Sex is no exception. Sex can be a personally liberating experience or it can be addictive and/or unhealthy.
So the short answer to the question is the ever-obnoxious, “It depends.” The long answer gets a little more complicated.
HOW SEX CAN HELP YOUR SELF-ESTEEM
There’s a saying that sex is like food, it’s only a big deal when you’re not getting enough of it.
There’s something to that. Assuming you are not asexual or you don’t have strong values or beliefs about celibacy or or chastity, sex is a fundamental socio-emotional function and not getting it when and how you want it can lead to a lot of angst, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It’s not a coincidence that many relationships and even marriages fall apart because of an inability to meet each other’s sexual needs. Our identities and feelings of self-worth are tied tightly to it.
Back in my days as a dating coach, I regularly saw men who were either virgins or had gone extended periods of time without sex, suddenly feel more outgoing and confident as soon as they “broke the seal.” Going from zero to something is a big deal, and for many, a watershed moment in their self-perception.
There’s a lot of inherent social pressure to be sexually active these days; not getting your sexual needs met for extended periods of time can lead one greater self-doubt and questions of identity, not to mention the requisite loneliness and frustration.
So in this way, if a person is severely under-sexed or inexperienced, having sex can provide a nice little boost to one’s security and self-esteem. Sex can be quite helpful.
(Note: Surveys show that losing their virginity can actually make some women feel worse about themselves. I suspect that this is the “anti-slut” social pressures more than anything else.)
But there are diminishing returns. Once a person has “broken through” and joined the sexually active population, the affirmation and self-validation that “I’m normal, I’m desireable, I’m OK,” tapers off and becomes insufficient… at least until the next dry spell.
But can promiscuity build self esteem?
This is a dubious claim made often in the pick up artist community and manosphere: that a man who has slept with a large amount of women is by definition, more developed and more secure than a man who hasn’t.
This is false. But there are special cases where it can be true for a limited period of time.
In my article Why It’s So Hard: Dating for Modern Men, I talk about “emotional maps” and how our unconscious desires and emotional needs determine both our relationships and the strategies with which we choose to go about them.
In some cases, if a man has had turbulent, unfulfilling or traumatic experiences with his mother or other significant women in his past, he will need a great amount of sexual validation to compensate for his feeling of unworthiness or inadequacy with intimacy and relationships. Instead of a girlfriend and maybe a fling or two being sufficient for his self-esteem, this man feels a need to prove himself over and over, in a variety of situations, to overcome and disprove all of the emotional baggage he’s been carrying around from the women in his life for all of these years.
Yes, I do believe that heightened promiscuity can be emotionally healthy in the short-term for both men and women, depending on their emotional issues and needs at the moment.
The problem is that there are a lot of internal side effects to this promiscuity that can easily begin to backfire if the person is not aware of their motivations.
HOW SEX CAN HURT YOUR SELF-ESTEEM
Generally speaking, sex is beneficial for one’s self-esteem when it’s consciously done to affirm one’s values and needs: intimacy, desirability, connection, and even pleasure.
Sex becomes harmful when it is unconsciously pursued for reasons that contradict one’s values or needs.
Sex becomes unhealthy when it passes the point of affirmation and connection and becomes another form of escapism and objectification. Why would this happen? Here’s a stereotypical example from the two men’s communities I listed above:
A man has gone most of his life being ignored and walked over by the women he’s met and dated. He develops serious self-image issues and deep beliefs of inadequacy. He also grew up in an emotionally dysfunctional family and had a strained and/or smothering relationship with his mother. His emotional map is such that although he craves intimacy, he’s never truly experienced it without some sort of accompanying pain.
In his adult life, he overcomes a lot of his social anxieties and finally manages to attract and sleep with some women. This goes a long way in helping him overcome his self-image and identity issues. He begins to see himself as a desirable person, and for the first time in his life he’s able to glide through social situations and flirt with women without hesitation or shame.
This is a huge step and something he should be proud of.
BUT, his sexual encounters, having solved one of his emotional issues, bump up against another: his fear and resentment of intimacy. The relationships with the few women he’s capable of getting close to expose his inability to accept unconditional affection and soon sabotaged. To protect himself he rationalizes and reinforces misogynistic beliefs, thus allowing him to pursue a series of casual sexual encounters without ever running the risk of actually becoming vulnerable. Promiscuity, the solution to his original emotional issues, has now become the anesthetic to his deeper, underlying problems.
But it doesn’t stop there. Sex and promiscuity can have addictive qualities as well.
Biologically, particularly in men, new sexual encounters have been shown to release a surge of dopamine into the brain, giving the person a feel of euphoria, not dissimilar to cocaine or eating amazing food. Any single guy who has enjoyed the afterglow for hours or days after sleeping with a stunningly beautiful girl knows exactly what I’m talking about. The sensation very much is almost like a drug.
The problem with these dopamine rushes are that they have a propensity to become addictive. Research shows that behaviors become addictive when they are unpredictable and provide physiological rewards. A likely neurotic fixation on affection from women likely doesn’t help things either.
The other addictive quality of promiscuity is the external validation that comes along with it. For men, there’s a lot of social conditioning to be a “player” or “stud” or to fuck as many hot girls as possible, particularly within certain insular communities. The blogs and forums that do so much to encourage and motivate men to improve themselves early can also become the culprits, enslaving their members to live out a sexual ideology rather than pursuing their personal needs and values.
External validation can become addictive and it can erode at our sense of self-worth. Men may sleep with women they are not otherwise interested in, exaggerate their experiences or otherwise pursue sexual experiences they don’t agree with or value, all in order to garner the attention and appreciation of those around them.
This is classic low self-esteem behavior and only reinforces the feeling of no self-worth.
Re-orienting yourself based on the beliefs and standards of others rather than your emotional needs is always a one-way ticket to low self-esteem. What you’re telling your sub-conscious is that your ideas, values and beliefs are not as important as those of people around you, and so you sacrifice your identity and values in order to cash in on the validation from others. This is a losing strategy, as the satisfaction of external validation is temporary. Once it runs out, you always need more.
This is why practicing self-awareness is so crucial. Until you’re aware of what’s motivating and driving your sexual behavior, you can easily succumb to the negative reinforcement and addictive qualities of sex. And one of life’s greatest pleasures can quickly turn from a footnote in one’s life to the driving force behind it.