Self Esteem and Sex: The Link Between Marketability and Teenage Promiscuity

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships




Casual sex, or multiple sexual partners, is not something women are praised for. Indeed the insults flung at us are generally the most vile around sexuality. When we choose to engage in casual sex, we are assumed to be broken, to have low self worth. Because, “No self respecting woman would sleep with that many people.” Right? 

But things are not as clear cut as they seem. There are a number of reasons for such behaviors and this is a blog not a semester long course in human reproduction. If it were I couldn’t drop the F bomb nearly as frequently. But I digress. 

Don’t misunderstand me; some women do have low self esteem. Many of those women also tend towards higher rates of sexual behaviors, including more partners, and sex at younger ages. 

But all sex is not created equal. Let’s take a ride. (That's what she said.)

Sociosexuality and Self Worth Assessment 

Whether self esteem is related to sexual behaviors at all may be at least partially related to sociosexuality, or a stable personality orientation towards casual sex.  Those who are more sociosexually unrestrained don’t tend to see casual sex as dirty. They may get more aroused with novel individuals and they may likewise engage in sexual activity without a need for emotional connection or commitments. And these individuals, male and female alike, actually tend to have higher self esteem following casual sex encounters4

Not that this should come as a huge shock. Sex is good for us. We hear about it all the time. It improves circulation, regulates hormones and gives us bursts of endorphins, particularly if we have a…ahem…skilled partner. What we don’t like to hear is that sometimes young people engage for this same reason. 

But this isn’t about that. This is about why some women without this unrestrained sociosexual element might find themselves seeking casual sex or sex at an early age.

There may be a very good biological reason for this. It turns out that how we see ourselves will determine the most effective and evolutionarily relevant mating strategy. And in some cases, self esteem may be irrelevant, or at least irrelevant as a causal factor, despite what we are led to believe by popular opinion. 

What we see around us can lead us to do all kinds of things that don’t seem to make sense or that make us feel guilty within our current environment of “sex as shameful.” 

But it doesn’t all have to be about the guilt. It doesn’t even have to be about self esteem. Let’s start with the whole evolution thing, and why we assume that those who sleep around must certainly feel badly about themselves.

Effective Mating Strategies Across Time: Evolutionary Links Between Low Self Esteem and Promiscuity

In the past, we have discussed the idea that our mating strategies evolved to be highly flexible and can change at the drop of a hat to fit a new environment. Here’s a quick review from Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal5

  • Strategy 1: Find one partner and settle down, as they will provide resources for you and your child (usually reserved for the most highly marketable individuals).
  • Strategy 2: Find a number of different partners and secure smaller amounts of provisioning from each of them. This is useful in environments where men are accepted as promiscuous (cough, cough, America cough, cough) and as such, where women cannot expect any of them to provide solely for her or their offspring. Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan notes that women who see man as promiscuous (or being unwilling to invest in one women and family) are more likely to be sexually promiscuous themselves6
  • Strategy 3: Mate with an attractive man at ovulation and trick a higher wage earner into thinking that the offspring is his, which may explain why Wright’s research found that  women are more willing to trade financial resources for looks in short-term relationships  that they don’t believe will last.

Now all of these are viable reproductive strategies. Even outside of reproduction, today, many women choose to sleep with larger numbers of men because it’s fun, because they don’t believe it is an activity reserved for men or because we are much more highly aroused by novel parters than we ever are by the same one. All valid points. But evolution favors certain strategies above others at certain phases of the life cycle and in certain situations. 

Evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers believes that teenage girls actively (though subconsciously) adjust their reproductive strategy based on how they see their own assets7. According to Trivers, the less attractive a teenage girl perceives herself to be,  the more advantageous it is to sleep with more men. This way, she secures a little bit of provisioning from each as she believes a higher status male is unlikely to choose her (strategy number 2 above). This low self worth may be the result of media pandering which informs her that she isn’t “good enough” or from broken attachments with caregivers, though it is usually a combination of factors. 

As a general rule of thumb, most studies indicate that those who have higher numbers of sexual parters have lower self worth than those with fewer partners. In one study of teenagers aged fourteen to nineteen, those who had lower self worth had sex earlier and had riskier partners3. This study also found that those with more emotional distress tended to have more partners and a history of STDs. While researchers noted that self esteem was related to more unprotected sex and emotional distress to more partners, it is not hard to see those items as linked together in a web of self worth, sexual expression, emotional upheaval and mental health issues. 

This is our standard belief in this country: that girls who are promiscuous are trying to fill a void of low self esteem with as much penis as they can get their hands on. Because surely that’s what we’re doing. 

Isn’t it? 

