Approach and avoidance sexual motives: Associations with risky sexual behavior in emerging adulthood

Open Access
Abarca, Sandra Yanet
Graduate Program:
Human Development and Family Studies
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • J Douglas Coatsworth, Thesis Advisor
  • Eva Sharon Lefkowitz, Thesis Advisor
  • gender
  • sexual motives
  • emerging adults
The purpose of this study was to explore the associations between approach and avoidance sexual motives and risky sexual behavior among emerging adults. Sexuality exploration is a salient developmental task during emerging adulthood (Arnett, 1992; Lefkowitz & Gillen, 2005), as they become more aware of their sexual motives and are better able to report them (Cooper, Shapiro, & Powers, 1998). Emerging adults endorse a variety of motives for engaging in or avoiding risky sexual behaviors (Cooper et al.; Meston & Buss, 2007; Patrick, Maggs, Cooper, & Lee, 2008). The approach-avoidance framework (Elliot & Covington, 2001) may be useful in understanding sexual decision making during emerging adulthood. Approach motives (i.e., intimacy, enhancement, coping) lead individuals toward sexual behaviors, whereas avoidance motives (i.e., health, values, readiness) lead individuals away from sexual behaviors. Despite known gender differences in approach and avoidance sexual motives (Cooper et al.; Impett, Peplau, & Gable, 2000; Meston & Buss; Patrick, Maggs, & Abar, 2007), it remains unknown whether gender moderates the association between specific motives and risky sexual behavior. Concepts of gender socialization and internalization suggest gender moderates the association between motives and sexual behavior. Given that men and women are socialized in different ways regarding gender appropriate sexual behavior (Tolman, 2006), the internalization of traditional roles may differentially influence men’s and women’s sexual motives, risky sexual behavior, and their association. Hence, the current study built on the approach-avoidance motivation framework and gender socialization theory to explore associations between sexual motives and risky sexual behavior and test whether gender moderates these associations. Two hundred and thirty sexually active college students (ages 20 – 23) answered questions about their approach and avoidance motives for risky sexual behavior. Results revealed that approach and avoidance motives were differentially associated with sexual behaviors and that gender moderated some of these associations. Among approach motives, men who endorsed enhancement motives more reported more casual partners than men who endorsed enhancement motives less and women. In addition, women who endorsed coping motives more reported more frequent condom use than women who endorsed coping motives less and men. However for avoidance motives, the pattern of associations was not as predicted. Although gender moderated the associations between value motives and more sexual partners and number of casual sexual partners, this association was in the opposite direction of the hypotheses. Men who endorsed value motives more reported more sexual partners and more casual sexual partners than men who endorsed value motives less and women. Gender also moderated the association between readiness motives and number of casual sexual partners, however the association was significant for men rather than women. None of the avoidance motives predicted frequency of birth control or condom use, nor did gender moderate this association. This study contributes to the understanding of sexual decision-making during emerging adulthood through the use of an approach-avoidance motivation framework. The results have implications for prevention programs that aim to reduce risk and increase safer sex behaviors.