Understanding Human Ambivalence About Sex: The Effects of Stripping Sex of Meaning

Birds do it, Bees do it, Even educated fleas do it ...
Cole Porter

Despite its potential for immense physical pleasure and the crucial role that it plays in propagating the species, sex nevertheless is sometimes a source of anxiety, shame, and disgust for humans, and is always subject to cultural norms and social regulation. We (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000) recently used terror management theory (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) to lay out a theoretical framework to explain why sex is so often a problem for human beings. We argue that sex is threatening because it makes us acutely aware of our sheer physical and animal nature. Although others (e.g., Freud, 1930/1961) have also suggested that human beings are threatened by their creatureliness, following Rank (1930/1998) and Becker (1973), we suggest that this motivation is rooted in a more basic human need to deny mortality.

Consistent with this view, Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, and Solomon (1999) showed that neurotic individuals, who are especially likely to find sex threatening, rated the physical aspects of sex as less appealing when reminded of their mortality and showed an increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts when primed with thoughts of the physical aspects of sex; no such effects were found among individuals low in neuroticism. If this framework is to provide a general explanation for human discomfort with sexuality, two critical questions must be addressed: (a) under what conditions would people generally (independent of level of neuroticism) show such effects, and (b) what is it about sexuality that leads to these effects? The present research was designed to address these questions by investigating the role of concerns about creatureliness in the link between thoughts of physical sex and thoughts of death.

Terror Management Theory and Research

Building on the ideas espoused by Ernest Becker (e.g., 1973), terror management theory (TMT; e.g., Greenberg et al., 1986) begins with a consideration of how humans are similar to and different from other animals. Humans share with other animals a collection of inborn behavioral proclivities that serve ultimately to perpetuate life and thereby propagate genes, but can be distinguished from all other species by more sophisticated intellectual capacities. One byproduct of this intelligence is the awareness of the inevitability of death--and the potential for paralyzing terror associated with this awareness. TMT posits that humankind used the same sophisticated cognitive capacities that gave rise to the awareness of the inevitability of death to manage this terror by adopting symbolic constructions of reality, or cultural worldviews (CWV). By meeting or exceeding the standards of value associated with their CWVs, humans elevate themselves above mere animal existence and attain a sense of symbolic immortality by connecting themselves to something larger, more meaningful, and more permanent than their individual lives.

In support of this view, over 100 studies (for a recent review, see Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997) have shown that reminding people of their own death (mortality salience or MS) results in attitudinal and behavioral defense of the CWV. For example, MS causes experimental participants to dislike (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1990) and aggress against (McGregor et al., 1998) individuals who disagree with participants' views. Research has also shown that MS leads to increased estimates of social consensus for culturally significant attitudes (Pyszczynski et al., 1996), heightened conformity to cultural standards (Simon et al., 1997), and greater discomfort when performing behavior that violates cultural standards (Greenberg, Porteus, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1995). Further, the effects of MS are specific to reminders of death: thoughts about giving a speech, taking or failing an exam in an important class, experiencing intense physical pain, being socially excluded, or becoming paralyzed do not produce the same defensive responses as do thoughts of one's own mortality (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994).

Creatureliness, Death, and the Regulation of Sexuality

If humans manage the terror associated with death by clinging to a symbolic cultural view of reality, then reminders of one's corporeal animal nature would threaten the efficacy of this anxiety-buffering mechanism. As argued by Becker (1973; see also Brown, 1959; Kierkegaard 1849/1954; Rank, 1930/1998), the body and its functions are therefore a particular problem for humans. How can people rest assured that they exist on a more meaningful and higher (and hence longer lasting) plane than mere animals, when they sweat, bleed, defecate, and procreate, just like other animals? Or as Erich Fromm expressed it, "Why did man not go insane in the face of an existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98 cents?" (Fromm, 1955, p. 34). From the perspective of TMT, then, the uneasiness surrounding sex is a result of existential implications of sexual behavior for beings that cope with the threat of death by living their lives on an abstract symbolic plane.

Consistent with this analysis, there is a long philosophical and religious tradition of elevating humans above the rest of the animal kingdom to a higher, more spiritual plane by valuing and preaching control over one's body, emotions, and desires (e.g., Aristotle, 1984; Plato, 1973; St. Augustine, 1950). Among the Ancient Greeks, the body and sexuality were viewed as obstacles in the pursuit of higher spiritual and intellectual goals. Early Christian figures, such as Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), suggested strict regulations of man's sexual nature (e.g., he suggested that people not make love on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or during the 40-day periods of fasting before Easter and Christmas and after Whitsuntide; Kahr, 1999). Origen of Alexandria (182-251 A.D.), another distinguished father of the early Christian Church, worded so much about the sinfulness of sex that he castrated himself in order to become more completely abstinent (Kahr, 1999). In the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., handfuls of men and women rejected burgeoning Christian customs and joined "cults of virginity" in which men and women lived apart and dedicated themselves to lives of celibacy (e.g., Rousselle, 1983). More recently, Victorian puritanical attitudes towards sex were backed by medical professionals: Blindness and insanity were reported consequences of too much sexual activity, and preventative measures, such as toothed penile rings and avoidance of oysters, chocolate, and fresh meats, were recommended (Kahr, 1999). Even in a modern liberated culture such as our own, sex toys are outlawed in a number of states, debates roar about pornography and sex education, and the sexual antics of President Clinton were recently headline news.

