Sex and Our Psychological Needs

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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:

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.

Is Sex Good for Us? What the Science Says

Sex Is Great…

  • For reproduction and the propagation of the human race (obviously).5
  • It increases emotional attachment to your partner,6 which is good for life satisfaction, emotional well-being and child rearing (provided you’ve picked the right partner.)
  • It brings various health benefits e.g. lower blood pressure,7 higher immune levels,8 lower risk of heart attack,9 lower risk of prostate cancer.10
  • It’s fucking fun.

… But Approach With Caution

  • The flipside of propagating the human race: unwanted pregnancies11
  • Risk of catching sexually transmitted infections12
  • Ejaculation weakens men’s sperms.13 Ironically, the more sex you have, the less likely you are to conceive. So, uh, slow down there, bucko.
  • Sex doesn’t only bring health benefits. It also comes with certain risks e.g. prostate cancer for men with a history of sexually transmitted infections,14 increased risk of a heart attack for men with heightened risk factors.15

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have sex (I’m the last one who would 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.16 Depression and stress are related with all sorts of terrible physical issues.17,18

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.

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    Men and Women’s 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.

    Meeting Your Psychological Needs

    Instead of mindlessly pursuing sex, you can fulfill your psychological needs with a variety of sources in your life—like family and friends to your career and personal growth. The problem is, I’ve found that most people who seek to fulfill their needs through sex do so because they don’t have healthy alternative sources in their life.

    This is where the work comes in. Sex is fun, but it’s not a good long-term solution for your self-esteem and sense of well-being. If you find yourself overly relying on sex to feel okay about yourself, then it’s time to look for other outlets. Spend more time with family members and friends who replenish your energy and make you a better person. Do activities that engage you and make you feel accomplished without the need for external validation.

    Or, if you want to dive in at the deep end, begin by questioning your values and asking yourself these thought-provoking questions to find your life purpose. These deeply personal exercises will point the way to strategies best suited to meet your psychological needs.

    Once you’re able to meet your psychological needs, 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 in our ingrained system of emotional attachment. 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).

    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 (1994), 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 Greenberg 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. Alexander, R. D., & Noonan, K. M. (1979). Concealment of ovulation, parental care, and human social evolution. In N. A. Chagnon & W. Irons (Eds.), Evolutionary biology and human social behavior: An anthropological perspective (pp. 402–435). North Scituate, MA: Duxbury Press.
    6. Birnbaum, G. E., & Finkel, E. J. (2015). The magnetism that holds us together: Sexuality and relationship maintenance across relationship development. Current Opinion in Psychology, 1, 29–33.
    7. Brody, S. (2006). Blood pressure reactivity to stress is better for people who recently had penile–vaginal intercourse than for people who had other or no sexual activity. Biological Psychology, 71(2), 214–222.
    8. Charnetski, C. J., & Brennan, F. X. (2004). Sexual Frequency and Salivary Immunoglobulin A (IgA). Psychological Reports, 94(3), 839–844.
    9. Ebrahim, S., May, M., Shlomo, Y. B., McCarron, P., Frankel, S., Yarnell, J., & Smith, G. D. (2002). Sexual intercourse and risk of ischaemic stroke and coronary heart disease: The Caerphilly study. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 56(2), 99–102.
    10. Leitzmann, M. F., Platz, E. A., Stampfer, M. J., Willett, W. C., & Giovannucci, E. (2004). Ejaculation Frequency and Subsequent Risk of Prostate Cancer. JAMA, 291(13), 1578–1586.
    11. A study published in 2020 found that though unintended pregnancy has been decreasing since 1990, this still occurred at a global rate of 64 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-49 years between 2015-2019.
    12. The World Health Organization reports that more than 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired every day worldwide.
    13. Carlsen, E., Petersen, J. H., Andersson, A.-M., & Skakkebaek, N. E. (2004). Effects of ejaculatory frequency and season on variations in semen quality. Fertility and Sterility, 82(2), 358–366.
    14. Dennis, L. K., & Dawson, D. V. (2002). Meta-Analysis of Measures of Sexual Activity and Prostate Cancer. Epidemiology, 13(1), 72–79.
    15. Thorson, A. I. (2003). Sexual Activity and the Cardiac Patient. The American Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, 12(1), 38–40.
    16. House, J. S. (2001). Social isolation kills, but how and why? Psychosomatic Medicine, 63(2), 273–274.
    17. Moussavi, S., Chatterji, S., Verdes, E., Tandon, A., Patel, V., & Ustun, B. (2007). Depression, chronic diseases, and decrements in health: Results from the World Health Surveys. The Lancet, 370(9590), 851–858.
    18. Thoits, P. A. (2010). Stress and Health: Major Findings and Policy Implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl), S41–S53.