Does Sex Increase Your Self Esteem?

Does Sex Increase Your Self Esteem?

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In my book Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, I make the point that most interpersonal behaviors are not intrinsically “good” or “bad” for our emotional/social health by themselves, but rather the intention and motivation determines whether a particular behavior is good for us and our relationships or not.

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.

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34 Comments

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  • Reply

    Kevin

    3 months ago

    If a guy has started hooking up with more women in order to work on old baggage and build his self-esteem, how can he tell when he’s ‘done’ and enough is enough?

    I’m getting to a point where sometimes I’m thinking, “Okay, I think I’ve been with enough women/desirable women (and it didn’t even take being with that many people), that I don’t have anything more to prove to myself. I know I’m not some hopeless loser now. I think it’s time to shift my focus to finding one really great girl to have a relationship with”

    But at other times I’ll catch myself thinking, “Well I’ve accomplished a lot and all, but maybe I should rack up a few more notches before I *really* feel satisfied with myself. Maybe if I can hook up with an even hotter girl than I ever have, I’ll feel *extra* good about yourself.”

    What I’m not sure about is are those second types of thoughts something I should take at face value and not worry about it if I still have some oats to sow, or are they a sign that I may be getting sucked into a trap where it will never be enough, and I’ll always feel I need more and more?

    If it’s the later, are they something I need to force myself past in order to get into a more serious, long-term relationship?

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      Settling down and choosing a relationship is not a logical decision. When you find a woman worth doing it with, it will be undeniable and the casual sex will no longer feel worth it. The fact that you are asking these questions should tell you that you’re fine. Just keep paying attention to what’s going on inside you.

      • Reply

        Kevin

        3 months ago

        Thanks. Makes sense; don’t sweat it too much, the right path will present itself, as long as I stay self-aware.

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          3 months ago

          Yeah, just stay skeptical and keep questioning your beliefs and feelings and you’ll eventually steer yourself right.

  • Reply

    Danny

    3 months ago

    My own experience run similar. In all my years I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had someone express attraction towards me (a girl in middle school that I could not stand, a life long friend that I didn’t even realize was attracted to me until years later, a woman in college that I was totally oblivious to, and a woman that I recently started dating, and a thumb to spare.)

    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.
    Im sure this is true in a lot of cases but sometimes I wonder if it’s a matter of that fear of intimacy being an expression of trying to “make up for lost time”. This man has spent a long time experiencing very little (or perhaps no) sex and/or intimacy. Could he be so ready to try to engage in as much of it as possible that he doesn’t want “get tied down”? Not that he never ever ever ever wants to experience the complexities of intimacy (which include the risk of vulnerability you mention) but that he thinks he has to get a certain amount of notches in his belt before it’s time to look for that person that he is ready to experience those complexities with?

    Also I think there might be an opposite possibility that can be just as (if not more) dangerous.

    After going so long without any form of intimacy (sexual, emotional or otherwise) when a guy finally experiences they become fearful that due to encountering it so late in life they better hold on to whatever they come across because it might be all they ever experience.

    I’m sure you’ve come across the idea of a guy wanting to marry the first woman he gets laid with right? I think this desire to get attached to the first person they experience intimacy with is a manifestation of this fear. This could also be in effect with guys that stay in abusive relationships, they have come to believe that no one would ever want them so they stay with their abusive partner.

    Mind you I could just be saying exactly what you are saying in your post and just didn’t quite see it in the way I was thinking it.

    • Reply

      jay

      3 months ago

      “After going so long without any form of intimacy (sexual, emotional or otherwise) when a guy finally experiences they become fearful that due to encountering it so late in life they better hold on to whatever they come across because it might be all they ever experience. ”

      That’s how i felt recently. Good thing i didn’t tie any knots.

      • Reply

        Mark Manson

        3 months ago

        I think that’s true up until a certain extent. Eventually the reference experiences catch up and the man’s self-perception shifts, he no longer worries about being deprived of it or not getting it back… it’s THEN that he needs to start questioning what role sex plays in his life.

        • Reply

          Danny

          3 months ago

          I think that’s true up until a certain extent.
          In short to what extent do you mean?

