Casual Sex and Self-esteem (password-protected)

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about casual sex and ways in which people engage in it – specifically healthy vs unhealthy ways to engage in it within non-monogamous communities. In the past I’ve had a tendency to engage in it in an unhealthy way, so this is in part my reflection on that experience and in part a series of observations I’ve made about others. Let me state straightaway that I know casual sex can be an awesome and I certainly do see people engaging in it in an empowering way that has little to do with their self-image or their opinion of or feeling about themselves. However, I’ve noticed more and more that there is a tendency within (non-monogamous) communities to link self-esteem to the ability to have (casual) sex* (and to what extent one has it). People have generally told me one of the following:

1) “I don’t have high enough self-esteem to pursue having the casual sex that I want to have,” and

2) “I’m feeling bad about myself and my level of attractiveness right now for “X” reason, so I’m going to prop up my sense of self-worth with the people who find me attractive by having casual sex with them. This will help me feel more attractive and therefore better about myself,” or

3) “I’m not having casual sex with anyone these days/recently, so I must be unattractive.” I suck, woe is me, etc.

*For the purposes of this blogpost I consider casual sex to be sex taking place with people one is not in a formalised, committed agreed partnership-type relationship with (whatever you choose to call that: boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, partner, etc.)

All of the above concern me and make me sad, particularly in the case of friends who I adore and think the world of. Interestingly enough, I rarely see the phenomenon (amongst my non-monogamous circles) of someone’s self-esteem taking a nosedive after having lots of casual sex, which goes well against what you’d read about the matter in mainstream media. In fact there have been a number of studies done recently in which the assertion that casual sex causes low self-esteem has been thoroughly debunked. More recently there have been articles coming out in some mainstream media advocating about the benefits of casual sex (I like Stanley Seigel’s “Why I advocate for casual sex”) However I certainly know people who’ve gone through self destructive periods of having casual sex – engaging in it as a form of self-harm. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with casual sex in and of itself, but it seems easy for many to engage in it destructively, particularly in the context of non-monogamous communities.

Recently I had a eureka moment about why I haven’t had much casual sex recently. I used to have a lot of it, up until a couple of months before I entered into two serious partnership-level relationships. For a while, I thought this shift had come about due to a sudden lack of time to pursue casual dalliances. However I realised that I also stopped having casual sex because I used it (in part) as a way to prop up my self-esteem, and wanted to get out of the pattern of doing so. This seemed unfair both to myself and those I was sleeping with, so I made a semi-conscious choice to change my strategy. I knew I was in danger of developing some very harmful habits so I removed myself from those… opportunities. Also, I knew that my many casual pursuits were not giving me time or energy to pursue more substantial relationships, so I consciously decided (to some extent) to table having casual sex for an indefinite period. I also wanted to get my head screwed on properly again, to the point that I would know that any sex I was having was not linked to my self-esteem. I can now pretty safely say my self-esteem has nothing to do with my sex partners/romantic relationships, or vice versa.

Why, exactly, was it problematic for my sense of self worth to be propped up by my casual sexual relationships? Being propped up meant being dependent on other people for my sense of self and my sense of worth. It meant that my self esteem came from external sources and presences, all of which were ultimately temporary (as all things in life are). Again, it is not casual sex in and of itself (as a phenomenon or an activity) that is “bad” but rather it being used as a vehicle of unhealthy dependency on others as well as a potential distraction from dealing with bigger issues. This seems to be an easy dependency to develop in non-monogamous communities, where most of us are allowed to have sex with others, and many of us are allowed to have as much sex with as many people as we want or can. It’s an easy and acceptable way to act out our insecurities and fears about ourselves. (NB: I could certainly also write a post about the link between self-esteem and partners/relationships more generally within poly/-non-monogamous communities. It’s just that the casual sex link is one I observe more often and more obviously.)

Occasionally I have really missed casual sex (mainly the intimacy I had within a circle of friends) but I haven’t missed it as much as I suspected I would. It was difficult, at first, when I realised some of my casual partners wanted nothing more committed than that with me (as in, even a friendship). Furthermore, not having as much casual sex has often left me feeling a bit like an outsider in my own community, because I see so many people pursuing it. I don’t see anything morally wrong with it and I’ve always been a bit of a hedonist, so seriously, what’s wrong with me now for not wanting it all the time like I used to? Am I not sex positive enough? I’ve also talked to a couple of other friends of mine who’ve constantly questioned whether they’re “open” enough in their relationship to fit into a non-monogamous community. This is also another strange way in which self-esteem and casual sex (and the desire to have it, or lack thereof) are linked.

