Even within this very limited frame of reference, however, the evidence is at best inconclusive. Reviewing previous research, (Wild, L.G., Flisher, A.J., Bhana, A.A. & Lombard, C., 2004) cite one US study which found that low self-esteem increased the risk of teen pregnancy, but only among particular racial groups; four that uncovered no associations at all between self-esteem and ‘early sexual activity’ or teen pregnancy; and one longitudinal study of our Kiwi cousins which found (sorry everybody!) that girls who had sex before the age of 16 tended to have higher self-esteem than their peers. For all this, the logic that only confidence-deficient teens would have risky sex persists and thrives, weed-like, both in the minds of concerned adults and the Tumblrs of their children.
Self-esteem and adult women’s sexuality has also been a topic of researcher interest. One of the earliest studies I could find was conducted by none other than Abraham “hey check out my Hierarchy of Needs” Maslow. After spending a bunch of time watching monkeys screwing and fighting, Maslow convinced himself of a fundamental link between dominance and sexual drive in all primates, a theory which he tested (although we’ll use the term loosely) with his 1942 study Self-Esteem (Dominance-Feeling) and Sexuality in Women. Maslow recruited seventy female graduate students for the study, subjecting each to a series of intensive and apparently titillating interviews. I assume that this was one of the best ways, pre-interwebz, for a guy to get his rocks off.
Based on these conversations, Maslow assigned each woman ratings for self-esteem, sexual attitudes and sex drive. His conclusion was that he’d been right all along, which must have been a pleasant surprise. Maslow’s high self-esteem subjects had a stronger desire for sex and a particular fantasy penchant for rough fucking with bands of extremely well-hung brutes. Those with low self-esteem, in contrast, viewed sex through the prism of reproduction and reported feeling very little desire to have it. From all this, Maslow concluded that self-esteem was even more important than sex drive as a determinant of women’s sexual attitudes and behaviour.
Although Maslow’s methods were super-questionable, contemporary research seems to support at least the general thrust (LOL) of his findings. One of the most direct treatments of the subject is a 1991 article in the academic journal Sex Roles, ‘Self-esteem and Sexual Behaviour: Exploring Gender Differences.’ Administering the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to 212 females and 88 males, the researcher, Walsh, found that high self-esteem men and women both reported higher numbers of sexual partners, with the association remaining significant after controlling for other variables.
While acknowledging that the data couldn’t show causation, Walsh theorized that as sexual activity carries a risk of rejection, engaging in it requires a certain amount of confidence. I’ll chuck in another couple of possibilities free of charge. High self-esteem and a larger number of sexual partners could both spring from greater-than-average physical or social attractiveness. Or it could be that high self-esteem people, who are typically more comfortable rejecting social norms in favour of their inner compass, might be more likely to act on their sexual urges. In turn, doing so could enhance the sense that one is an awesomely autonomous, self-directing kind of person.
What about porn performers, who are some of the sluttiest sluts of all? The lack of any electronic tagging program or central storage warehouse has made systematic research on porn performers difficult. Hence, although everyone likes to pontificate about porn actresses’ psychological health and wellbeing, only one reasonably-sized quantitative study (Griffith, J. D., Mitchell, S., Hart, C.L., Adams L.T & Gu, L.L., 2012) has been done. The study tested the ‘damaged goods hypothesis’ – the commonplace belief that female porn performers are more likely to have been sexually abused as children, to have psychological problems and to abuse drugs. The researchers compared self-reports from 177 porn actresses recruited via the Los Angeles’ Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation with those of a matched sample of run-of-the-mill women. Contrary to stereotypes, the study found that compared to the matched group, porn performers reported having more positive feelings, more social support, greater sexual satisfaction and, you guessed it!, higher levels of self-esteem.
Just shut up all of you
Can I be really serious for just a moment? Worrying about the psychological well-being of women who enjoy sex too much, too openly, with too many people, is slut-shaming-lite: the softer, stealthier and more insidious cousin of name-calling and bullying. To attribute deviant sexuality to a deep character flaw is to deploy an insult that masquerades as concern, whether feigned or sincere. It might seem nicer than telling the slut she’ll burn in hell, but it still won’t make her feel good. More to the point, it probably won’t be true.
Walsh, A. (1991) Self-Esteem and Sexual Behaviour: Exploring Gender Differences, Sex Roles. Vol 25, No. 7/8.
Cullen, D. & Gotell, L. (2002) From Orgasms to Organisations: Maslow, Women’s Sexuality and the Gendered Foundations of the Needs Hierarchy. Gender, Work and Organization, Vol. 9, No. 5.
Griffith, J. D., Mitchell, S., Hart, C.L., Adams L.T & Gu, L.L. (2012): Pornography Actresses: An Assessment of the Damaged Goods Hypothesis. Journal of Sex Research, 0 (0).
Shoveller, J.A., Johnson, J.L., Langille, D.B., Mitchell, T. (2004) Socio-cultural influences on young people’s sexual development. Social Science & Medicine 59.
Shoveller, J.A. & Johnson, J.L. (2006) Risky groups, risky behaviour, and risky persons: Dominating discourses on youth sexual health. Critical Public Health 16(1).
Wild, L.G., Flisher, A.J., Bhana, A.A. & Lombard, C. (2004). Associations among adolescent risk behaviours and self-esteem in six domains. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45:8.
Mark R Leary, M.R. &Tangney, J.P (eds) (2005) Handbook of Self and Identity, The Guilford Press: London.