The Psychology of Attraction: The Intertwining of Sex and Aggression

"His gaze flickered to my lips. I got that. He was once again furious with me and once again perfectly ready to have sex with me. The conundrum that was Barrons. Apparently it was impossible for him to feel anything as far as I was concerned without getting angry about it. Did anger make them want to have sex with me? Or was it that he always wanted to have sex with me that made him so angry?"

--Shadowfever, by Karen Marie Moning

So I’m looking back over the "Psychology of Attraction" series, and so far we have fear, uncertainty, and now aggression. Which makes me think I should clarify some things before y'all stage an intervention. This series is not meant to be a picture of how healthy relationships work, or even how the majority of relationships work. They’re interesting tidbits that might be useful for a novelist. As often is the case, the healthy cases don’t always make interesting stories.

Actually, that's an interesting thought -- that the pathological makes for more gripping stories. Is it true? Is it desirable? Which dovetails nicely into today's post.

When I was researching the article on fear, I ran across some old studies exploring the relationship between aggression and sexuality. The basic idea was that the experimenters made test participants angry and then tested them for sexual arousal.

In one case, the experiment was conducted in a class on the day a midterm was supposed to be returned. The instructor told the students that almost everybody had failed and then went on to lambaste the class on their bad performance. Then, a visiting lecturer from a prestigious Ivy League university gave a guest lecture in which he was very condescending toward the students in the class.  (The students were enrolled in a less prestigious institution).

After the anger manipulation, students were given pictures and asked to write stories based on the pictures. As you may have guessed, the angry students had more sexual imagery in their stories than students in a control condition.

Now I'm not sure if there's anything special about aggression and sex. It could be, that any strong emotion (like fear) will cause an increase in sexual drive. However, as a storyteller and a reader, I still thought it was worth discussing.

Many stories mix aggression into their romance threads. In the Fever Series quoted above, Jericho Barrons and MacKayla Lane have a very combative relationship, which increases the sparks when they finally get together. There are so many other examples: Katsa and Po in Graceling, the fight scene turned sex scene in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. My own novel features a conflicted relationship between my main character Kyra and “dangerous-yet-intriguingly-sexy-assassin.”*

So how do I feel about this? Well, on the one hand, it's clearly effective -- I found all the examples above to be very compelling.

On the other hand, I'm of glad that the YA genre doesn't tend to take this too far. Because while situations like these may seem sexy on paper, many women (and men) do learn the hard way that the aggressive and unpredictable alpha type is not so sexy in real life.

So, readers, I turn the question to you. How do you feel about the mixing of violence and sex in literature?

*BTW, it's ridiculously hard to write co-ed close-combat scenes in a PG way. I got so many fight scenes back from my writing group with phrases like “It’s ridiculously hard” circled, and  “Lol!” scribbled the margin. Hence, the inspiration for this post.

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Barclay, A., & Haber, R. (1965). The relation of aggressive to sexual motivation1 Journal of Personality, 33 (3), 462-475 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1965.tb01398.x


  1. I’m not sure that the pathological necessarily makes for more gripping stories but no one wants to read about normal people doing normal things, well most people don’t. If Holden Caulfield had just gone to school, toed the line, sat his exams and become valedictorian I doubt Catcher in the Rye would have become the cult it did. We all like to think that there but for the grace of God go I, breathe a sigh of relief and get on with our normal lives.

    As for the whole sex and aggression thing I’m afraid I don’t get it. Okay, I get the idea, but the most aggressive thing I’ve ever had a character do is grab someone else by the lapels. And I never dwell on sex. I don’t write about that kind of people. I also don’t read those kinds of books. I’m not a prude, just not interested. I’m more likely to come across a sex scene in a film or a TV programme, the sex on True Blood can veer towards the aggressive but I shrug it off as fantasy; that’s not how real people have sex and I feel much the same about all the sex in cupboards that happens in Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve not had sex in a cupboard in my life. Maybe I should have. Violence I don’t get—the idea of intentionally hurting another person—and, as such, it’s a turn off. Again, there’s a lot of it on TV but I’m happier when it’s aliens that are on the receiving end rather than watching humans beating up humans.

  2. I'm a therapist as well as a writer and in my experience, sex and aggression are linked, esp. in young heterosexual couples.

    I'm exploring this connection in my latest novel, about an FBI agent with a secret sex addiction. The dualities and pathologies of victim and perpetrator and the dynamic stuff of legend and lore-- and in my opinion, both professionally and as a writer, make for potent stories.

    That said, we're all drawn to the themes we're drawn to explore. I happen to be fascinated by pathologies, and helping people recover from them. That's what happens in my books too.

  3. PS I nominated your blog. It's unique.

  4. I nominated you, too, Liv. I always find such wonderful food for thought in your posts.

    I think any intense emotion drops barriers in our heads and makes it easier to segue into other intense emotions. There's probably some brain chemistry in common there which would be interesting to explore.

