IS SEX ACTUALLY A NEED?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

When you’re horny, sex can very much feel like a need. Whether that means feeling like you can’t resist having sex with another person, or simply watching porn and relieving yourself through masturbation. In many ways, we think of orgasming like putting food in our stomach. Horny is like being hungry. And masturbating or having sex represents the cheeseburger. In both instances, when we’re done, we’re full and satisfied. This is an obvious oversimplification, especially since women are on the less fortunate end of the orgasm gap. But nonetheless, this is the analogy that often plays in the background in our minds. So if two people have an urge and they’re both consenting, it’a sex-positive environment. Ideally, both get off, and fill the need. Job well done. Or if someone is super horny, and they want to watch porn, all they have to do is find the ideal scene and masturbate, orgasm and wala! All settled. I feel so much better now. A harmless indulgence to fill the sexual hunger. Furthermore, if sex is a need, why would we ever restrain ourselves? Just like we wouldn’t starve ourselves by not eating, why would we starve ourselves sexually? As one panelist put it on the popular Whatever podcast, “[even] if you’re not in a relationship, you should be able to get that dick. It’s healthy, that’s a part of being healthy. You need to get that vitamin D.”  These are often the conditions and mentalities that define our modern culture. When it comes to sex, fill the need any which way it comes, as long as there is consent. You’re hungry, and you gotta eat. But we must ask: is this really the truth? Is sex just like eating and drinking, a biological need that is essential to survival? Let’s find out.

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HORNY VS. HUNGRY: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

Dr. Emily Nagoski, who has taught at Harvard on human sexuality, talks extensively in her bestseller Come As You Are on the differences between the biological systems that regulate hunger and horniness. “Hunger and thirst are motivational systems that push you to do the things you have to do in order to avoid dying. The uncomfortable (“aversive”) internal states of thirst, exhaustion and cold push you out into the world, to go meet a need, so that you can return to a baseline and that baseline is all about staying alive.” Depending on the person, a human can go without food for about 40 days before they start starving to death. With water, your organs begin to shut down after just 3 days. When your “baseline” is depleting, food and water provide the body with the necessary energy and nutrients it needs to replenish.  With horniness and sex, it’s quite different. Dr. Nagoski writes in her book “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died because of not being able to get laid. Maybe they wanted to, but that’s different. There is no baseline to return to and no physical damage that results from not “feeding” your sexual desire.” She goes on to explain that sex is more of an incentive motivation system, where we are pulled in by an attractive external stimulus, like an attractive person. Once we “obtain” the incentive through sex, masturbation and/or orgasm, the process ends, but there is no underlying biological system returning to a “baseline”.  From an experiential standpoint, a better comparison would be horniness and the overindulgence of food. For example, consider if you just had a huge meal for dinner and then an hour later, you develop an intense craving for ice cream. You don’t need to eat the ice cream, there is nothing impacting survival in this situation. In fact, your body would be better off if you didn’t eat the ice cream. But still, this doesn’t stop the craving and mental anguish of resisting.  If anything, horniness feels more like this. Universally, nothing negative is going to happen to you if you don’t eat the ice cream, masturbate or have sex. Of course, you might point out that if everyone didn’t have sex, the human race would go extinct. This might be true on a population level, but abstaining from sex still doesn’t impact us negatively on an individual level. Nagoski actually makes the case that thinking of sex as a need can be extremely problematic for our culture, because it produces entitlement.

Nagoski actually makes the case that thinking of sex as a need can be extremely problematic for our culture, because it produces entitlement. 

“If you think of sex as a drive, like hunger or thirst, that has to be fed for survival, if you think that men in particular.. need to relieve their pent-up sexual energy then you can invent justifications for any strategy a man might use to relieve himself. Because if sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food. And that’s both factually incorrect and just wrong.” She also warns against giving sex a “privilege” that it doesn’t deserve. When we place sex on a pedestal and we act as though sex is like hunger, it causes us to behave in ways that are extremely unhealthy. Not just with men abusing women, but also for our own personal and sexual well-being.  This brings us to an important question. If sex isn’t a need, what environments are actually beneficial for us to express our sexual desires?

