 100% 14.39 (2.31) 30.87 (10.30)
18 (men)b58 0% 100% 13.99 (1.74) 25.81 (2.85)
18 (women) 58 100% 100% 13.78 (1.45) 24.14 (2.53)
Notes: a Sample 9 consisted of American undergraduates. b Sample 18 consisted of 58 dating
couples, so we provided demographic data separately for women and men.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 63
Descriptive Statistics for SSFS Subscales, Percentage of Variance Explained by Each Factor after
Rotation, Cronbach Alpha Coefficients, and Pearson Correlations between Subscales
Mean (SD) Cronbach α % explained variancea
Sample Hyper Deact Hyper Deact rHyper Deact Total
1 3.25 (1.00) 2.54 (0.88) .83 .84 .13 18.69 20.71 39.40
23.23 (1.03) 2.68 (0.98) .87 .87 .24** 23.96 21.96 45.91
3 3.17 (0.96) 2.06 (0.73) .85 .84 .13 19.49 19.18 38.67
4 2.91 (0.86) 2.25 (0.88) .80 .87 .13 17.79 21.75 39.54
5 2.72 (0.95) 2.06 (0.78) .87 .88 .23** 22.13 22.51 44.64
6 2.87 (1.00) 2.05 (0.70) .87 .85 .17 22.55 19.90 42.46
7 2.91 (0.95) 2.07 (0.73) .88 .87 .24** 23.22 20.89 44.11
8 3.27 (1.17) 2.87 (0.88) .89 .86 .21* 28.72 18.53 47.25
9 3.41 (1.08) 2.69 (0.92) .83 .81 .11 27.76 16. 98 44.75
10 2.90 (0.85) 2.22 (0.87) .80 .85 .09
11 2.74 (0.90) 1.95 (0.55) .86 .83 .01
12 3.12 (1.05) 2.41 (1.10) .87 .92 .08
13 2.92 (1.04) 2.06 (0.74) .91 .89 .08
14 2.94 (1.08) 2.28 (1.29) .89 .88 .17
15 2.89 (0.96) 2.45 (0.82) .91 .88 .14 30.27 20.81 51.08
16 3.14 (1.06) 2.23 (0.76) .87 .84 .22*
17 2.83 (1.01) 2.19 (0.85) .82 .86 .15 26.59 16.33 42.92
18 (men)b3.57 (0.70) 1.70 (0.56) .70 .76 .34**
18 (women) 3.35 (1.03) 1.81 (0.86) .81 .91 .18
Notes: Hyper = hyperactivation; Deact = deactivation, * p < .05, ** p < .01
a Factor analyses were conducted only in samples that included more than 100 participants.
b Sample 18 consisted of 58 dating couples, so we provided relevant statistics separately for
women and men.
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 64
Pearson Correlations between SSFS subscales and Sex-Related Measures
Scale Cronbach α Hyperactivation Deactivation Sample
SOS Erotophobia .80, .85 -.07, -.04 .43**, .39** 3, 9
SAI-E anxiety .97, .95 .34**, .39** .46**, .37** 3, 9
EHIS relationship-centered .93 .41** -.32** 4
EHIS worries-centered .89 .34** .32** 4
EHIS pleasure-centered .91 .05 -.36** 4
Self-perceived mate value .84 -.28** -.35** 8
Sexual self-esteem .85 -.29** -.33** 8
Sexual desire .89 .30** -.30** 8
SAI Sexual Arousal .92, .91 .09, .13 -.31**, -.40** 7, 9
ISBI Sexual arousal .81 .07 -.33** 3
ISBI Sexual satisfaction .83 -.22** -.24** 3
ISBI Sexual intimacy .87 .01 -.18* 3
ISBI Orgasmic dysfunction .84 .06 .34** 3
ISBI Penile erection dysfunction .84 .04 .12 3
ISBI Premature ejaculation .79 .49** .25 3
ISBI Vaginismus .78 .05 .28** 3
Sexual Excitation .94, .88 .46**, .38** -.29**, -.20** 7, 9
Sexual inhibition (failure) .68, .78 .08, .11 .45**, .45** 7, 9
Sexual inhibition (consequences) .82, .77 -.18, -.01 .39**, .33** 7, 9
Sexual satisfaction .68 -.33** -.29** 8
Sexual Coercion .77 .40** -.13 4
SOI total score .79, .89 .10, .05 -.19*, -.29** 4, 9
Long-term mating preference .69, .78 -.13, -.06 -.04, -.01 7, 9
Short-term mating preference .82, .79 .41**, .30** -.38**, -.27** 7, 9
Number of sexual partners .34** -.41** 7
Frequency of sexual activities .22* -.45** 7
Mating Effort .92 .27** -.29** 8
Notes: * p < .05; ** p < .01
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 65
Pearson Correlations between SSFS Subscales, Sexual Fantasies, and the Sexy Seven
Subscale Cronbach α Hyperactivation Deactivation Sample
Sexual Fantasy Checklist
Frequency of sexual fantasizing .70 .49** -.15 5
Emotionally detached fantasies .87 .39** -.12 5
Emotionally invested fantasies .82 .03 -.14 5
Control-related fantasies .82 .29** -.09 5
Sexy Seven Scale
Sexual attractiveness .91 .10 -.41** 5
Relationship exclusivity .81 -.28** .09 5
Feminine gender orientation .93 -.29** .21* 5
Sexual restraint .60 -.02 .33** 5
Erotophilic disposition .82 .36** -.36** 5
Emotional investment .75 .02 -.35** 5
Sexual orientation .73 .11 .05 5
Notes: * p < .05, ** p < .01
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 66
Pearson Correlations between SSFS Subscales and Sexual Motives
Scale Cronbach α Hyperactivation Deactivation Sample
Sexual Behavioral System Subgoals
Sex for relationship initiation .87, .86 .16, .27** -.34**, -.18** 6, 9
Sex for relationship maintenance .87, .82 .40**, .42** -.29**, -.18** 6, 9
Sex as a source of negative feelings .88, .86 .29**, .36** .48**, .61** 6, 9
Sex as a source of pleasure .69, .75 .07, .09 -.32**, -.57** 6, 9