  5. Jim -- good thoughts regarding "there but for the grace of God go I." I think also, it's a safe way to explore more dangerous situations while still remaining safe in your living room chair. And about sex in cupboards, the idea has never really appealed to me either :-)

    Toby -- thank you so much for the nomination! Being a therapist must be really helpful for your writing. Why do you think sex and aggression are especially linked in young heterosexual couples? Any theories?

    Jo -- thank you for the kind words and the nomination as well! Regarding brain chemistry, testosterone comes to mind. It's not my area of expertise, but I believe it is linked both to aggression and to sex drive.

  6. Good question. Like anything, (to me) it's about degrees of exploration, connection and delivery. Exploration in terms of the depth the concepts are examined and considered in relation to overall plot fit and character traits. Connection in terms of linking these elements to further the tension of the story and delivery in the sense that the author leaves the reader feeling engaged rather than repulsed.

    Ellie Anthony (Cyberspace is not my friend today. For some reason I can't post any other way than anonymous.Bizarre.)

  7. Yeah it's a difficult thing that I tend to try steering clear of, especially when I write YA.

    Still, there is something sexually charged to any written argument between a girl and a guy. I wonder why that is. Maybe because in movies and so on it's become an accepted norm that people kiss and make up after fight.

  8. Ellie -- good point. It almost always depends on context.

    Misha -- You're probably right that societal norms have a lot to do with it. My hunch is that there is an underlying biological connection too.

  9. Personally, I think there are healthier ways to create sexual tension in writing - especially when one's work targets the YA audience. While there likely is a biological connection between sex and violence, I feel it is in society's best interest not to glamorize that in the eyes of our youth. In my current WIP (which is targeted to an adult audience) I created sexual tension between two of my main characters by the female finding the male's overly confident, too familiar attitude repulsive while she could not deny the sexual attraction she felt for him. Over time, as she learned more about his past and his true personality was revealed, she became increasingly taken by his honesty, integrity and persistent and thoughtful attention. I don't know how successful this approach will be, but I feel like it is true to how normal relationships develop. While my male character is certainly capable of fighting, he only resorts to violence when he must do so to defend himself or others. The example I hope he provides to readers is that it is possible for a man to be strong and forceful without being a bully.

  10. My theory is that emotions are energy, and the energy isn't fixed, it is transitive. I've devoted two chapters (which I will most likely have to cut) to exploring the theory, in my novel. For everyone's sake I won't post them here, but if you are interested I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  11. Janet -- Yeah, I agree that especially in YA, we should think carefully before glamorizing unhealthy habits. Adults are more set in their ways, I think (though, it's up for debate how much they can be influenced without knowing it...)

    Jesse - Interesting thoughts about energy. How are you exploring it in your chapters?

  12. I have that in my YA wip, but the boyfriend is controlling, so it fits his personality. Scares the heck out of the MC. Otherwise, I don't think it's good for YA novels because like you said, real life has plenty of those relationships, and it's sad that so many teenage girls will stay with a guy like that. Same with many women. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. It's a very interesting topic, definitely!

    1. Intelligence/logic are separate functions from emotion. I have found this to be true in changing behaviours. When talking about habits/addictions/attachment, there is seemingly no amount of logic that can cause permanent change when someone is attached,emotionally to something or someone. Logic and emotion run in parallel universes,not to mention different areas of the brain.
      I am perusing this site as a way to understand the very real connection,or maybe its a disconnection,between attraction and aggression and how easily it can be misunderstood,especially in so called *platonic" relationships between men and women. I think there are some people who get it from an early age that when a boy teases or is even mean to a girl,it may be that he likes her. I think this comes from having a stable hone environment where self confidence is nurtured. This is not to say all teasing and bullying are indicators of attraction. People also sense insecurity and attack that. So it can be very confusing for a child and we tend to carry things forward as we grow. I think the self confident child can differentuate better than the insecure child.Unfortunately,I was the latter.
      Fast forward to January,2017. I am still experiencing this stuff on occasion. Still attracting at a low level despite the fact that I am more able to discern when someone is trying to break me down,emotiinally in order to "get in." My problem is that I call them on it and then it escalates. I really believe that the verbal type if aggression,which is what I'm talking about, is designed to break the victim down,weaken their defenses etc...this is no new concept,I'm sure,but it took me decades to get my head around it.

  13. I broke the lecture rule, literally.
    My MC is a robot, and in the first act he's still in school, being "trained" how to be human. The class is called emotional relativity, and it is one of the fifty recorded memories my narrator has stumbled upon. He warns the reader that it may be slow reading, and can be skipped if the reader wishes, but he thinks it's instrumental to understanding the MC's mindset and thought process.

  14. LynNerdKelley -- Yeah, I don't think it's an intelligence thing so much as a confidence thing. And perhaps social isolation, that makes girls stay with guys like that.

    Jesse -- You should check out For The Win by Cory Doctorow. He scatters lectures throughout the novel, and somehow he makes it work without being boring.

  15. This is interesting I am doing some science fiction animations with female characters and my research led me here! ADHD can be good! :)