When I Get That Boring Feeling: Sex as Escape from Boredom

Everyone gets bored from time to time. What do you do when you have these everyday feelings of boredom? In some cases, psychologists found that during such bouts, people sometimes watch porn, masturbate, or become preoccupied with thoughts about sex to deal with the adverse nature of boredom. What is less commonly known, however, is that an everyday experience like boredom can also threaten people’s sense of meaning in life.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from PexelsPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Did you know that people watched more porn during the Covid-19 pandemic [1]? Not surprisingly, many people also reported feeling more bored than usual given the restrictions placed on their day to day lives [2]. Indeed, prior to the pandemic, psychologists found that more generally, sex can be used as a stimulating distraction from boredom [3]. Simultaneously, there is growing research in psychology on how feeling bored might also be connected to a deep feeling that there is a lack of meaning in one’s life. Indeed, one way people deal with this feeling is by trying to escape from it using pleasurable acts such as sex. To understand these relationships in more detail, let me first explain how boredom relates to a lack of meaning in life and the theoretical framework which suggests how sex may function as an escape from these experiences.

Boredom has been discussed using different perspectives in psychology including arousal [4] and attentional theories [5]. Other researchers use an existential psychological approach to studying boredom, which focuses on people’s need to have a sense of meaning in their lives. Using this approach [6], boredom can be understood as a threat to people’s need for meaning in life. This is because boredom indicates that someone’s life is missing a sense of purpose and significance [7]. In response, bored people feel dissatisfied and restless, which motivates them to pursue activities that offer a greater sense of meaning. For example, to re-establish a sense of meaning in life, bored people might identify more strongly with their national in-group [8]. Likewise, bored people engage in more pro-social behaviours such as donating to charity [9] or idolise their heroes to a greater extent [10]. Collectively, these meaningful activities are done to compensate for the meaninglessness of one’s life signaled by boredom.

Existential Escape

In 2006, psychologist Arnaud Wisman outlined a new framework for how people might deal alternatively with threats to meaning in life using sex [11, 12]. According to Wisman’s ‘existential escape hypothesis,’ people who experience threats to meaning in life, such as boredom, experience a heightened sense of self-awareness. Typically, people try to reduce such self-awareness by engaging in pleasure-seeking behaviours that demand little self-awareness such as unhealthy eating or drinking alcohol. By engaging in these acts of escape, people reduce their state of heightened self-awareness and thereby reduce their ability to perceive and think about boredom and its threat to meaning in life.

For example, in research conducted on escape so far, Arnaud Wisman, Nathan Heflick, and Jamie Goldenberg [13] found that people whose feeling of meaning in life was threatened by making them aware of their eventual death (known as mortality salience) ended up drinking more alcohol on a night out. In particular, Wisman argues that people with low- self-esteem are especially likely to engage in escape, given that people high in self-esteem often affirm their prized attributes to defend against threats to meaning in life. Indeed, Wisman and colleagues found that people who drank more alcohol as a means of escape were particularly likely to report lower self-esteem. (However, despite this evidence in support of the ‘existential escape hypothesis,’ parts of the main theoretical framework used to interpret mortality salience research, known as ‘terror management theory’ [14] are currently being debated. This is because ‘terror management theory’s’ key predictions that mortality salience leads to negative attitudes towards social outgroups has not been supported in recent research [15]).

The psychological effects of boredom have also been researched using the ‘existential escape hypothesis’ [16]. For instance, in our research, we found that people who regularly experienced boredom were more likely to consume greater quantities of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins on a day-to-day basis. Further, when we manipulated participants to feel bored by doing a simple puzzle or watch a boring documentary, we found that they were more likely to eat an unhealthy snack like candies instead of eating something healthy such as crackers. That is, boredom drives people to address a lack of meaning in life by escaping with stimulating and pleasure-seeking activities that do not involve the self to a large degree. Consistent with our previous research, my colleagues and I recently tested whether people may also use as sex as an escape from boredom to deal with a perceived lack of meaning in life.

Bored Stiff: Sex as Escape from Boredom

In our research, we first investigated how men’s interest in sensational forms of sex functions as an escape from boredom [17]. We found that hetero and bisexual men susceptible to boredom and meaninglessness in life were more interested in sexual sensation seeking (e.g., enjoying the physical aspects of sex, watching ‘X-rated’ videos, trying new and exciting sexual experiences and sensations) and had more favourable attitudes to casual, uncommitted sexual relationships. Specifically, in our first study, we asked our participants to complete surveys that measured their boredom susceptibility, how meaningless they felt their lives were, and their attitudes towards casual sexual relationships and sexual sensation seeking. In our results, we found that men who reported lower levels of meaning in their lives were also likely to report being more susceptible to boredom. In turn, boredom was associated with increased endorsement of sexual sensation seeking and promiscuous sex.

In our second study, we included an additional survey, which measured whether participants used sex a coping mechanism in general to deal with unpleasant experiences. Here, participants were asked to report to what extent they used sex as an escape from worries and stresses in their everyday life, as well as for dealing with any emotional pain. Consistent with our predictions, we found that men who reported more meaninglessness and boredom susceptibility were also likely to report using sex as a coping strategy and form of escape. In turn, the use of sex as a means of escape was associated with increased sexual sensation seeking and greater endorsement of promiscuous sexual attitudes.

Finally, we investigated how boredom and its relationship to sex may be impacted by men having different personality traits. Primarily, we found that men who were more outgoing, neurotic, or open to new experiences were also likely to report feeling more susceptible to boredom and use sensational and uncommitted sex as a means of escape. On the other hand, men with personality traits that are associated with being organised, efficient, or empathic were less likely to report feeling bored and less likely to report using sex as a means of escape. That is, sex may be a more accessible means of escape for men with particular personality traits in response to boredom.

To our knowledge, our studies were the first to suggest that sensational sexual behaviours and promiscuous attitudes may be used as an escape from the meaninglessness of boredom. We also believe that our studies were the first to incorporate sex as a means of escape within existential escape research. In future, we are interested in researching whether women, people with different sexual orientations, and people with other psychological traits (e.g., low self-esteem) engage in sex as a means of escape following boredom. Also, it is unknown, as of yet, whether hedonic forms of sex are effective escapes from the meaninglessness of boredom and if so, if they are effective in the long-term [12].

To conclude, our research and chosen theoretical framework do not necessarily suggest that it is bad to escape from the meaninglessness signaled by boredom through sex. Many people experiencing existential threats may think it is beneficial that we have an escape from life’s ills at our disposal that makes us feel alive and gratified in times of threat. More broadly, positive psychological research has shown that it is important to have life experiences that give pleasure, such as sex, in addition to having experiences that are meaningful and give purpose [18]. Other existential psychological research by Arnaud Wisman and Jamie Goldenberg has shown that people may also derive meaning from sex, for example, if they are trying to have children [19]. Nevertheless, if using sex to escape from boredom is used excessively or inappropriately, important real world applications can be derived from this research. By identifying some of the underlying psychological mechanisms that influence sexual behaviours, alternative coping mechanisms could be learned by people who are particularly prone to boredom and meaninglessness rather than engaging in maladaptive sexual acts [20].


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