The controversy surrounding sex is by no means specific to Western Judeo-Christian tradition. All the world's major religions restrict sex, usually condoning it only for procreation in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, sometimes incorporate sex into religious practice, such as in Tantrism, but to do so sex is elevated to a divine plane; even in these religions, however, celibacy is practiced by the most holy members (Ellwood & Alles, 1998). In some Hindu groups, sex is forbidden during certain phases of the moon (the first night of the new moon, the last night of the full moon, and the 14th and 8th night of each half of the month are considered particularly unlucky; Gregersen, 1996). A tradition common among some Islamic followers, although not prescribed by the religion itself, involves a painful and dangerous procedure in which the clitoris is removed and the vagina is stitched up to assure chastity prior to marriage (a permanent alternative to the metal chastity belts of the Middle Ages of European culture; Toubia, 1993).

There are a number of other theoretical perspectives that provide insight into the human propensity for regulation of sex. Indeed, Becker (1962) argued that strict sexual regulation became critical for harmony and cooperation among our primate ancestors because, with a monthly estrous cycle and group living, there were always receptive ovulating females and potential conflict over access to them. From a similar evolutionary perspective, Trivers (1971) and Buss (1992) have suggested and empirically investigated a number of evolved psychological mechanisms that serve to promote reproductive success by restricting procreative behavior. It has also been suggested that sex is regulated, especially among women, for reasons such as social power and control (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; de Beauvoir, 1952).

Undoubtedly these factors do contribute to the human propensity for sexual regulation; however, we suggest that mortality concerns also play a significant role. The terror management perspective seems particularly useful for understanding many of the cultural taboos and strategies we have just discussed because they typically focus on denying the more creaturely aspects of sex and sustaining faith in the idea that humans are spiritual beings. Of course, the most definitive support for the role of mortality concerns in attitudes toward sex should come from experimental evidence, and the present research was designed to add to a growing body of research supporting such a role.

Love and Other Meaningful Views of Sex

Of course, regardless of celibacy vows and other restrictions on sexual behavior, sex happens (or none of us would be here!). How then are the threatening aspects of sex "managed"? We suggest that the answer involves embedding sex within the context of one's meaning-conferring CWV. Whereas some of the body's creaturely functions are denied by confining them to private quarters (e.g., bathrooms and menstrual huts) and finding them disgusting (e.g., Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, & Imada, 1997), sex, because of its very strong positive appeal, is often transformed by embracing it as part of a profound and uniquely human emotional experience: romantic love. Love transforms sex from an animal act to a symbolic human experience, thereby making it a highly meaningful part of one's CWV and obscuring its threatening links to animality and mortality. Indeed, research has shown that sex and love often accompany one another (e.g., Aron & Aron, 1991; Berscheid, 1988; Buss, 1988; Hatfield & Rapson, 1996; Hendrick & Hendrick, 1997), sexual arousal often leads to increased feelings of love for one's partner (Dermer & Pyszczynski, 1978), and, at least among Americans, sex is legitimized by viewing it as an expression of romantic love (e.g., Laumann, Gagnon, Michaels, & Stuart, 1994). Furthermore, Mikulincer, Florian, Birnbaum, and Malishkevich (2002) have recently shown that close relationships can actually serve a death-anxiety buffering function.

In addition to romantic love, there are other ways in which sex can be elevated to an abstract level of meaning beyond its physical nature. CWVs provide various other meaningful contexts for sex; for example, sexual prowess can serve as a source of self-esteem, sexual pleasure can be used as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment, and we would even argue that some of the so-called sexual deviations can be understood as making sex less animalistic by making it more ritualistic or transforming the source of arousal from the body to an inanimate object, such as a high heel shoe (see Becker, 1973). In these ways, sex becomes an integral part of a symbolic CWV that protects the individual from core human fears.

Sex, Death, and Neurosis

This perspective implies that people who have difficulty sustaining faith in a meaningful CWV would be particularly troubled by their corporeality, and in particular, by both sex and death. Clinical theorists from Freud on have suggested that neuroses and many other psychological disturbances are associated with an inability to successfully manage anxiety associated with death and sexuality (e.g., Becket, 1973; Brown, 1959; Freud, 1920/1989; Searles, 1961; Yalom, 1980). Following Becket (1973), we believe that neuroticism arises in part out of difficulties with the transition during socialization from living as a mere physical creature to existing as a symbolic cultural entity (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, et al., 2000). (1) We suggest that because of their insecure attachment to the CWV (which offers the possibility of transcendence over the physical realities of existence), neurotics are especially troubled by physical activities that can remind them of their mortality. Consistent with this view, empirical researchers have shown a consistent pattern of correlations between neuroticism and (a) concerns about death (e.g., Hoelter & Hoelter, 1978; Loo, 1984), (b) disgust sensitivity (e.g., Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994; Templer, King, Brooner, & Corgiat, 1984; Wronska, 1990), and (c) worry about sex, including the tendency to view sex as disgusting (e.g., Eysenck, 1971).