SEX-POSITIVE ENVIRONMENTS

Ever since the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene in late 2017, consent has become the main buzzword of the sexual domain. This has led to the broader culture using this as a baseline of how to define a sex-positive environment. We’re often told, whatever feels good, go for it, as long as it's legal and there is consent. This could include one-night stands, hookup culture, threesomes, polyamory or even opening your marriage, as long as all parties are cool with it. And if you’re by yourself and feeling horny? Most would contend it’s a perfectly healthy environment to masturbate regularly to content found on porn or OnlyFans. These definitions are problematic for a few reasons.  First, when it comes to interacting with other people, it paints a low view of sex where we’re being taught to give ourselves away for cheap. Both for men and for women. Secondly, when it comes to pleasuring ourselves, this view is conditioning us to have a lack of self-control and always give in to “eating the ice cream” per se.  And thirdly, it’s simply bad advice, because it violates what science has revealed is the sexual environment that humans are wired to need.

In short, science revealed that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with.

For many reasons that we go into in other blogs, the proper expression of this is marriage, not cohabitation. Brain chemistry, psychology and anthropology has also revealed it is in monogamy, not polyamory or open relationships. This is confirmed by the spiritual perspective, as the Bible echoes the same sentiments on marriage and monogamy.  Depending on where you’re at spiritually, this may not hold much weight for you.  Why would I listen to what some ancient book has to say about my love life?  In fact, we’ve lived through an entire generation that has badly distorted what the Bible has to say about sex, marriage and dating.  If you live in the West, whatever preconceived notions you have about the Bible and sex, they likely aren’t good. But they also probably aren’t accurate to the true narrative the Bible lays out about sex. If the God of scripture is the God of science, then it makes sense we’d find a cohesive narrative across the board about sex, with multiple different avenues pointing to the same blueprint around sexuality. Scripture and science simply represent different sides of the same coin. Moving along the conversation, it’s important to highlight that in the same way it feels like sex is a need, many of us don’t feel that monogamy and marriage represent sex-positive environments. But there is a difference between feeling something versus needing something. Feelings don’t always align with reality. There are many reasons why we may feel drawn to be promiscuous and polyamorous.  There are many reasons why we have an urge to watch porn and OnlyFans That doesn’t mean that these underlying reasons are good or beneficial to our biological needs. Giving into impulsive or nagging desires doesn’t typically produce the results we’re looking for in the long-term.  For example, we may feel like bursting out in anger at someone or generally have a hot temper. And it may feel really good to do that at the moment, but the consequences of continually acting out on this would not be a wise decision.  And this is what we’re ultimately after: long-term, sustainable success both for our relationships and sex lives. 90% of people will eventually get married by age 50. That’s a fact. And the decisions we make now will influence how successful we are in that future relationship. It will influence whether that relationship ends up being a disaster and we end up getting a divorce or that relationship ends up being one of the biggest blessings we experience in our lifetime.  The problem, as famed psychologist Walter Mischel puts it, is that we do not see the present self and future self on a continuum. We see them as two distinct people: who we are now and who we are in the future, with no overlap. Which means that we think our sexual choices now will have no bearing on the future. Perhaps this is most obvious when it comes to the bachelor party mentality. One report says that 33% of men cheat on their future spouses at their bachelor parties. The mentality is that “I’m just getting it all out of my system” and that you will start becoming a model citizen as soon as you say “I do”. But we can’t create a clean break between who we are now and who we decide to be later. It’s impossible. One bleeds into another. If we are conditioning ourselves into certain mentalities and behaviors now, those will be the behaviors we bring into our future relationships.  We can’t escape the truth, which is that operating outside of the spiritual and scientific ideal does not produce good results in the long-term.