I think it is irresponsible assume this all the time, in all cases. Where this emotional upheaval comes from is of upmost importance for our discussion here. Because, for some, the self worth isn’t the thing triggering the sexual activity as a self destructive cry for help or as a way to boost morale. Instead, low self worth might be the result of the same system that triggers the promiscuity. In other words, there may be a deeper set of factors that not only cause the self esteem issues, but that also lead one to be promiscuous for reasons that have nothing to do with self worth. And those roots matter when trying to help someone. 

So what of girls who may have decent self worth, but perhaps act out sexually for other reasons? What reasons could trigger young women to engage in sexual activity well before she could possibly provide for a child? 

She might be trying to provide for herself. She may be trying to find safety. And calling her a whore is the opposite of what you need to do. (You hear that Rush Limbaugh?)

Deadbeat Dads and Sexually Active Daughters

During the majority of our evolutionary history, sex was used as currency, a way to bond partners and foster attachment. But it was also used to procure resources in times of stress.

According to prominent evolutionary psychologist and author of The Evolution of Desire, David Buss, girls without fathers may be more likely to engage in early sexual activity, not as reflection of self esteem, but as a reflection of provisioning8. He notes that these girls often reach menses (or first menstrual period) earlier and may begin to solicit sex from men at younger ages to make up for deficits in the household. 

Say I’m an early human, hungry and cold on the savannah. Those around me are not providing so I must find a way to get what I need. Like our chimpanzee cousins, I might barter sexual favors for food or shelter. The oldest profession indeed. 

Modern research supports that father absence is an overriding risk factor for pregnancy and early sexual activity while the presence of a father is protectant even if other risk factors are present1. Other studies confirm that young girls who have unstable father figures tend to have more unplanned pregnancies and sexual promiscuity2, though this study also cited self esteem as a mediating factor. 

Again, it is not surprising that self esteem issues and sexual activity might go together, as abandonment or stress within the household may lead to self esteem issues on their own. But I do not believe that the self esteem is always the cause of the sexual activity, but instead that the environment might trigger more than one unique consequence.  All in all, father absence is likely to lead to a number of issues that are difficult for children to reconcile, including a lack of resources or poverty that might trigger the promiscuity for the provisioning reasons described by Buss. At any rate, the potential for these issues is certainly an argument against deadbeat fathers.

As if we needed another argument to not be a dickhead.  

But what about cases where finances are not an issue? 

Even in cases where finances are stable, absence or weakness in a father may lead to emotional instability. And the nature of that weakness is a tricky thing. As noted by Dr. Michael Bader in Arousal, children tend to blame themselves as opposed to believe that something is wrong with a caregiver, as this is often more anxiety producing. Instead, children are likely to see an attack such as rape or molestation as something that they did, as in, “I made him lose control.” Self blame not only alleviates anxiety that a caregiver is not stable enough to provide said care, but may also make people subconsciously see their caregivers as weak. And if your caregiver at home is weak, just as with financial instability, you may want to secure another. 

Because sexual abuse such as rape or molestation can also trigger sexual acting out behaviors as a way to regain power and cope with the abuse itself, these cases are highly complex. But in any case, young women tend to seek out exactly what they feel they need, in ways that allow them to feel secure and begin to heal. 

The takeaway? Women, young and old, engage in different types of sexual activities for all kinds of reasons. Some enjoy casual sex with multiple partners just because it’s fun with no hint of emotional instability. Other women may seek more frequent sexual encounters as a way to combat childhood issues or bolster self esteem if only for a night. Others may subconsciously be drawn towards more frequent or early sexual activities as a way to mediate the fact that their home life is unstable, the act lending itself to the subconscious belief that things may now be that much more secure.

Sexuality is not a cut and dry thing. It is not easy to explain why certain things happen in one and not another or what factors are currently driving each behavior in any one person. But understanding the different elements that may be in play can assist women in teasing apart their own histories in a way that leads them to the most satisfying future possible, in sex and in life.  

Related Posts: 

  6. Attracting Mates: Effects of Paternal Investment on Mate Attraction Strategies. Ethology and Sociobiology 14:1–24

Topic-Relevant Resources

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
Detailed descriptions of the rich fantasy lives of women, the underlying meanings behind them and how to decide if they are working for you or hurting your sexual desire.

Sex At Dawn
Exploration of modern relationships from the evolutionary perspective. Everything you ever wanted to know about male penis size.

The Moral Animal
Journalist Robert Wright explores human nature from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

The Woman That Never Evolved
Monkeys, anthropology, girl power and evolution.

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?

The Evolution of Desire
Evolutionary psychology and the history of human mating