          (I think I have an idea what you mean by that so I’ll go with it here but feel free to correct me please.)

          The problem is though is that said guy (or woman) really doesn’t know when or IF they will catch up on those experiences so to speak (by “catch up” I take it you mean as said person will gather enough experiences that they no longer worry about deprivation anymore?).

          And even if you don’t take that into account (as in let’s assume that we can somehow say yes that at some point he will have such experiences again) that would still not eliminate the fear of never being deprived again.

          The longer the deprivation grows the harder it will be to not be worried that “this may be my only experience”.

          I’m really not trying to be difficult. I’m just trying to lay the fears out on the table.

          • Mark Manson

            3 months ago

            I understand those fears. A lot of men have them. I had them.

            But I’m saying, once you’ve accumulated enough reference experiences, that stops being a concern.

            To put it in concrete terms. A normal guy may only need to date 3-4 women by the time he’s 21 to feel pretty comfortable in his desirability. Whereas a 26-year-old virgin may have to date/sleep with 30 women before he feels comfortable and confident in it…

            But eventually, everyone gets there after a certain amount of experience. At that point, the only men who continue to be extremely promiscuous are out of habit/addiction/some deeper emotional need that they’re unaware of… or all three.

          • Danny

            3 months ago

            I dig. Yes such catch up and dropping of concern is possible. I (and I bet other folks) worry that it’s only possibility, not certainty.

            Thanks for hearing me out Mark.

  • Reply

    Brian

    3 months ago

    “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.”

    This really resonates with me as it perfectly describes my current situation. Being the youngest of 3 brothers, I always had pressure on me from my older brothers to get laid and be good with girls. That combined with culture sort of enforced this idea in my head that how many girls a guy slept with was some sort of competition, and if you weren’t good at it, you were inferior.

    • Reply

      Stu

      3 months ago

      I can relate to this. I feel very inadequate at the moment, despite getting a ton of admiration from my friends/colleagues for my professional life, hobbies and lifestyle. It seems like sex is the last piece of the puzzle, or maybe it’s just the last piece of the puzzle in my head.

  • Reply

    Jack

    3 months ago

    I’m probably in the category where it would help my self esteem (26 y/o, still a virgin) and I know that what follows will sound like I’m over thinking this ( ’cause I am), but I just have to write that out before going to bed.

    First, I’m doubtful that just “breaking the seal” would do much for my self esteem sexually.. or I should say sexual confidence, since I think self esteem is more tied to how highly (or not) I think of myself in general, an not in a specific context (which is sex/girls/dating in our case).

    I’m doubtful because, well, it took me 26 years to get laid once… it might take me 26 years to get laid once again… but, I’ll trust Mark on that, he knows more than I do.

    Second, let’s say that I’d go out 2-3 times a week (already what I do…) and make it a point to meet girls so I can finally take one home/on dates in the goal to raise my self esteem by loosing my virginity/become sexually active (or online dating in the same goal)… is the motivation behind it healthy? (I think that’s one part of the overthinking here)

    I mean, of course I want to be sexually active, like pretty much every human on earth. But it often feels like that it would be my only motivation… wanting to have sex because it’s sex and because it would make me feel better about myself… not because I enjoy the company of the girl, or because I actually feel like I want to.

    On the other side, if I want to meet girls that I enjoy the company of, and who I want to have sex with (at this point in my life, it happened a few times (and it usually seems somewhat reciprocal), but “I screwed it up” before getting to that point… things like, her friends taking her away, or not having the courage to bring her home…) …. where was I, too much parenthesis… oh yhea, so… if I want to meet girls I have to make it a point to talk to them.

    I mean, I go out 2-3 night a week, but I rarely speak with women, most of the time, I’m just having fun with friends, saying stupid things while slowly getting drunk (that’s a lot of fun… but… ).. sometime I talk to women, but it rarely ever gives something.

    But I figure that what Mark quoted at the beginning of the article is pretty true

    “There’s a saying that sex is like food, it’s only a big deal when you’re not getting enough of it.”

    I guess I wouldn’t even think about this if I was having sex. I guess I would just go about my day, do what I want, and talk with girls when I go out to figure out if I want anything to do with them.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      Yeah, you are overthinking it, and you probably wouldn’t be writing all of this if you were having sex.