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THE PAIN OF RESISTANCE

So what does this ultimately mean for the here and now, especially if you’re not currently married? Are we just supposed to not have sex until we’re married? Didn’t we leave behind that archaic idea decades ago? The idea of resisting sex is often associated with repression in our culture. But again, here we find the disconnect between the present and future self.  Mischel, who has made major breakthroughs on the science of self-control, puts it this way in his New York Times bestseller The Mashmallow Test: “If you see more continuity between yourself now and yourself in the future, you probably put more value on delayed rewards and less value on immediate rewards and are less impatient than people who view their future selves as strangers. As the researchers point out, if we feel greater continuity with who we will become, we might also be willing to sacrifice more of our present pleasures for the sake of that future self.” Contrary to popular belief, “self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships,” Mischel writes. It is here that we learn resistance is not repressive, as it can actually be a means of liberation The research behind self-control is extensive. Since Mischel’s first Marshmallow Test in the early 1970s, there has been an explosion of interest in the topic. Mischel reports that since 2010 there has been a 500% increase in published scientific studies, with his findings being confirmed continually. In his experiments, he found that how preschoolers “did or didn’t manage to delay gratification, unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their future lives.. [delayers] were more intelligent, self-reliant and confident.. when under stress they did not go to pieces as much as the low delayers did, and they were less likely to become rattled and disorganized or revert to immature behavior.”  Unsurprisingly, scripture and science unite again on this topic. Self-control is mentioned 174 times in the Bible and is considered a virtue. In fact, it goes as far to say that it is an outcome of God’s spirit working within humans (Gal. 5:22-26).

Both science and scripture assert that to continually give in to your desires can become like slavery, not freedom. Choice becomes an illusion, as we gradually become conditioned to need dopamine hits to get by.

