Sunday, 10 February 2013

Sex, Lies and Self-Esteem

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It seems to be accepted truth that low self-esteem drives women to self-destructive, self-defeating sexual behaviour. Evidence and experience suggest otherwise. Assuming self-esteem issues in a perfectly happy, sexually adventurous woman is yet another brick in the wall we build around women’s sexuality and independence.

I was subject, the other week, to something of an intervention. The intervener was a dewy-eyed nurse I’d met two weeks prior in the fresh produce section of a suburban Woolworths. I had been leafing through some recipe magazine when he approached me, armed with a bag of apples and a battery of inoffensive questions. What was I up to? What job did I have? And say, what did I do in my spare time? I could perceive both his struggle with nerves and, through the thin cotton of his t-shirt, his excellent pectorals, so I cut straight to the end game. “Would you like my number?” I asked. His hand trembled as he keyed it into his phone.  

It took one-and-a-half dates for the yawning chasm between our sexual and romantic styles to become fully apparent. I wanted to hang out, share a meal, and possibly engage in an animalistic exchange of bodily fluids. He wanted to protect me, to never, ever hurt me, and to spend hours with his rigid tongue plunged deep into my mouth, moving mechanically up and down like a malfunctioning drawbridge. We talked it over and concluded, together, that although we got on well, there was no point in taking things any further. He hugged me for an intolerably long time, and then he left.   

A week later the Supermarket Guy asked me to meet him for coffee and ‘a talk,’ a request I initially attributed to my Salomé-like powers of sexual attraction. His actual entreaty was that I seek psychological help. The apparent problem was my unrepentant sluttiness: an unmistakable marker of low self-worth and a defect which prevented me from experiencing true intimacy. I needn’t worry though, he told me, because he’d spoken with his own therapist to get things in train. She wasn’t willing to treat me herself, but she was working, already, on finding someone who would. He’d mentioned that money might be a bit tight for me, and that he’d be willing to pay for the first year of my treatment. His therapist had nixed that idea – I really had to ‘own it’ myself.  

When I recount this tale to friends, they tend to respond indignantly, flapping their arms about and raising their voices. Supermarket Guy, they declare, is a massively presumptuous tool of a man bedecked in a tangled mass of red flags. He’s a dodged bullet, a boundary-crossing control freak, an unwanted import from NFI-land. 

I can see where they’re coming from, but I can’t bring myself to condemn him quite so harshly. The way I see it, it’s understandable, almost excusable, that a well-intentioned man might interpret my behaviour, not through a rigorous program of systematic observation and hypothesis-testing, but by drawing on a pre-prepared cultural store of ideas about promiscuous women. A kind of ‘slut heuristics’, if you will. If there’s one thing that everyone just knows about women who charge below market rates for their milk, it’s that they don’t think much of themselves. This condemns them to an endless bed-to-bed search for the next hit of feeling wanted. Since that feeling is ephemeral and fleeting, the slut’s ultimate quest – to be loved – is tragically doomed. For those keen to reduce their cognitive load, this handy narrative is always just one simple mental shortcut away.

If my Supermarket Guy had instead remembered to apply a hypothetico-deductive model, what might he have found? In my particular case, the opinions of friends, results of my self-administered Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, and any extended observation of my general demeanour, all lead to the same conclusion: on the self-esteem spectrum, I place somewhere between ‘endearingly’ and ‘insufferably’ arrogant. Consistent with academic psychology’s general consensus that self-esteem is a stable character trait, I’ve always had a high opinion of myself. The first phrase I ever uttered was ‘Let me do it!’ because, aged two, I was already convinced that my competence exceeded that of my fully-grown and tertiary-educated parents. Having since mastered béchamel sauce, blowjobs and the your/you’re distinction, my self-regard has grown into something truly monstrous.

Tricksy teens

But what of floozies who aren’t me? Let us now turn to the research literature! Studies on sexual behaviour and self-esteem can be neatly divided into two categories: those that deal with young people, and those relating to adults. We’ll start with those tricksy teenagers, who’ve been subject to a whole raft of studies as part of the technocratic quest to see that no-one, anywhere, ever again might suffer a ‘bad outcome’.  It should surprise absolutely nobody that this body of research focuses exclusively on ‘risky’ teen sex, which is taken to include not only genuinely dicey acts (sex without a condom), but also undesirable outcomes (teen pregnancy, STI contraction) and things that will often turn out to have been incredibly hot and perfectly safe (sex at 15, or having had more than one sexual partner). For an added bonus, these risky sexual behaviours are often lumped in with a whole grab-bag of Very Bad Things Teenagers Do, like having an eating disorder, abusing drugs and killing themselves. The hypothesis driving most of these studies is that these risky and bad behaviours are linked to low self-esteem. Moreover, although few are actually designed to allow for conclusions about the direction of causation, the assumption that low self-esteem causes risky behaviour is often implicit. 

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. 

Loose ladies

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. 

Ultra Hedonist

Ultrahedonist is an everyday office worker. She loves pleasure and even-handedness and wishes we could all just get along.

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