We (Goldenberg et al., 1999) recently reported three experiments that we believe to be the first empirical demonstration of an association between sex and mortality concerns among individuals high in neuroticism. In Study 1, high-neuroticism participants expressed decreased attraction to the physical aspects of sex subsequent to reminders of their own death. In a more direct test (Study 2), thoughts of either the physical or romantic aspects of sex were primed and the accessibility of death-related thoughts was then measured. Thoughts of physical sex increased the accessibility of death-related thoughts for high- but not low-neuroticism participants. This finding was replicated in a third experiment that added a condition in which thoughts of either love or a control topic were primed after the physical sex prime. Thinking about love but not about another pleasant topic (a good meal) after the physical sex prime eliminated the increased death-thought accessibility that thoughts of physical sex otherwise produced among neurotic participants. These findings suggest that at least for neurotics, love obscured the deadly connotations of sex by transforming creaturely copulations into meaningful amorous adventures.

The Present Research: The Role of Creatureliness in the Sex-Death Connection

As suggested at the outset of this paper, the present research was designed to answer two questions: (a) Under what conditions would people generally (independent of level of neuroticism) show such sex-death effects, and (b) what is it about sexuality that leads to these effects? The hypothesized relationship between sex and death has thus far been established only for individuals scoring high in neuroticism. We have suggested that these effects have been limited to neurotic individuals because such individuals lack the soothing balm of meaning imparted by sustained faith in a meaningful CWV, and thus, we propose that sex will be more generally a problem when people lack a meaningful cultural context in which to embed sex and elevate it above a mere physical activity. Although the previous research is consistent with this theoretical framework, it has yet to be explicitly shown that a concern about creatureliness underlies the sex-death connection.

The present research was designed to show just that by testing the proposition that sex is threatening because it has the potential to undermine our efforts to elevate humans to a higher and more meaningful plane of existence than mere animals. Whereas neurotics are especially troubled by the connection between sex and death because they have difficulty embedding sex in the context of a system of cultural meaning, our conceptualization implies that the physical aspects of sex would be threatening to anyone when sex is stripped of its symbolic meaning; one way to do this is to make creatureliness especially salient. Conversely, when individuals are able to embed themselves in a meaningful cultural system, sex should not pose such a threat.

A recent set of studies examining the tendency for humans to distance themselves from other animals offers a possible way to make creatureliness especially salient. Goldenberg et al. (2001) hypothesized that MS would intensify disgust reactions because, as Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (1993) have argued, such reactions assert that we are different from and superior to mere material creatures. In support of this reasoning, Goldenberg et al. found that MS led to increased reactions of disgust to animals and bodily products. More direct evidence was provided by a follow-up study showing that MS (but not thoughts of dental pain) led people to express strong preference for an essay describing people as distinct from animals over an essay emphasizing the similarity between humans and animals (Goldenberg et al., 2001). This latter study suggests that these essays might be useful for increasing or decreasing concerns about creatureliness, which should then affect the extent to which physical sex reminds people of death. Study 1 was designed specifically to test this hypothesis.


In Study 1, we assessed the impact of thoughts of physical sex on the accessibility of death-related thoughts after creatureliness had been primed. Participants were primed with creatureliness reminders via the essays used in Goldenberg et al. (2001) that discussed the similarity or dissimilarity between humans and other animals. Participants then completed the physical or romantic sex subscales used in Goldenberg et al. (1999), followed by a measure of death accessability. We hypothesized that when participants were reminded of their similarity to other animals, sex would be stripped of its meaning, and consequently, death thoughts would be more accessible following the physical sex prime than following the romantic sex prime. However, when the special position of humans in the animal kingdom was fortified, we did not expect the physical sex prime to increase death-thought accessibility. Because of the hypothesized impact of the creatureliness prime manipulation, we expected neuroticism to play a diminished role in the current experiment.



Participants were 66 females and 52 males enrolled in introductory psychology classes at three Colorado universities who participated in exchange for course credit. Ages ranged from 17 to 54, M = 24.08, SD = 8.15.

Materials and Procedure

Materials were administered in a classroom setting. After obtaining informed consent, the experimenter instructed participants to work through the packets at their own pace and assured them that all responses would be held in strictest confidence. The packets took approximately 25 minutes to complete. Participants were then extensively debriefed.

Neuroticism. To categorize participants as high or low in neuroticism, we administered the neuroticism subscale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1967), embedded second among several filler measures (in order of presentation, Rosenberg, 1965; Noll & Fredrickson, 1998; Franzoi & Sheilds, 1984) to maintain the cover story of a "personality assessment." Neuroticism scores were computed by summing the number of affirmative responses on the 23-item measure.

Creatureliness prime. To prime or buffer creatureliness, we provided participants with an essay with one of two themes: the similarity of humans to other animals or the uniqueness of humans as compared with other animals (Goldenberg et al., 2001). The former essay claimed that "the boundary between humans and animals is not as great as most people think" and "what appears to be the result of complex thought and free will is really just the result of our biological programming and simple learning experiences." The latter essay, on the other hand, stated that "Although we humans have some things in common with other animals, human beings are truly unique ... we are not simple selfish creatures driven by hunger and lust, but complex individuals with a will of our own, capable of making choices, and creating our own destinies." Both essays were described as written by honors students at a local university and were entitled "The most important things that I have learned about human nature." Students were instructed to read the essay carefully because they were to be asked several questions about the essay at the end of the packet.

