The Three Types of Sex: Procreational, Relational, and Recreational
“Sexual energy is just that, it’s energy. And where we choose to expend that energy makes all the difference in the world.”– Joy McMillan, author
Pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey believed the only universal in the world of human sexuality is variability. Depending on whom you ask, there are seven, ten, twelve or more types of sex. That’s a different story. For our purposes now, some psychologists believe there are three varieties of sex: reproductive or procreative, relationship affirming or relational, and recreational. People may engage in all three at varying times in their lives.
Reproductive sex, the first, is the most straightforward. The intent is to procreate, to have babies, to sustain the human race. As the population of the third planet from the sun edges closer to a total population number of eight billion people, procreation is unavoidable. It’s also essential to preserve the species, and that vital breeding process obviously has been working well since the first homo sapiens popped into this world 200-some thousand years ago. Congratulations, humankind!
In his July 2020 article about the three types of sex in Psychology Today, Michael Castleman, M.A. discusses the historical context for how birthing abundant babies was considered in the past: “Procreation resulting in lots of children made economic and cultural sense when most societies were agrarian and famine and death were constant threats. More kids meant more hands to work the fields (or forage or hunt), and each worker’s labor often produced more food than the family consumed. As a result, large families were likely to produce surplus food that could be exchanged to meet their other needs.”
As the world and automation progressed into the Industrial Revolution, Castleman points out, that demand for sizable numbers of children as a private, family labor force diminished in the U.S. Children became little people that needed to be fed, clothed and housed and unsafe, unhealthy working conditions in factories meant you didn’t want your kids working there.
The result in the pre-birth-control era was that family size began to decline. Continuing the historical timeline, Castleman informs, “Couples who’d completed their families limited pregnancies using abstinence, withdrawal, abortifacient herbs (rue, pennyroyal and others), primitive contraceptives (half lemons with pulp removed as diaphragms), or non-intercourse lovemaking (hand jobs, fingering, oral sex, and for some, anal play).”
Still, reproductive sex, especially within marriage, has been universally accepted and supported. People who are more conservative in their religious or social beliefs may not be as supportive of reproductive sex outside of marriage, but overall, procreation between couples usually doesn’t cause double takes.
Relationship affirming sex, especially since it’s usually completely private, also is commonly accepted.
As families got smaller, religious leaders continued to maintain conception as a priority in God’s plan for designing bedroom activities between heterosexual couples. However, Castleman explains, theologians realized that long-term relational sex was an effective way to fortify relationships and keep couples together to support their children and their Church.
“Surveys have shown that people have reported their best sex when in a long-term relationship in which they speak openly and honestly about their sex life and are willing to do the work it can take to improve and build upon the sex they are having (or not having),” writes Ariel Shreeger in a June 2021 article on the North Brooklyn Marriage & Family Therapy website. Relationship affirming sex is the epitome of 'making love'; that intimate, bond-building, oxytocin-producing sex that couples have for no other reason than to remind each other of their loving & committed relationship.
So, wait a minute. We’re talking about sex and types of sexual relationships, and the Church and conservatives. There’s got to be something controversial here, right? Yep, you guessed it! The third variety of sex, recreational, has been controversial and held in contempt for centuries in the cloistered hallways and pulpits of conservative clerics and followers. Their fear, their philosophy is that sex can only be sacred and safe within the boundaries of a marriage.
Recreational sex is the kind of sex that has always been on the fringes of social and cultural acceptability, but many, many consenting adults enjoy it anyway! It consists of any sexual activity that is "just for fun" (how dare we experience pleasure for pleasure's sake, right?), and may or may not occur within the confines of a loving marriage. Sex work, pornography, consensual non-monogamy, group sex, one night stands, same-gender couplings, BDSM, fetish, role play, and even masturbation are just some of the things under the recreational sex umbrella that terrify staunch conservatives so.
“Civil and religious authorities often tolerated recreational play as long as it remained out of sight,” Castleman clarifies. “When it became too visible, both civil and religious authorities feared that ‘perversion’ threatened the social order, and repressed it with fines, imprisonment, and sometimes executions.”
Earlier in his article, though, Castleman nails the reality behind the religious or conservative dogma: “A huge majority of Americans have engaged in recreational sex—including the large majority of those who believe it’s sinful, immoral, and addictive.”
Indeed. And that paradox of the basic human drive to have sex with the need to find faith in something greater can often cause internal conflicts. Castleman cites several major studies of men who believed they had an addiction to porn, and in all of the studies the men who held most firmly to that belief had the strongest connection to their religion or their regular participation at their house of faith.
In one study performed at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, scientists asked 2,279 adults about their religiousness and porn viewing. “As church attendance and prayer frequency increased, so did the belief that porn is ‘always morally wrong,’” Castleman reports. “But men expressing this view still watched a good deal of porn, which triggered severe anxiety.”
Ultimately, in any healthy sexual relationship – whether you’re planning to have a baby or share a wonderful, intimate experience to deepen your love or just have a lot of fun together – each of the three types of sex works. So get out there and tap into your sexual energy and expend it however you'd like for all things positive and life-affirming!