The belief that sex is a natural function is predicated on the notion that sexual response is biologically programmed for all species. It reinforces another widely held belief: the idea that good sex just happens naturally and according to some people, if they love their partner enough. So, when good sexual function or expected genital response doesn't happen, many people jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong with them.
It is important to note that the sex that comes naturally is reproductive sex. What is usually considered human sexual response is more accurately, a model of mammalian sexual response - it is merely physiological.
More than just reproduction
It is widely known that the basic function or purpose of sex is reproduction, to ensure the survival of the species. All animals engage in sex because they're biologically driven to do so but there is a difference between humans (and some mammals) and other animals in this respect. For humans and other intelligent social animals, the use of sex evolved beyond reproduction to serve additional social functions. Sex reinforces co-operative behaviour and intimate social bonds that form the basis for the creation of larger social structures, something that helps in overall survival. It can keep the male around the female and their offspring, thus maximising the offspring’s chances of survival.
Humans are social animals and human psychobiology is oriented toward survival, belonging, connection and making meaning with others. But how exactly did this occur?
Giving meaning to sex
Some 500,000 years ago, a new part of human brain, the neocortex evolved and with it, our species underwent some extraordinary changes. The development of the neocortex opened up new possibilities for human sexuality. The neocortex provided us with the ability to bring a mental as well as physical aspect to sex and therefore to give meaning to sex. No other species has the capacity to bring to sex, the meanings that we can.
As a result, humans developed the ability to emotionally connect during intercourse and sexual desire began to involve desire for a specific sexual partner rather than just an urge to reduce sexual tensions. Human sexuality thus shifted from being primarily a hormonally programmed reproductive function to a vehicle for intimacy and love.
The potential for sexual problems
The involvement of our neocortex in sex, however, not only paved the way for emotional satisfaction, we also became more susceptible to sexual dysfunctions and desire problems than any other animal on earth.
As our neocortex has become integral to our sexual functioning, the meanings we perceive during sex can strongly determine how our body functions and how satisfying that functioning is. The same abilities that make us capable of having emotionally satisfying sex also make us vulnerable to every negative thought and feeling we bring to bed. Our capacity for self-awareness means that we end up worrying about, and monitoring our sexual performance (also known as “spectatoring”) during sex.
Human sexuality is so complex that our feelings (and/or our partner’s feelings) greatly shape the meanings and emotional contexts of our sexual experiences. It can have a bigger effect on our level of sexual arousal than can physical touch, ultimately affecting our sexual functioning and satisfaction.
Bringing back the “human” in human sex
When sex is not going well, it is easy to forget about what is ‘human’ about human sexuality. The "naturalized" view of sex normalises sexual function and pressures people to have consistently high sexual desire and automatic genital response. It obscures what is quintessentially human about human sexuality: our capacity for self-reflection, to bring meaning to sex and to experience true intimacy with another.