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Sex and Your Drive to Stay Alive

Do people react to danger by having more sex?  We’ve all heard that there seems to be a bump in birth rates about nine months after a disaster.  Press reports abound of an increase in births nine months after the New York City blackout of 1965, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and also after 9-11.  More recently, there have been numerous reports, the most extensive in the Orlando Sentinel (June 7, 2005), of a “birth bump” associated with the hurricanes that battered Florida during 2004.

From a strictly scientific perspective, there has always been some question whether this data is in fact accurate.  However, a recent study led by Richard Evans from the University of Texas at Austin provides compelling empirical evidence by systematically studying birth rates after storm advisories.  This research group obtained storm advisory data from the National Hurricane Center of the U.S. National Weather Service from 1995 to 2001.  This data allowed them to identify the intensity of the storm advisory that was sent out.  Birth data was also collected from the National Vital Statistics System of the National Center for Health Statistics.  This data was directly linked to countywide birth rates nine months later.

The research group found a positive effect on subsequent countywide birth rates for either a tropical storm “watch” or a hurricane “watch.”  However, the effect on birth rates was negative if the advisory was not just a “watch” but a more serious warning, for either a tropical storm or a hurricane.  In a warning, there is a high likelihood that these people were directly impacted by a severe storm.

The obvious conclusion is that people who experience the threat of a disaster get busy initiating a baby bump.  But when people actually experience the disaster and have their lives disrupted, they have fewer kids.  And if the bump is declining, it seems quite likely people actually had less sex when they directly experienced the catastrophe.

The authors of this paper propose explanations for their findings.  First, when people experience a storm watch they spend more time at home and thus are more likely to have sex.  Furthermore, when these people have extra time to spend at home they may not have normal contraception available to them and are less likely go out and purchase contraception if there is a weather advisory.  Finally, the researchers conclude that couples who undergo a more serious warning are less likely to have sex because they worry their time will be taken up rebuilding after the disaster.

The authors of this paper do not consider more psychologically based explanations for sexual behavior during a disaster.  There has long been speculation that people seek out the emotional and physical intimacy of sex when they feel vulnerable or even threatened.  There is some scientific support for the theory that people may seek emotional bonds when they confront danger.  For example, it has been reported that the marriage rate increased dramatically after 9-11.

Other researchers posit that the motivating factor underlying this drive to have sex when confronting danger relates simply to the drive to have offspring.  The technical term used to describe situations in which people experience a significant level of danger is “mortality salience,” or, more simply put, a heightened awareness of the fact that we are not going to live forever.

In a recent article, Arnaud Wisman and Jamie Goldenberg report that mortality salience is associated with an increased desire for offspring among men but not necessarily among women.  The fact that men consistently report an increased desire for children when they contemplate their own mortality is explained by the authors arguing that men see offspring as a relatively low-cost means of ensuring some sense of survival and also of gaining an increased sense of meaning in life.  While women arguably value the sense of long-term survival and the sense of meaning that children bring to life, having offspring is a much more costly proposition for women than for men (e.g., physical concerns, long-term care, etc.).

In support of this, the authors found that women who see raising a family as being consistent with career success show a strong relationship between increased mortality salience and desire for children.  That is, women who think that having a family will not hurt their careers show the same relationship that men show between being confronted with a threat and desiring children.  However, women who think that having children will negatively impact their careers did not show the same relationship between mortality salience and desire for offspring.  Arguably, women who highly value their careers and who believe having a family will harm their careers have an intervening factor that lessens their desire to have children when confronted with their own mortality.

So, where does all this leave us?  It seems pretty clear that there is a strong association between being confronted with a sense of danger – provided there is no immediate physical danger – and an increase in the desire for sex.  This is apparent in increases both in marriage rates and in birth rates after times when there is likely a widespread mortality salience (e.g., 9-11, hurricane watches). The reasons for this link between danger and an increased desire for sex are not so clear. Some people argue it relates to the circumstances associated with the dangerous situations. During such times, normal routines are frequently interrupted and couples end up being together without proper birth control. Other people see the link between danger and sex as reflecting people’s innate need for emotional security during times of danger. Yet others see a clear drive to have more offspring as the motivating factor linking sex practices and dangerous situations.

What do you think best explains why people may have more sex when they are faced with danger?

1. I don’t buy any of this. People do not have any change in sex drive associated with danger.
2. There are logical reasons why it may look like people have more sex in dangerous situations, such as couples spending more time together when there is a disaster.
3. People need more intimacy when things are threatening, and that is why they have more sex when there is an increased sense of danger.
4. People who experience danger are more driven to reproduce.
5. Some combination of 2, 3, and 4.