Sex and Our Psychological Needs

Last week’s don’t-fuck-up-your-dating-life trilogy (here, here and here) was received with a lot of enthusiasm, much more than I expected. I even received a number of emails from men who, within days, implemented some of the principles in those posts by ending toxic relationships they had been maintaining with women, or finally establishing some solid boundaries.

But there was a little bit of criticism as well. And I have to admit I was taken aback by it at first. I’m used to criticism, but the lesson of these posts seemed to me so self-evident that I was surprised people were arguing against it. Most of their counterarguments came down to some form of generalizing women as being different or advantaged in dating/sexual situations.

Although I don’t believe this for a minute, it did get me thinking about an assumption a lot of men make about women and sex. I’ve seen this assumption pop up all over the place over the years and I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it or define what is necessarily wrong with it.

Until now… *cue dramatic music*

There’s a fundamental assumption a lot of men make about sex. And this assumption is often what causes a lot of skewed perceptions about women and why, as men, they’re not getting the sex/love they want.

But to explain that, 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: security1, self-esteem2, autonomy3, and connection4. 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 rationalizing 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.

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 men 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, in humans, we’ve actually evolved to relate sex to our psychological needs more than our physical ones.

Many men make the assumption that people are primarily motivated by sex, rather than by their psychological needs.

When you mistake sex for the sake of sex as the driving force behind people’s decision-making, you inevitably run into some fucked up beliefs. For example, it’s a fact that men have higher sex drives than women.6 If one believes that the fundamental reason anybody does anything is to have more sex, it follows, therefore, that men are practically being oppressed and being held prisoner by their chaste female captors.

Hence, all of the complaints about how women are so entitled and have it so easy and use men for this and that and the other. Hence, sexism and douchebags. Hence, possibly even rape.

But the fact is women don’t have it easy. They don’t have the power. They’re trying to meet the same needs we are, and struggling to do so just as we are.

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. Men think women are being clingy and manipulative, whereas women think men are being insecure and desperate.

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This is why the core point of Models is to develop yourself to get your needs met on your own as much as possible. If you are pursuing sex to compensate for your neediness in self-esteem or because you feel a lack of connection in your life, then you’re going 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.

Wait, but what About Evolution?

A surface-level knowledge of evolution makes it easy to buy into the whole “fucking everything drives all behavior” belief. But there’s another part to the evolution story that gets no air-time in men’s blogs and dating advice.

The accepted theory goes like this: Men have small costs to sleeping with a new woman, therefore they’ve evolved to have higher sex drives and be promiscuous. Women have high costs to sleeping with a new man (pregnancy, disease, death) and therefore have evolved to have more complicated sex drives and seek out more security.

This is true to an extent. But this isn’t the whole story.

Why? Because brains.

See, the human brain is massive. It gives us our intelligence and let’s us do amazing things other animals can’t do like language, technology and Harry Potter movies. But the evolutionary cost of having such awesome brains is that it takes human children far longer to develop into healthy adults.

People often compare human behavior to that of chimpanzees or bonobos, our closest primate cousins, in order to get a general idea of what “natural” human sexual behavior could be. And that can be useful. But whereas chimps and bonobos only take a few years to develop into adults and become fully self-sufficient, a human child needs care for 12-13 years before it can think for itself and feed itself. And even then, the little bastard needs another 6-8 years before it’s fully developed physically and cognitively.7

And to make matters even more complicated, it appears having just one caretaker isn’t sufficient for optimal development.8

This was a problem for nature. If we’re meant to run around and fuck each other constantly (which, by the way, we are — humans have more sex and have it more often than most other species), then what the hell are we supposed to do when these babies start popping out? Who is going to stick around and take care of them for 12 to 18 years?

Well, we are. We 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. This is innate and just as biological as wanting to bust the biggest nut inside a hot girl. 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).

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 with a woman, usually at the most unexpected time. That’s why women want to be romanced and swept off their feet. 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 by a beautiful woman (connection). That’s why the vast majority of men don’t spend all of their money on prostitutes, but instead, on going on date after frustrating date with nothing to show for it.

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 used 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.

Footnotes
  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.
  6. Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 242–273.
  7. Epstein, H. T. (2001). An outline of the role of brain in human cognitive development. Brain and Cognition, 45(1), 44–51.
  8. Fergusson DM, Boden JM, & Horwood L. (2007). Exposure to single parenthood in childhood and later mental health, educational, economic, and criminal behavior outcomes. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(9), 1089–1095.
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