One thing I can say though: I don’t actually regret any of the casual sex I’ve had. Engaging in it was a decision I made fully and consciously as a necessary way to explore my sexuality after a long drought. It helped me figure out what I wanted and what I didn’t want, and it helped me have a sharper and clearer understanding about consent and negotiation (again, how to do it and how not to do it!). I met and had sex and casual relationships with wonderful people who I still consider friends and people I very much trust and admire (and honestly would probably have sex with again in the right situation). More recently my interest in casual sex has been piqued again, but I’m dipping my toe into it, as it were, in a more thoughtful way than I have before. My contemplation of it is still very much a work in progress, so I would appreciate any thoughts about this from my readers.

8 thoughts on “Casual Sex and Self-esteem (password-protected)

  1. I very much agree. I’m watching a couple people I know run through a lot of casual sex experiences and I’m wondering if it’s masking something for them. For the record I also know many people who pursue casual sex actively and healthily. I also find it frustrating when there’s an expectation that I should want casual sex. More and more I find myself wanting to not engage that way for many reasons. Right now I’m working on setting my own standards and sticking to them. That includes quality of partners as well as what I’m really looking for in my sexual experiences.

  2. Thanks for writing this. One way of looking at it might be to examine how all sex–and the discourse surrounding it–is to some extent or another linked to self-esteem. I have this thing where when my self-esteem takes a nose-dive, I will end up getting myself into abusive partnership-relationships when I actually don’t want this to happen. It’s something I’m trying to work on, and I’m aware of it

  3. What a thought-provoking post! I can relate to so many of the experiences and emotions you mention, and have seen some of the examples you mention in others too. I’m now in a similar place to you, I think, and have been looking at what I want and need from sex and relationships. Parties I used to go to hold no interest now, and people I used to spend time with in casual situations have drifted away. I now need stronger connections, but I don’t have any regrets and am not about to judge others either. Thanks for giving me some food for thought.

  4. Really interesting post – it’s something I have thought about a lot (being a massive fan of casual sex in many of its forms). I haven’t noticed a particular difference between monogamous and non-monogamous communities in this regard, all three points you mentioned above have been said to me by serial monogamists ‘getting about’ between relationships and yes, they are upsetting.

    For me, casual sex is just another recreational pursuit (like going out to dinner or the movies with someone) and is not particularly linked to my self-esteem any more than those activities. It was an important lesson for me to learn that not everyone feels this way and I have attempted to become a lot less cavalier about it.

  5. I pretty much stopped doing casual sex very early in life as I realised a couple of things. I can’t do unemotional sex, it is always in some level about feeling wanted and the other person has to respect me as a person not just see me as a body in which to put things. And for too many partners that’s exactly what casual sex was, a more enjoyable form of masturbation with a really convincing sex doll that could then be chucked away. But even when it wasn’t my level of emotional need for being desired and approved of always put me in a dangerous position. These days I just don’t want it, it feels liked being used. It’s all tangled up with not feeling like people want to be in a relationship with me, they just want to take the sex and run.

  6. Great point on how one’s self-esteem can be externally modulated, and why this is a threat to well-being. There’s a huge amount of variation from one person to another there – we’re all social animals, but we can rely more or less on others for validating ourselves. I wonder how your effort to make your sense of self-worth independent from other people may have shaped the development of your non-casual relationships – and whether being in a position to break that dependence was itself dependent on feeling secure enough in yourself from other endeavours?

    Having gone through cycles of (inadvertently) making my self-worth dependent on others, losing it (as you pointed out, all is temporary), then finding the next — seemingly not depending on others — thing to prop it up with, only for the cycle to start again, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with the idea that it can truly be independent. I’m beginning to feel that resilience – how to cope when you have lost part of your sense of self-worth – is at least as important for health as reduction – making less of it dependent on external factors. It’s not a pleasant lesson to swallow though.

  7. “Essentially, there is nothing wrong with casual sex in and of itself, but it seems easy for many to engage in it destructively” – you could replace ‘casual sex’ in this sentence with any number of things; food, alcohol, exercise, gaming, falling in love, using social media… I am only being slightly flippant 😉 Context is all; our behaviour is shaped by and reflects what’s going on inside our heads, but two people can behave almost identically while having completely different personal understandings of what they’re doing and why. Add this to the impossibility of ever truly knowing what most other people are thinking, and it’s very easy to look at someone else’s behaviour and think ‘ah, that’s healthy’ or ‘oh dear, that’s unhealthy’ and get it totally wrong. People = complicated.

    • Oh, I completely agree, Polly. The context by which I judge a particular behaviour as “destructive” or not is when the person who engages in that behaviour tells me that they experience it as such. I would never assume otherwise 🙂

      And I completely agree you could replace casual sex with any number of other things – I was just focusing on it in this post because I deal with similar topics in this blog and because I’d had a number of discussions with various friends on the topic recently and people seemed keen to hear my thoughts on the matter, for some strange reason 😉

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