Sexual prime manipulation. We used the measure developed by Goldenberg et al. (1999) to make salient either the physical or romantic aspects of the sexual experience. The measure consists of 20 items, 10 of which reflect physical aspects of sex (e.g., "feeling my genitals respond sexually" and "feeling my partner's sweat on my body") and 10 of which reflect the romantic or personal connection aspect of sex (e.g., "feeling close to my partner" and "expressing love for my partner"). Because romantic items reflect the aspects of the sexual experience that are symbolic and unique to humans, they should not be threatening. For this study (as in Goldenberg et al., 1, Study 2), participants were provided with one of the two subscales. The instructions for the physical sex subscale were as follows: "Please take a few moments and think about what it is about having sex that appeals to you. You need not have experienced the actual behaviors listed below, nor do you need to currently have a partner. Please rate how appealing each experience would be at this moment and respond with the first answer that comes to mind." For the romantic subscale the words "having sex" were replaced with "making love." The measures were not scored, but were used only to prime thoughts of physical or romantic sex.

Negative affect. The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), a 20-item mood measure, followed the sexual prime manipulation. A negative affect score was calculated by computing the mean of the 10-item subscale. The PANAS was included to confirm that the effects of our manipulation were specific to death accessibility and were not caused by negative affect.

Death word accessibility measure. The dependent measure for this study consisted of the word-fragment completion task used in Goldenberg et al. (1999) and other terror management studies, and was based on similar measures used in other research (e.g., Bassili & Smith, 1986). Participants were provided with 25 word fragments, 5 of which could be completed with either a death-related word or a neutral word. For example, COFF_ _ could be completed as "coffin" or "coffee." Death thought accessibility scores consisted of the number of death-related responses.

Essay evaluation. At the end of the packet we included the six items used by Goldenberg et al. (2001) to assess participants' reactions to the essay. Specifically, participants were asked, "How much do you think you would like this person?," "How intelligent do you believe this person to be?," "How knowledgeable do you believe this person to be?," "Is this person's opinion well-informed?," "How much do you agree with this person's opinion?," and "From your perspective, how true do you think this person's opinion is of the topic they discussed?" All items were responded to on 9-point scales, with 1 reflecting the most negative evaluation and 9 reflecting the most positive. We computed a composite measure of reactions to the essays by taking the mean of the responses to the six items (Cronbach's Alpha = .90).


Essay Evaluations

A one-tailed t test confirmed that people had more negative reactions to the humans are animals essay compared to the humans are unique essay, t (112) = -1.81, p = .035, Ms = 5.36 (SD = 1.57) and 5.88 (SD = 1.51), respectively.

Death Thought Accessibility

Although we had no a priori hypotheses concerning gender, we included gender as a variable in a preliminary analysis. The results revealed that there were no main effects of gender, nor did gender interact with any of the other variables. Further, identical patterns of significant results were obtained on the other independent variables with or without gender. Therefore, gender was dropped from the analysis.

A 2 (creatureliness prime) X 2 (sex prime) X 2 (neuroticism) ANOVA was then performed on death-thought accessibility scores. Neuroticism was dichotomized into a high-neuroticism group--those scoring at or above the median of 10--and a low-neuroticism group--those scoring below 10. There were no effects involving neuroticism in the ANOVA, nor were there any effects of neuroticism when we followed this test up with hierarchical regression analyses (Cohen & Cohen, 1983) treating neuroticism as a continuous variable (all ps > .13).

As predicted the analysis revealed the predicted creatureliness X sex prime interaction, F (1, 110) = 5.07, p = .026. Means and standard deviations are reported in Table 1. Tests for simple main effects within the humans are animals condition revealed more death-related words after the physical sex prime than after the romantic sex prime, F (1,110) = 4.57, p = .035, whereas in the humans are unique condition the difference was in the opposite direction but was not statistically significant (p = .28). No other pair-wise comparisons were significant.

An ANOVA on the negative affect scale of the PANAS revealed a main effect for neuroticism, F (1, 108) = 7.30, p = .008. High neuroticism participants (M = 1.77, SD = .65) reported more negative affect than low neuroticism participants (M = 1.47, SD = .73). The analysis also revealed an interaction between creatureliness and sex primes, F (1, 108) = 5.15, p = .025. Tests for simple main effects revealed that when participants in the humans are animals condition responded to the romantic sex prime they revealed greater negative affect than both participants primed with physical sex, F (1, 108) = 4.18, p = .043, and those primed with romantic sex after reading the humans are unique essay, F (1, 108) = 8.19, p = .005 (see Table 2). This pattern of means contrasts with the death access findings in which physical sex resulted in greater death access than did romantic sex after the creatureliness prime, suggesting that death access is indeed distinct from more general negative affect. Of course, because the findings for negative affect were unanticipated, they should be interpreted with caution.

To directly test the possibility that negative affect was mediating the effects of worldview threat and sex condition on death accessibility, an ANOVA was conducted on death access scores with negative affect as covariate. This analysis revealed that including negative affect as covariate did not alter the creatureliness X sex prime interaction, F (1, 107) = 6.72, p = .011. We also tested for mediation using the multiple regression technique as outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986). The results revealed no evidence of mediation or partial mediation by negative affect.


