Sex means different things to different people. It serves different purposes and needs for each person and those needs can shift as our life priorities shift or with new partners or relationship situations. Sometimes two people in relationship have a different framework or need around sex and they misfire with each other because they define and frame sex from differing vantages.
If we apply Abraham Maslow’s popular and well-known psychological theory “The Hierarchy of Needs” to sex and sexual fulfillment, we can see how we might approach sex and frame sexuality and how it can operate in people’s lives. Understanding your own sex framework and that of your partners can help in building a mutual understanding for why sex is important to each of you so that your core needs can be met.
Maslow believed that we have a hierarchy for how we will meet our needs in our life. Basically, the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs for survival, then come safety and security, then love and belonging, then self-esteem, and finally self-actualization at the top of the pyramid.
I want to start at the bottom of the pyramid and talk about how we could use this model to look at 5 levels of need around sexuality. In this article I’ll define the first four levels and in part two I’ll look at the concept of sexual self-actualization.
If a person needs sex at the physiological or survival level, it could look several ways: It’s biological and it’s functional. Sex is a physical release. Or sex is for pro-creation only; you do it because you have to in order to survive. For some people with this framework, sex for pleasure is dirty, sinful, animalistic, or base. There is potentially a lot of sex-negative ideas attached to survival sex. The idea of enjoying sex just might not even register or be okay if you are in survival mode for sex. This is the model of sex that many organized religions teach. Some people literally use sex for survival as it’s a self-generated service you could provide for other things.
Even for many of us who might have another framework for sex, we might have days where we just want the physical release, a maintenance orgasm or climax that reduces our stress and helps us to function.
SAFETY & SECURITY
If you approach sex from a safety and security perspective, you will choose to have sex if you think it will keep you safe physically and emotionally. You see it in the context of physical and emotional comfort.
Historically, sex was attached to a marriage contract and women could be legally raped by their husbands, so they were in a sense, required to have sex in order to stay in their marriage, be taken care of financially, and as their duty. Women did not carry economic power, so marriage was indeed an economic agreement.
Even today, with most such laws no longer in existence in the US, (although you would be surprised by some of the laws on the books), I’ve heard many women describe sex as a chore, and many still choose to have what I call “duty sex.” That is, they do not really want sex, but they have it in order to please their partner or husband so that they can be taken care of financially or in other ways.
There are actually many different kinds of relationships where sex is exchanged for security, employment or resources.
Some of the other ways that a security and safety perspective around sex shows up is that you may choose partners who will not make big sexual demands on you so you stay in the safety of not having to be challenged about sex. There is some inner work to be done to look at that pattern of avoidance, because it can be so easy to stay in avoidance and shame about sex rather than to address the elephant.
LOVE & BELONGING
The next stage of need is based on love and belonging. Historically, this is a relatively new motivation for sex. People used to marry for convenience, family status, economics and other very practical reasons. To choose partners because of love and a feeling of belonging is actually a pretty new approach. If your framework for sex is based on your need for connection, or is a way you show you love and care for someone, your framework is here. Sex is a way to meet another emotionally.
It is the classic sex needs love approach that many people have—and that women are stereotyped as needing more than men. Surely, many people have a sex and love connection because sex is vulnerable and in order to open yourself up fully in sex, which can be deeply powerful, you need to have love present. For some people, they are perfectly okay with having fun and even deeply meaningful sex with someone they do not (yet) love.
Another angle is that some people feel unloved in a sexless relationship. Sex is that important to them for feeling love and knowing that they are loved. They can disconnect and withdraw without it. If a person with this framework has a relationship with someone with the basic need or safety and security frameworks, the couple might end up in conflict as one person just sees it as getting physical needs met while the other has high stakes in sex as a way to show and feel love.
The belief that “If we love each other the sex will be good” is a false belief and some people will run away if sex is not good because they assume the love cannot be strong. Sex can certainly open many deep emotional currents in us.
Many people fulfill self-esteem needs with sex. Cornerstones of sexual self-esteem are self-confidence, liking oneself, having a healthy level of sexual mastery, and being perceived as desirable.
There is a common pattern in many women of having sex or over-sexualizing themselves or using their sexiness in order to feel worthy or good. Self-esteem wounds often show up sexually, in thinking you need someone else to like you, validate you, or find you desirable, rather than giving that affirmation to yourself.
Women are conditioned that it is our job to be pretty and sexy and men are conditioned to be sexually virile and desirable. For some, a natural outcome of that socialization is that self-esteem is built around sexiness, sexual ability or sexual prowess.
There is so much media emphasis on how we should look, behave, and perform sexually that this idea of sex equals self-esteem is unavoidable. With self-esteem at stake, it can lead us to act inauthentically or to feel like something is missing. It can lead women to people-please, to take care of the needs of others, and to feel unable to accept and prioritize their own desires. Unaddressed self-esteem wounds can be toxic in intimate relationships.
Because self-esteem is tied to building self-confidence and confidence is universally considered sexy, we can see a powerful connection here. People who can consciously nourish their sexual energy and sexual self-esteem can improve their own confidence and use that energy as fuel to be better leaders in all aspects of life.
In part two of this series, I’ll discuss the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy: Self-Actualization. What would a sexually self-actualized person look like?