Research Summary:
Southampton 'Sex Over 6 Months' Survey

Centre for Research on Self and Identity, University of Southampton
Research Focus: Attachment and the Regulation of the Self
Collaborators: Dr Erica Hepper, Dr Kathy Carnelley, Dr Harriet Hogarth
This study was an online survey conducted in two parts, six months apart. It focused on views and experiences of sex. Read on if you would like to know more about what we are investigating. We are grateful to the 353 people who completed Part 1 and especially the 156 who also completed Part 2.

Aims of this Research

This research was about the links between people’s relationship and sexual experiences and the way they view themselves. The way that you feel and behave in close relationships is called your attachment style. People differ from each other on how much they tend to be anxious about their close relationships (attachment anxiety) and how much they tend to avoid intimacy with others (attachment avoidance). We are investigating how someone’s attachment style relates to the reasons they tend to engage in sex, the types of sexual experiences they have, and how worthy and confident they feel as a sexual individual – their level of sexual self-esteem.

A number of studies have found that people who tend to avoid intimacy in their relationships (i.e., who are high in attachment avoidance) are more likely than people with low avoidance to be interested in, and pursue, short-term casual sexual encounters or ‘one-night stands’. They also tend to be motivated to have sex for different reasons than people with low avoidance, for example they are less interested in emotional bonding or intimacy with a sexual partner.

People with different attachment styles differ on how good they generally feel about themselves (their level of self-esteem) and this is also true when it comes to sexuality: some people see themselves as confident and positive in sexual encounters, whereas other people somewhat doubt their worth and ability as a sexual partner. The type of sexual experiences you have had recently may influence how sexually confident and worthwhile you feel – for example, someone who has not had sex for many years may doubt their ability whereas someone else who has had a satisfying sex life recently may feel high in sexual self-esteem.

We are suggesting that the type of sexual experience that helps you to feel worthy may be different for different people. Specifically, people who are high in attachment avoidance might find that having a number of casual, short-term encounters boosts their sexual self-esteem, whereas people who are low in avoidance might find that they need sex within the context of a romantic relationship in order to achieve the emotional intimacy they need and therefore feel good about themselves in the bedroom.

Some research that we already conducted supports this prediction on a correlational level - that is, at one time point we found the expected associations between people's levels of attachment avoidance, recent sexual activity, and sexual self-esteem. We presented our findings as a poster at the International Association for Relationship Research conference in 2006. But it's really important that we also test our hypotheses across time so we can understand how these different things actually affect each other and which causes which.

In this study, we hope to investigate this question by measuring attachment styles at one time-point, then returning six months later to find out what kinds of sexual experience people have had in the meantime and how high or low their sexual self-esteem currently is. We also asked about different reasons for having sex, to see whether people who desire emotional intimacy feel better after having a lot of romantic versus casual sex, for example.

Participants' responses are extremely valuable to help us find out more about people’s personalities and how they affect their sexual experiences and views of themselves. This research has implications for the types of sexual risks that different people might take (e.g., sex with strangers or without contraceptive protection) and may be useful for targeting sexual health programs to different people.


We are currently looking at the data and beginning to test our hypotheses in the new data. Please check this page in the future for updates on what we have found. In the meantime, you might be interested to read some other research in this area. There are some references below.

Finding Out More

If you are interested in finding out more about this research, there are some references below that you will find useful. If you have further questions about this research, you may contact Dr Erica Hepper, the principal investigator, at any time on
Brennan, K. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1995). Dimensions of adult attachment, affect-regulation, and romantic relationship functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 267-283.

Buzwell, S., & Rosenthal, D. (1996). Constructing a sexual self: Adolescents' sexual self-perceptions and sexual risk-taking. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6, 489-513.

Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., & Vernon, M. L. (2004). Attachment style and subjective motivations for sex. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1076-1090.

Mikulincer, M., & Goodman, G. S. (Eds.) (2006). Dynamics of romantic love: Attachment, caregiving, and sex. New York: Guilford.

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15 July 2009