Sex and Our Psychological Needs

There’s a fundamental assumption a lot of us make about sex that often causes a lot of skewed perceptions about why we’re not getting the sex/love we want.

Men have a tendency to make the assumption that sex itself is a need, regardless of who (or what) it comes from. Women have a tendency to assume that sex can only be a form of intimacy/love. Both of these are wrong, and they both get a lot of people into trouble in their relationships.

But to explain why, I need to explain psychological needs.

Psychological Needs and Strategies

All humans possess fundamental psychological needs. If we do not meet our psychological needs, we suffer, sometimes severely. Just like we need food, shelter, and sleep to survive, we also need to fulfill our psychological needs to remain mentally healthy and stable.

Psychologists have studied a number of psychological needs, but you can really narrow them down to four fundamental needs: security,1 self-esteem,2 autonomy,3 and connection.4 To be happy, stable people, we need to meet all four of these needs consistently. If we are not meeting these needs, our minds will actually begin to rationalize ways to get them met, even at the expense of our physical or mental health. If one is never able to meet their need for esteem, they will become chronically depressed and sometimes commit suicide. If one never meets their need for autonomy, they will fall into a state of codependence or learned helplessness.

Woman in shower

On top of psychological needs, we have psychological and social strategies to meet those needs. Some strategies are more abstract and some are obvious. For instance, sports fulfill our needs for connection, and if we win, for esteem. A healthy family unit can provide for our needs of connection, esteem and security. Learning martial arts can fulfill our needs for security and esteem. Getting good at math to impress our teacher can fulfill our need for esteem. Experimenting with drugs can fulfill our need for autonomy and connection. So on and so on.

So here’s the doozy:

Sex is a strategy we use to meet our psychological needs and not a need itself.

How do we know this? Because there is no evidence that celibacy or asexuality is actually physically or psychologically unhealthy. You don’t die from not having enough sex. In fact, there are many health risks because of sex. One could even argue that there are psychological and health benefits from not having sex.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have sex (I’m the last one who should argue that). In fact, sex is great. Sex is awesome. Sex makes us happier and healthier people. I’m simply pointing out that it is not a biological/psychological need, but rather simply another drive.

On the other hand, if psychological needs go unmet for long periods of time, it will absolutely fuck us up physically and psychologically. People develop neuroses, addictions, and even delusions to get their needs met. Research shows that social isolation is more harmful than alcoholism or smoking.5 Depression and stress are related with all sorts of terrible physical issues.

No one ever killed themselves because they were too horny. They do it because of a lack of connection or self-esteem.

The idea of sex as a strategy to meet psychological needs sounds weird to many because sex is also a physiological drive, like eating or sleeping. But unlike eating or sleeping, you can go your whole life without sex and not be any worse off for it.

The fact is, as humans, we’ve actually evolved to use sex to meet our psychological needs, not our physical needs.

Men and Women And Differing Needs

Much of the mismatched understanding between men and women and sex comes from the fact that men and women usually use sex to satisfy different needs. Traditionally, a woman’s best route to a secure future and healthy children was through marrying a successful man. In the past, women mainly sought sex out as a form of security. Even today, there’s still a lot of appeal in a man who can provide a secure, stable environment for a woman.

Women have also suffered a history of having their sexuality shamed and suppressed by society. Therefore, many of them have come to feel an inverse relationship between sex and their need for esteem. Instead, they’re far more likely to use sex to seek out their need for connection, since they’ve been conditioned to feel bad about themselves for having sex for other reasons.

Men, on the other hand, have traditionally used their sex lives as a status symbol with other men. If you’re a man who sleeps with a lot of women, you’re usually seen as a more successful man. Therefore, men have largely been conditioned to seek sex to fulfill their need for self-esteem.

Because men and women have traditionally pursued sex to fill different psychological needs, they fail to understand each other and criticize each other for not meeting the need they want met. Men think women are being clingy and manipulative, whereas women think men are being insecure and desperate.

Man and women sitting on opposite sides of bed with backs facing each other

In my book on dating for men, a core point I make is that men need to develop themselves independently of women to get their needs met on their own as much as possible. I would argue the same goes for women. Pursuing sex to compensate for your neediness in self-esteem or because you feel a lack of connection in your life will only cause you to behave in unattractive ways. End of story.