Sex Motives Scale
Self-affirmation motives .87 .50** -.05 6
Intimacy motives .87 .32** -.06 6
Hedonism motives .90 .17 -.34** 6
Sex to enhance social reputation .94 .27** .27** 6
Sex to avoid losing love .89 .27** .30** 6
Sex to relieve from distress .86 .36** -.05 6
Experiencing the power of partner .92 .25* -.13 6
Expressing value for partner .81 .22* .02 6
Obtain relief from distress .80 .37** -.13 6
Procreation .76 .07 .24* 6
Enhance one's power .80 .34** -.03 6
Feeling valued by partner .81 .54** .03 6
Providing nurturance to partner .83 .49** -.13 6
Experiencing physical pleasure .66 .07 -.32** 6
Notes: * p < .05, ** p < .01
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 67
Pearson Correlations between SSFS Subscales and Measures of Relational Orientations,
Personality, Affect, and Psychological Resources
Scale Cronbach α Hyperactivation Deactivation Sample
ECR attachment anxiety .93, .92 .52**, .57** .24**, .16** 5, 9
ECR attachment avoidance .89, .91 .28**, .27** .25**, .38** 5, 9
Passionate love .90 .33** .04 7
BFI extraversion .74, .86 -.17, -.04 -.40**, -.28** 4, 9
BFI neuroticism .89, .78 .35**, .26** .33**, .29** 4, 9
BFI openness to experience .86, .82 -.02, .02 -.37**, -.35** 4, 9
BFI conscientiousness .84, .85 -.20*, -.16* -.17, -.10 4, 9
BFI agreeableness .78, .85 -.33**, -.28** -.13, -.12 4, 9
Sensation seeking .93, .91 .40**, .41** -.30**, -.36** 6, 9
Behavioral inhibition .75, .79 .39**, .36** .01, .07 7, 9
Behavioral activation .87, .89 .18, .27** -.39**, -.31** 7, 9
ZKPQ activity level .73 -.06 .08 7
ZKPQ aggressiveness .64 .09 -.02 7
ZKPQ sociability .76 -.23** -.36** 7
ZKPQ impulsivity .75 .42** -.40** 7
ZKPQ neuroticism .82 .31** .25** 7
NPI total score .82 .02 .09 9
Affect and well-being
PANAS positive affect .90, .91 -.29**, -.26** -.39**, -.31** 6, 9
PANAS negative affect .91, .92 .38**, .32** .34**, .31 6, 9
MHI well-being .92 -.21* -.46** 4
MHI distress .96 .35** .40** 4
TOSCA Shame .79 .27** .24** 9
Anger .83 .24** .30** 9
Hostility .85 .47** .27** 9
Depression .91 .30** .39** 9
Trait anxiety .92 .29** .34** 9
Sense of Mastery .75 -.21* -.18* 5
Self-Esteem .89, .90 -.25*, -.31** -.22*, -.32** 5, 9
Sense of Vitality .91 -.27** -.29** 6
Self-Actualization .72 -.37** -.37** 6
Optimism .84 -.38** -.34** 4
Hardiness .86 -.23* -.39** 7
Notes: * p < .05, ** p < .01
A Behavioral Systems Perspective on Sexuality 68
Appendix - The Sexual System Functioning Scale
The following statements concern how you feel during sexual activity. We are interested in how
you generally experience sexual activity, not just in what is happening in your current sex life.
Please read each statement and indicate the extent you agree with it, using the following scale:
Not at all Very Much
7654321I feel comfortable responding to my partner’s sexual needs.1
7654321I worry about not being “good enough” in bed.2
7654321I often find it hard to experience pleasure during sexual activity. 3
7654321During sexual activity, I worry about my sexual “performance.”4
7654321I feel comfortable discussing sex or talking about sex.5
7654321I worry that other people won’t be attracted to me and won’t want
to have sex with me.
7654321I feel comfortable exploring my sexuality and being open to new
7654321I need a lot of reassurance regarding my sexual performance.8
7654321I find it hard to feel comfortable during sexual intercourse.9
7654321If I can’t get other people to desire me and want to have sex with
me, I get frustrated and angry.
7654321During sexual activity, I sometimes feel uninvolved and
7654321When I haven’t had sex for a while, I begin to feel anxious and
7654321I usually have sex only when my partner pressures me or really
wants me to.
7654321When I don’t perform well sexually, I feel really bad about myself.14
7654321Having sex isn’t high on my priority list.15
7654321During sexual intercourse, I worry a lot about what my partner is
thinking and feeling.
7654321Thoughts about sex don’t especially excite or interest me.17
7654321Being sexually desirable is extremely important to me.18
7654321Sometimes, sexual activities strike me as an unnecessary nuisance.19
7654321I often need a lot of reassurance that someone desires me and
wants to have sex with me.
7654321I enjoy sex.21
7654321During sex, I worry about disappointing my partner.22
7654321Thinking about sex leaves me indifferent.23
7654321My desire for sex is often stronger than my partner’s.24
Note. Evenly numbered items are hyperactivation items and odd items are deactivation items.
Items 1, 5, 7, and 21 are reverse coded.