  • Reply

    SexyBack

    3 months ago

    Great article Mark.

  • Reply

    Tony

    3 months ago

    Thanks a lot for the Input Mark.

  • Reply

    Jack

    3 months ago

    ” 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.”

    I’d like to make the point that its not just that the sensation is like a drug, it is caused by a drug and that dopamine system is the same “reward” system that is stimulated by drugs like ecstasy.

  • Reply

    Jean

    3 months ago

    doesn’t matter, had sex!

  • Reply

    Stu

    3 months ago

    Do you think that the pursuit of sex can be very unhealthy? I realize that’s a slightly different topic , but I have found that in the last 6-8 months, all I’ve really thought about is how I can change myself such that I will be able to seduce women. I feel as though I have lost touch with my “real self” and have been trying to be something I am not to be more appealing to women.

    In this circumstance, I suppose it would be better to stop trying so hard? To instead focus on being honest in every situation I can, as you recommend in your book?

    • Reply

      Danny

      3 months ago

      Do you think that the pursuit of sex can be very unhealthy?
      Personally I think that all depends on the motive behind the pursuit.

      • Reply

        Stu

        3 months ago

        Right, yes, of course. Any my motivations are seemingly because I think it will make me happy. This I don’t think is possible.

  • Reply

    Noam

    3 months ago

    Mark, great post as per usual. Question concerning your points on the example you provided of the guy getting walked over by women the pushing his sexual confidence zone (i.e. a great deal of PUAs).

    You wrote: “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.”

    I went down this path but ultimately after having sex with 3 women from 0, I saw how depressed and actually miserable I was, and that sex wasn’t the answer. I’m finding more a solution in handling the emotions and focusing on myself first before even considering dating which, combined with therapy, has had an intensely positive effect on my life.

    Do you have any comments on how else a guy can compensate for that feeling of unworthiness rather than sexual validation? Seems as though approving of yourself and life first and using therapy to get down to your emotions and “emotional map” are the best bet.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      It sounds like your feelings of inadequacy go deeper than just women. Count yourself lucky that you realized this so early.

      • Reply

        Noam

        3 months ago

        Man, I do. You should see some of the stories of married guys posting their issues on the No More Mr. Nice Guy forums, not fun.

        • Reply

          jay

          3 months ago

          Any specific thread in mind that blew you away? I’ve been there a couple of times when I read the book. Things have been busier on my end, and haven’t gone back in a while. I finished the book though, but I want to re-read it again. >.<

          • Noam

            3 months ago

            I’m actually working on a dating plan that’s highly recommended over there… Get the emotional stuff and your handled first, then go to dating. Removing yourself from dating is tough, but man I wouldn’t look back. I thought I NEEDED women for happiness and my loneliness was the reason for my sadness, well now I selectively have no women or sex and have never been happier in my entire life. The plan with some links is here: http://www.nomoremrniceguy.com/forums/showpost.php?p=274976&postcount=32

  • Reply

    brandon

    2 months ago

    what about in terms of a committed relationship? how do you distinguish between your normal desire for sex with the partner you’re with to meet your needs in the relationship over desiring sex with your partner for something to be added to your self esteem? or are those two both in the same? I’ve had a couple relationships where our values on sex have been different, I want it freuently, them not so much, and it always takes the tune that I am the one who has a probably wanting to have sex, that I even have that as a need, that it’s not necessary for the health of our relationship with other good things present. I don’t believe that’s true, but I scrutinize my own beliefs on the chance that maybe I am wrong.

  • Reply

    Abhijeet

    1 month ago

    I am a married guy and had a troubld relation with my mother and several other girls in my past before marriage today i feel more hunger for sex as ofcourse not satisfied with my wife as i got married more under socio cultural pressures n ofcourse not believing on my own feelings but the point is today i feel miserable frustrated have lost the health charm n glow that i had please would appreciate your help!!

  • Reply

    Abhijeet

    1 month ago

    Still waiting cor ur reply !

  • Reply

    Abhijeet

    1 month ago

    As u wish !

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