Once you’re able to meet your psychological needs with a variety of sources in your life (healthy family life, social life, professional life, etc.), then you can pursue sex from a place of power and abundance (attractive) and not from a place of neediness and desperation (unattractive).

Men and women get caught up in their own needs and then project those needs onto everyone around them. Women see men as cold and brutish because they expect them to have the same need for connection that they have. Men see women as manipulative and deceitful because they assume women use sex as a tool for self-esteem like they do. In both cases, they’re wrong and mischaracterizing the people lying naked in front of them.

Sex, Attachment, and Our Psychological Needs

Humans have evolved a psychological system of emotional attachment. Totally involuntary yet universal, regardless of culture, age or race, we get deeply and strongly emotionally attached to one another throughout our lives. It starts with a child to its parents. And assuming our parents don’t fuck it up too much, that attachment moves beyond our parents and onto some (not all) of our sexual partners. The rise in oxytocin, serotonin, drop in testosterone levels, decreased prefrontal cortex activity — these processes are designed to get us drunk on love with each other long enough to at least raise a highly functioning, healthy child or two (or ten).

Abstract painting of a couple

And so while sex is absolutely a physiological function, and in some ways it’s no different than eating or crapping, evolution has intertwined our drive for sex (note: a drive, not a need) with our psychological needs for esteem and connection. They’re intimately linked. And they can’t be unlinked. Even if one manages to suppress those needs, they come roaring back in the forms of neediness and overcompensation.

That’s why even the most cold-hearted player eventually has an emotional implosion, usually at the most unexpected time. That’s why women want to be romanced and swept off their feet. It’s why we keep going on date after frustrating date with nothing to show for it. That’s why overuse of pornography makes you feel like a loser, because while you’re getting off, you’re just reminding yourself that you’re not good enough (esteem) to be loved (connection).

It’s about emotional needs, psychological needs.

Sex is not like eating, because a) you don’t die without it, and b) it’s inevitably an emotional experience when you have it. Nature has cleverly wired us this way — to put our psychological needs first and then use sex to fulfill them in order to trick us into sticking around and taking care of one another. Sure, we may still try to get a little sumthin’ sumthin’ on the side now and again. And sure, when we break up and feel crappy, we may go on a little sex spree to feel good about ourselves.

But that’s just it. It’s not about the sex, it’s about how we feel about ourselves. That’s the way nature made it. And it’s not changing any time soon.

  1. The human need for security can be seen from the evolutionary view in Buss (1996); from the psychodynamic view in Becker (1973), Freud (1909/1961), Erikson (1959/1980), Horney (1950) , and Psszczynski et al. (1997); and from the humanistic view in Maslow (1954) and Rogers (1961).
  2. The need for self esteem can be seen from the cybernetic-cognitive view in Bandura (1977), Carver and Scheier (1982), and Locke and Latham (1990); from the psychodynamic view in Erikson (1959/1980), Murray (1938), and White (1959),; from social psychologists in Aronson (1992), Epstein (1990), and Solomon et al. (1991); and from the humanistic view in Deci and Ryan (1985, 1991), Maslow (1954), and Rogers (1961).
  3. The need for autonomy can be found in Bakan (1966), Csikszentmihalyi (1997, 1999), deCharms (1968), Deci and Ryan (1985, 1991), Laing (1960), Maslow (1954), May (1967), and Rogers (1961).
  4. The need for connection can be seen from the evolutionary point of view in Bowlby (1969/1982), and Buss (1996); from psychodynamic and object relations theorists in Bakan (1966), Erikson (1959/1980), and Greenburg and Mitchell (1983); from social psychology by Baumeister and Leary (1995), Epstein (1990), Hazan and Shaver (1987), McAdams and Bryant (1987), and Reis and Patrick (1996); and from humanists in Deci and Ryan (1985, 1991), Maslow (1954), and Rogers (1961).
  5. House, J. S. (2001). Social isolation kills, but how and why? Psychosomatic Medicine, 63(2), 273–274.
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