The results of Study 1 provided initial support for the role of concerns about creatureliness in the relationship between thoughts of physical sex and thoughts of death. Regardless of level of neuroticism, after being reminded of their links to other animals (i.e., their creatureliness), participants led to think of physical sex exhibited elevated death-thought accessibility. Conversely, after being reminded of how different they were from other animals, participants thinking about physical sex did not reveal heightened accessibility of death-related thought.

While the finding that people high in neuroticism were higher in negative affect is consistent with our previous findings (Goldenberg et al., 1999), it is not clear why the creatureliness prime in conjunction with romantic love resulted in heightened negative effect. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the two ideas produced a state of uncomfortable dissonance (cf. Festinger, 1957). However, these findings, along with the mediational analysis, provide discriminate validity of the death-accessibility results. That is, after being primed with creaturely thoughts, physical sex resulted in increased death accessibility, independent of any general negative affective response.

Although we might have predicted a 3-way interaction with high neurotics exhibiting the most death accessibility in response to physical sex after the creaturely prime, and we did in fact test for such an outcome, the analyses revealed that neuroticism did not moderate our results. We view these findings as theoretically consistent with our intended manipulation, and with our proposition that general ambivalence towards sex can be explained by a threat associated with our physical nature, and that often, individuals high in neuroticism are apt to be particularly threatened by this association. Therefore, in the present study, we hypothesized that priming thoughts of humans' similarities to other animals would likely cause people to respond with an especially salient association between death and sex. Perhaps more surprising, the condition in which people were primed with the idea that they were distinct from animals appeared to serve as an antidote for this threat, even among people high in neuroticism. Although neuroticism was not our primary focus in this paper, the fact that neurotics in this condition were not threatened by thoughts about death tentatively suggests that reminders of the specialness of humans may have some particular therapeutic value for neurotic individuals.

Further support for the role of creatureliness in human ambivalence about sex would be obtained if, in addition to affecting the accessibility of death-related thought, these reminders of creatureliness or uniqueness also moderated the effects of MS on the appeal of physical sex. Recall that previous research has shown that individuals high but not low in neuroticism responded to MS by viewing the physical aspects of sex as less appealing. If the results for the high neurotics resulted from their inability to view sex as a meaningful rather than a creaturely activity, then reminding people of their creaturely nature should lead them to find the physical aspects of sex less appealing, independent of their level of neuroticism.


A theory designed to explain why people are ambivalent about sex should be able to specify factors that affect people's attitudes toward sex. In Study 2 we therefore hypothesized that a creatureliness reminder should lead mortality-salient participants to find physical sex less appealing. In contrast, the uniqueness reminder should mitigate an effect of MS on the appeal of physical aspects of sex. To test these hypotheses, prior to being reminded of their own death or another aversive topic, individuals were again randomly assigned to read an essay that discussed either the relative similarity or dissimilarity between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. The appeal of the physical and romantic aspects of sex was then measured. Once again, we assessed whether neuroticism moderated the effects, but based on the findings of Study 1 and our intentions to manipulate factors that play a role in sexual ambivalence among the general population, we hypothesized that our manipulations would have these predicted effects regardless of level of neuroticism.



Participants were 129 university students, 74 females and 52 males (3 students declined to report gender) enrolled in two introductory psychology classes, who participated voluntarily for course credit. Ages ranged from 16 to 54 years old, M = 20.09, SD = 5.63.

Materials and Procedure

The procedure was the same as in Study 1. The content and order of the questionnaires are described below.

Neuroticism. To categorize participants as high or low in neuroticism, they were given the neuroticism measure (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1967) embedded in the same filler items as in Study 1.

Creatureliness prime. Participants read the same essay used in Study 1 describing humans as either similar to or distinct from animals.

Mortality salience. As in previous studies (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1990), MS was manipulated with two open-ended questions that reminded participants of either their death or another aversive topic. Both questionnaires were described as an "innovative personality assessment" and consisted of two items with space provided below each for freely written response. The death questionnaire contained the items "Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you" and "What do you think happens to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead?" The control questionnaire asked parallel questions about failing an important exam.

Negative affect. As in Study 1, the PANAS (Watson et al., 1988) was administered to address the alternative explanation that negative affect mediates the effects of our manipulations on the primary dependent measure.

Word search delay. A word search puzzle was included to provide a delay and distraction because previous research has shown that MS effects occur when death-related thoughts are highly accessible but not in current focal attention (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1994). Participants were asked to search for 12 neutral words embedded in a matrix of letters. Approximately 3 minutes were needed to complete the word search.

Appeal of physical sex. To measure the appeal of physical aspects of sex, we used the same scales used by Goldenberg et al. (1999) that were also employed to manipulate the salience of different aspects of sex in Study 1. However, in contrast to Study 1, participants responded to the entire 20-item measure. The instructions were identical to those in Study 1; however, rather than describe the behaviors as "having sex" or "making love," the more general phrase "sexual experience" was employed. An appeal of the physical aspects of sex score was calculated as the mean response on the physical sex items, with 1 representing the least appealing and 7 the most appealing response to each item. The romantic subscale served as an anchor for the physical items and also as a comparison to show that the effects of MS and the essay were specific to the physical aspects of sex. In the present study, the inter-item reliability was satisfactorily high (Cronbach's alpha = .92 for the physical sex subscale, and Cronbach's alpha = .93 for the romantic sex subscale).

