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Motivational Pursuits in the Context of Human Sexual Relationships


  • Some of the research described in this article was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (R01 AA08047), by a supplement from the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research to the NIAAA grant, and by funds from the University of Missouri Research Council. Preparation of this article was supported by a midcareer scientist development award from the National Institute on Mental Health (K02 MH069118).
  • Note: Corrections added on 6 January 2012 after first publication online on 1 November 2011: The page number for this article should be Page 1333–1368 (not 1031–1066), and have been corrected in the online version of this article.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to M. Lynne Cooper, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211. Email:


The current article examines how close relationships combine with individual differences in sex motives (Cooper, Shapiro, & Powers, 1998) to shape sexual experience. We first provide an overview of the motivational approach as it relates to sexual behavior and then describe 2 broad mechanisms (1 transactional, the other interactional) by which motives and relational context combine to shape behavior. Drawing on our past research, we review evidence showing that people select relationship contexts based partly on their motives and that these contexts in turn shape future motives and behavior; that partner motives shape sexual experience above and beyond one's own motives; and that both the broader relationship context and partner motives moderate the effects of one's own motives on sexual experience. We conclude that the nature of motivational pursuits cannot be adequately understood in the abstract, but rather we must take into account the relational context in which one's needs are pursued.