Sex & Self Esteem

The pendulum has been swinging from the days of save yourself for marriage, to the pill, free love, open marriage, STD's (sexually transmitted diseases) and safe sex. And the pendulum is still in motion. We talk about the sexual revolution. There have been and will be many sexual revolutions until we recognize that sex is not the problem.

Sex is simply a behavior to which we attach an amazing range of identities and definitions, from the sacred to the profane. How could something that can be so pleasurable, and essential to the propagation of the species, be so confusing?

Roles, moralities, particularities and neuroses all figure in this kaleidoscope of perspective on sex. So do traditions, theologies and stereotypes. But the most frightening is ignorance. Educating children about birth control, disease prevention, and the many basics of responsible sexual conduct is one area of continued challenge. Ignorance at this level is inexcusable and has devastating, often long range consequences.

More pervasive is the ignorance with which we as adults have repeatedly tried to fix the problems associated with sex. We keep on aiming our remedies at the symptoms instead of at the underlying cause: Confusion of sex with love, particularly self-love.

It's easier to cure the symptom. That's because curing ourselves of the `outer symptoms' of our `inner' problems can often be accomplished with a pill or surgery. (Dr. Bernie Siegel in his book, Love, Medicine and Miracles, says that `Surgery is popular because introspection is not.') Elimination of symptoms can also be done by government programs and legislation. It can be done by changing individuals' behavior and actions. None of this is bad. It often alleviates pain and inconvenience, at least temporarily. But unless each of us takes responsibility for healing ourselves at the deepest level of our inner being, those symptoms (individual and social), ranging from pesky to fatal, will reappear.

Symptoms resulting from lack of love, confusion about what love is, and how to experience love are diverse and sometimes heavily disguised. From chronic physical illness, to emotional disorders to violence and addiction. The hole in our soul, as Carl Jung called it, continues to beckon us to heal it. This is acutely evident in our contradictory attitudes and behaviors about sex and sexual problems. Sex gets a bad rap. It's not sex, but what WE do with it, what WE think about it and what WE think about ourselves that is at issue. Trying to change or improve or fix our sexual stuff by selecting a particular behavior is like trying to change our identity by simply changing our clothes. We can choose celibacy or promiscuity, monogamy, divorce, remarriage, extramarital affairs or live-in sexual relationships. We may be gay or straight or bisexual. The issue is the same.

Do we love ourselves? Do we have self-respect and self-esteem? Do we love others with respect and esteem? Have we forgiven, or do we still have bitterness and hurt eating away at us? Do we have a clue about the difference between getting laid and giving love? Are we able to receive love? A purely sexual relationship is fine -- let's just call it that. A one night stand is fine -- let's just call it that.

The sadness comes when we pursue sex to prove our attractiveness; keep looking for intimacy by having sexual involvements; when our propensity for sex short-circuits the satisfaction of our longing for love. We used to save sex for marriage, because we feared pregnancy out of wedlock, and our idea of morality. Thus, often the mystique of sex seduced us into marriages that were empty of the qualities necessary for a rich, life long commitment. Pregnancy did happen. Birth control for the unmarried was a taboo. Shotgun marriages often resulted in dysfunctional or broken homes for innocent children. And did I mention the double standard? It perpetuated hypocrisy and guilt. Men could do it but the women involved were considered `second hand Rose' or worse. They got the guilt. The virgins got the husbands. (Said the myth!)

Then came the pill. Free love appealed to our disillusionment with the hypocrisy and guilt. There was a sense of liberation. We had options. We could live with our potential spouse. No more need to hide. We women could be more honest about our sexuality. Dating became more openly sexual. `Illegitimate' pregnancy was no longer a threat. Marriages became open: You can have occasional dalliances and so can I. It will keep us on our toes and alleviate boredom.

There was a flaw - married couples became suspicious and jealous. Sometimes the dalliance became the next spouse. And the next and the next. Open marriage became anything but open. Then came AIDS and an escalation of other sexually transmitted diseases. It turned out that there was no free love after all.

We're in the midst of another sexual revolution. We have the opportunity to elevate it to revolutionary healing change. If we don't, as soon as AIDS and other STD's are eradicated, there will be some new symptom appearing, trying to make us aware of our starvation for love and self-esteem. And the pendulum will swing until we get it right.

We are beginning to get it right. Couples, gay and straight, are dating again. They're discovering friendship, respect, even true intimacy instead of being distracted by immediate sex. Sex is becoming an expression of these qualities, rather than a substitute.

Books, speakers and seminars abound, teaching us to love ourselves, respect our sexuality and sexual preference, and to forgive. These don't preclude our use of common sense, nor the value of our sophisticated medical and psychological expertise. But they are leading the way to healing ourselves from within, with integrity and wisdom.

Sex has never been a real problem. Love has always been a real and challenging solution.

 Recommended book: 
"Raising Your Sexual Self-Esteem"
by Beverly Engel
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About the Author

Karen Wolfson is the Assistant Minister of the Atlanta Church of Religious Science. First published in Thought Trends, an Atlanta based newspaper. Karen can be reached at No. 003, 52 Executive Park, S., Atlanta, Georgia 30329.