Essay evaluation. As in Study 1, we used six questions to assess reactions to the essay (Cronbach's Alpha = .89).


Essay Evaluation

As in Study 1, a one-tailed t test on reactions to the essays confirmed that participants who read the essay suggesting that humans were similar to animals reacted more negatively to the essay than did participants who were reminded that they were unique compared to animals, t (123) = 3.06, p < .001. Means were 5.69 (SD = 1.63) compared to 6.47 (SD = 1.21), respectively, with higher numbers reflecting more positive evaluations. (2)

Appeal of Physical Sex

Once again, we conducted a preliminary analysis with gender in the model. Although there was a main effect revealing that males found the physical aspects of sex more appealing than females, F (1,110) = 23.86, p < .0005 (M = 5.11, SD = 1.39 vs. M = 3.78, SD = 1.51, respectively), there was no hint of an interaction with the other independent variables, nor did including gender in our analyses change any of the other effects. Gender was therefore dropped from the analysis.

We next proceeded with a 2 (creatureliness prime) X 2 (MS) X 2 (neuroticism) ANOVA on the appeal of physical sex scale. Once again we performed a median split on neuroticism scores, yielding a high-neuroticism group with scores above 9 and a low-neuroticism group with scores of 9 and below. Although the median was 10 in Study 1 and 9 in Study 2, the groups were split at the same point in the distribution, because in Study 1 participants scoring on the median were put in the high-neuroticism group and in Study 2 they were put in the low-neuroticism group. The results of the ANOVA and hierarchical regression revealed no effects involving neuroticism (all ps > .42).

The analysis did, however, reveal the predicted creatureliness prime x MS interaction on the appeal of physical sex, F (1,121) = 7.19, p = .008. Means and standard deviations are reported in Table 3. Tests for simple main effects within the humans are animals condition revealed that participants found physical sex less appealing after reminders of death compared to the control condition, F (1, 121) = 4.67, p = .033, whereas in the humans are unique condition this difference did not approach statistical significance (p > .10). Also, within the mortality-salience condition, participants in the humans are animals condition reported finding physical sex less appealing than did those in the humans are unique condition, F (1,121) = 5.83, p = .017; there was no difference in the control condition (p >. 17).

As expected, a parallel 2 x 2 x 2 ANOVA on the appeal of romantic sex scores revealed no effects approaching significance; there was no indication that when participants were reminded of their creatureliness (humans are animals essay condition), mortality salience reduced the appeal of romantic sex (p = .64). We also ran the analyses with physical versus romantic aspects of sex as a repeated-measures variable. The repeated-measures ANOVA produced the same pattern of results with the additional 3-way interaction between mortality salience, essay condition, and physical versus romantic sex. The results confirmed that the effects are specific to the physical aspects of sex; there were no significant effects within the romantic sex condition (ps > .31). Not unexpectedly, there was also a main effect of the repeated-measures variable; there was a clear preference for the romantic compared to the physical aspects of sex, F (1, 121) = 162.96, p < .0005.

We did consider the possibility that such a threat might actually increase the appeal of romantic sex. However, as with prior research (Goldenberg, McCoy, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000; Goldenberg et al., 1999), these data revealed a strong ceiling effect for responses on the romantic items (mode = 7, M = 6.02, SD = 1.08), attesting to the tremendous value that nearly all of our participants placed on romantic aspects of the sexual experience.

Negative Affect

A 2 (creatureliness prime) X 2 (MS) X 2 (neuroticism) ANOVA performed on the negative affect scale of the PANAS revealed only a main effect for neuroticism, F (1, 121) = 5.67, p = .019. High neuroticism participants (M = 1.90, SD = .74) reported more negative affect than low neuroticism participants (M = 1.61, SD = .69). To assess the possibility that negative affect was mediating the interaction of creatureliness and MS on appeal of physical sex, we used the Baron and Kenny (1986) multiple regression technique and found that there was no mediation or partial mediation. Additionally, an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) on appeal of sex scores with negative affect as covariate did not alter the significant creatureliness X MS interaction, F (1, 120) = 7.25, p = .008, or any of the simple effects.


Study 2 provided additional support for the role of creatureliness in the sex-death link, and demonstrated that people's attitudes toward the physical aspects of sex could be influenced by theoretically relevant variables. Specifically, when human creatureliness was salient, MS reduced the appeal of physical aspects of sex. However, when human uniqueness was salient, MS had no such effect; within the uniqueness condition, mortality-salient participants reported nonsignificantly higher appeal of physical sex than their exam-salient counterparts. Consistent with our reasoning, romantic aspects of sex--aspects imbedded in a meaningful view of sexual behavior--were not affected by the creatureliness and MS manipulations.


The present findings support the view that the awareness of one's self as a mere physical creature plays a role in the threat associated with the physical aspects of sex, and further, that this threat is rooted in mortality concerns. The data reveal that MS reduces the appeal of physical sex and that thoughts of physical sex increase the accessibility of death-related thoughts when sex is stripped of its symbolic cultural meaning by activating concerns about human creatureliness. In both studies, when concerns about creatureliness were assuaged by reading an essay that elevated humans above other animals, MS and thoughts of physical sex had no such effects.

We view the dichotomous manipulation--creatureliness reminder or creaturely buffer--as two ends of a continuum. People highly focused on the similarities between humans and animals should be especially threatened by physical aspects of sex, whereas people focused on human distinctiveness should not. Most likely because of the directness and strength of the conditions we created, neuroticism did not moderate these effects as it did in the prior studies in which we did not direct participants to focus on or away from their creatureliness. In fact, we designed this study as we did to manipulate a critical factor that we believe may have distinguished the high and low neurotics in our previous research. Although this work was not designed to test this assumption directly, we did find that in the control condition (in Study 2, when mortality was not salient), neuroticism was associated with a tendency to perceive the humans are animals essay as accurate, r (32) = .29, p = .097, whereas it was not similarly associated with acceptance of the humans are unique essay, r (32) = -.05. (3) Of course, further research examining this assumption is needed.

Because we didn't include a no essay or neutral essay condition, we cannot be sure we would have replicated the prior evidence of moderation by neuroticism. This is an unfortunate limitation of the present studies. However, the prior effects regarding neuroticism were highly significant in three studies, and so there is good reason to believe they are replicable.

Although we are left with some uncertainty regarding that issue, we do not believe that the lack of a condition in which neuroticism moderates these effects undermines the contribution of this research. Rather, the present results extend our earlier findings beyond the exclusive realm of high neurotics. This is a critical step if our theorizing is to provide a general account of humankind's ambivalence and difficulties with sexuality. However, because the current research drew its sample from a homogenous population of college students (who were mostly white and Christian), this is clearly only a first step in such a conclusion. It is unclear whether our findings would generalize to older adults, and also whether these findings would be relevant to other cultures with different religious influences. For example, it is possible that older people, through greater experience, are better able to come to terms with the creaturely aspects of sex. Clearly, further research with a variety of samples and with other operationalizations of the theoretically relevant variables is needed.

Cultural Variability

Although virtually all cultures restrict and disguise sexual behavior in some ways, some seem more restrictive than others. Similarly, some cultures seem to go to great lengths to distance humans from other animals, whereas others do not. Often, however, cultures that do not engage in distancing confer spiritual status--a soul--to all living creatures. This fits with the terror management position because the connection between humans and other animals is only threatening if animals are viewed as material mortal creatures. Anthropological and cross-cultural evidence exploring whether closer-to-nature cultures are less anxious about the physical aspects of sex would help inform our position.

Implications Regarding Sexual Regulation

Although social scientists from Freud on have viewed ambivalence about sex as a byproduct of cultural mores, the present research supports an opposite causal sequence. The findings suggest rather that rules and restrictions for sexual behavior protect individuals from confrontation with their underlying animal nature that frightens us because of our knowledge that all creatures must someday die. We do not mean to imply that cultures regulate sex solely for this reason. Certain restrictions most definitely serve other functions, as evolutionary and sociological perspectives suggest, and these functions are even probably the primary reason for some restrictions. A terror management perspective, however, provides unique insight into just why cultural conceptions and regulations of sexuality so often seem designed to deny the animal nature of sexuality and imbue it with symbolic meaning.


Although mainstream culture outwardly frowns on pornography, many individuals privately enjoy erotic entertainment. At first blush this may appear to contradict our perspective, since pornographic representations are often explicitly physical in nature. Of course, we are not saying that sex is not appealing, or that physical aspects of it don't contribute to that appeal; they most certainly do. However, it is relevant that pornographic images for the most part are not entirely creaturely, but rather seem consistent with the hypothesized ambivalence associated with the body and sex. The images are sexual, but at the same time the models, usually women, are neutralized or objectified: their bodies are augmented, manicured, shaved, and often airbrushed to perfection. It is the uncommon case that images are outright creaturely, but as many researchers have noted, such demeaning representations, again usually of women, can serve to make the consumer, usually male, feel powerful (e.g., Dworkin, 1989). Our analysis does not predict that people will avoid the physical aspects of sex, but rather that there is the potential for threat associated with physical sex, that the threat is associated with concerns about our creatureliness and our own mortal nature, and that people implement strategies to make it less threatening. No doubt, however, there is a very strong appeal of physical sex, for many obvious reasons, but even in pornography there is evidence of symbolic strategies (e.g., objectification and sexual prowess) that may help deflect the threat.

Other Creaturely Behaviors

If our conceptual analysis is correct, sex should not be the only domain of human behavior that is threatening because of its creaturely aspects. Other behavior associated with the physical body should also be potentially threatening when not cloaked in cultural meaning. Accordingly, research has shown that the body and its functions and byproducts are considered the primary objects of disgust across a wide range of cultures (Angyal, 1941; Haidt et al., 1997; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Rozin et al., 1993). And as mentioned previously, when reminded of their mortality people report being more disgusted by body products and animal reminders, suggesting that the disgust response itself may serve as a defense against mortality concerns (Goldenberg et al, 2001). Leon Kass' (1994) observation that eating is refined and civilized by a host of customs that not only regulate what people eat, but also where, when, with whom, and how, makes a similar point. In a related vein, we have recently suggested that a diverse array of things people do to try to attain bodily perfection (cf. Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) may be another attempt to meet the same end (Goldenberg, McCoy, et al., 2000; Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, et al., 2000).

Clinically Significant Sexual Problems

Clinical research suggests that anxiety often plays a leading role in sexual dysfunction (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1982/1985). From a terror management perspective, concerns about the psychological sources of meaning and value that function to protect individuals from such anxiety may often become so prominent as to interfere with healthy and pleasurable sexual experience. For example, males with performance anxiety may be suffering because they are over-invested in sexual behavior as a basis of self-worth (Chesler, 1978; Masters et al., 1982/1985). Similarly, women who have difficulty deriving pleasure from sex or those more generally inhibited about sex may be troubled with constant self-monitoring of their body's appearance or "proper" demeanor during such experience (Masters et al., 1982/1985; Wolf, 1991). The finding of Goldenberg et al. (1999) that thoughts of love eliminate the connection of thoughts of sex and thoughts of death among neurotic individuals is consistent with this possibility. From a therapeutic perspective, an awareness of the functions that such concerns serve could lead to either more adaptive strategies for attaching meaning and value or attempts to confront the source of one's anxiety (i.e., mortality and physicality concerns) as worthy approaches to pursue in helping individuals with such problems (see Yalom, 1980).


In sum, the research reported in the present article may help explain why humans exhibit so much ambivalence toward sexuality. Although we have focused on the threat associated with the physical aspects of sex, there is no question that human being are inherently drawn to the physical aspects of sex for many reasons, most notably reproduction and pleasure. Yet, there is evidence that our attitude toward sex is not all approach but also avoidance. In this work we have outlined some existential factors that increase avoidance. Specifically, we demonstrated that when individuals were likely to associate the physical aspects of sex with an animal act, thinking about physical sex served to prime thoughts about death, and thinking about death decreased the appeal of physical sex. From the perspective of TMT, the association between sex and our animal nature interferes with our attempt to elevate ourselves above the rest of the natural world and thus deny our ultimate mortality. Recognizing the conflict between our animal and symbolic natures in the domain of human sexuality may shed light on a myriad of problems associated with this most pleasurable aspect of human existence.

Table 1. Mean and Standard Deviation Death Accessibility
Scores as a Function of Creatureliness Prime and Sex Condition


Sex condition

      Physical Romantic
Essay theme M SD N M SD N
Humans are animals 1.61 .95 31 1.13 .72 31
Humans are unique 1.26 .76 27 1.48 .98 29

Note. Higher values reflect higher levels of death thought accessibility.

Table 2. Mean and Standard Deviation Negative Affect Scores as a Function of Creatureliness Prime and Sex Condition


Sex condition

      Physical Romantic
Essay theme M SD N M SD N
Humans are animals 1.52 .60 31 1.90 .87 31
Humans are unique 1.65 .70 27 1.40 .49 27

Note. Higher values reflect higher levels of negative affect.

Table 3. Scores as a Function of Creatureliness Prime and Scores as a Function of Creatureliness Prime and Mortality Salience


Mortality salience

      Death Exam
Essay theme M SD N M SD N
Humans are animals 3.77 1.66 32 4.68 1.36 33
Humans are unique 4.78 1.41 33 4.13 1.79 31

(1) Our analysis of neuroticism does not preclude the possibility of a genetic or biological predisposition toward this condition. For a variety of reasons, there may be some people who are constitutionally impaired in their ability to become securely embedded in a symbolic conception of reality.

(2) Although one might be tempted to predict an interaction between MS and essay (as was found in Goldenberg et al., 2001), we did not hypothesize an interaction in this study because the evaluation of the essay occurred after participants were provided an opportunity to defend via responses to the physical sex items, and as has been shown previously (McGregor et al., 1998), defending in one manner eliminates the need to defend in another (i.e., dishing out hot sauce to an individual with a stomach ulcer eliminates negative evaluations). As expected, therefore, an ANOVA revealed no hint of interaction between MS and essay condition (p > .51).

(3) To assess whether the essays were perceived as accurate, we formed a composite item by averaging responses on the last three items on the measure assessing reactions to the essays (see description in text). Whereas the first three items reflect reactions to the author, the last three assess the validity of the ideas expressed in the essays. The three items showed high internal validity (Cronbach's Alpha = .90).

by Jamie L. Goldenberg, Cathy R. Cox, Tom Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon



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Manuscript accepted June 12, 2002

Jamie L. Goldenberg Boise State University

Cathy R. Cox and Tom Pyszczynski University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Jeff Greenberg University of Arizona

Sheldon Solomon Brooklyn College This research was supported by National Science Foundation grants (SBR-9312546, SBR-9601366, SBR-9601474, SBR-9731626, SBR-9729946).

Address correspondence to Jamie Goldenberg, Department of Psychology, Boise State University, Boise, ID 83725-1715

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2021, December 25). Understanding Human Ambivalence About Sex: The Effects of Stripping Sex of Meaning, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

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