Director of addiction medicine at Stanford, Dr. Anne Lembke explains that when we give into pleasure too much, it damages the pain-pleasure balance in our brains. In her New York Times bestseller Dopamine Nation, she writes:  “Science teaches us that every pleasure exacts a price, and the pain that follows is longer lasting and more intense than the pleasure that gave rise to it. With prolonged and repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, our capacity to tolerate pain decreases, and our threshold for experiencing pleasure increases.” This is why habitual sleeping around and/or porn usage can actually become toxic for the human body. In the case of porn, Harvard psychiatrist Kevin Majeres explains the underlying process of how this works: “Pornography causes a vicious circle. When someone views pornography, [they] get overstimulated by dopamine; so [their] brain destroys some dopamine receptors. This makes him feel depleted, so [they] goes back to pornography, but, having fewer dopamine receptors, this time it requires more to get the same dopamine thrill; but this causes his brain to destroy more receptors; so [they] feel an even greater need for pornography to stimulate him..they start to find that they have to use pornography for longer and longer periods to have the same effect, and they have to visit more and more sites." Anyone who has ever watched porn regularly knows what this cycle feels like. So if we care about long-term results, we need to get past the idea that resisting sex is repression, and more on-board with the truth that self-control is wisdom. To embrace this truth is to understand that the present and future self are inseparable. What we do today influences tomorrow. And if we want the relationships of tomorrow to succeed, exerting self-control today is critical. Mischel has discovered that one of the keys to self-control is how we view the attractive stimulus, which in this case is the sexy person across from you or on your computer. Everything might feel like it’s raging in you to give in, but part of this has to do with how you perceive the situation. “The power is not in the stimulus, however, but in how it is mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes. The tempting chocolate mousse on the restaurant dessert tray loses its allure if you imagine a cockroach just snacked on it in the kitchen,” Mischel writes. Of course, depending on the person, how we view the stimulus is not the only variable needed to practice self-control. Among the strategies that Lembke and Mischel cite from their research are channeling, self-binding and advance planning. In psychology, Freud originally came up with the theory of sublimation, which is the practice of channeling your sexual desires into something. Mischel gets at a similar idea, where he found that some who were successful in delaying gratification distracted themselves by engaging in another behavior. Eventually, with distraction, the sexual urge goes away. When it comes to self-binding, Lembke explains:  “It is the way we intentionally and willingly create barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice in order to mitigate compulsive overconsumption.. Self-binding openly recognizes the limitations of the will.” For those who struggle with food, this is a commonly employed strategy that works. Just don’t have cookies or sweets in the house and it will make it easier not to indulge every night. The same idea applies in the sexual domain, especially with porn. Creating obstacles will go a long way to not engaging in the behavior. Scripture and science are in harmony once again on the idea of self-binding.  In 1 Corinthians 6:18, we’re told to “flee from sexual immorality”. This might sound like unfamiliar language in the 21st century, but the original Greek literally means “to avoid; to keep at a distance from” or in other words, self-binding. Sometimes this even involves putting physical barriers between yourself and what’s causing you to stumble, like not having your phone in your bedroom at night if that’s what you keep watching porn on.  But self-binding doesn’t always work. At times, the urge to engage may grow stronger or you’ll find yourself trying to overcome the obstacles that you yourself put in place. Which leads us to the last strategy, advance planning. Mischel calls these “If-Then” plans.  If situation [y] happens, then I will do [x]. If this person texts me to come over to their house to have sex, then I will do.. If I’m alone at home at night, and I have an intense spontaneous urge to watch porn, then I will do… Mischel explains that these strategies are “simple, but surprisingly powerful.. helping people deal more effectively with a wide variety of otherwise crippling self-control problems – even under very difficult and emotionally hot conditions, when they were trying to pursue important but hard to achieve goals.” Therapist Jay Stringer, in his book Unwanted, advises us to study our sexual behaviors. And when we do, we’ll start discovering patterns of when and where we’re most likely to engage in certain behaviors. “Study the predictable times, places and themes associated with your unwanted sexual behavior. When you do, you will likely find they are predictable. The most common themes I hear about are loneliness, frustration, futility and boredom.” This all may sound like a ton of work. Wouldn’t it just be easier to give in? Wouldn’t it just be easier to engage in hookup culture? To just masturbate to porn every time I feel the urge?   The answer is yes, of course it would be. But this is exactly why it’s easy to become slaves to our desires. It is easy to do the thing that is harmful in the long-term, but hard to do the thing that is beneficial in the long-term. Any sort of meaningful change in life is hard and requires feeling uncomfortable. But as we’ve learned from the amazing scientific discovery of brain plasticity, things will get easier over time. As we adopt and learn new behaviors, our brain starts to physically change. Mischel dedicates chapter 18 of his book to the brain's ability to rewire itself. This bodes well not just for us personally, but brings hope to our present and future relationships.

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THE BEAUTY OF HOLDING OUT

The terms “marriage” and “monogamy” have lost their luster over the past couple decades. But the reason for this is almost entirely due to the dysfunctional marriages we’ve witnessed. We’ve witnessed 50% divorce rates. We’ve witnessed people growing older together and being extremely unhappy. We’ve witnessed wandering and cheating spouses. We’ve witnessed all the bad and very few examples of good.  In 2018, The Atlantic’s Kate Julian published an article documenting  “the sex recession” amongst millennials. During her research, she interviewed two students who were tasked with observing long-term committed couples as part of their Marriage 101 class at Northwestern University. “To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.”  Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together. They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, “Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?” For many, to see a good example of a relationship can be incredibly surprising. To see two people happy and in love over the long-term brings shock. And as a result, what we expect out of another human being is at an all-time low.  Bad examples from previous generations have caused masses of young people to develop a fear of commitment. At least 25% of the population has an avoidant attachment style. This has made defining the relationship can be troublesome.  Behavior on dating apps and hookup culture have created a chronic pessimism. Watch a few episodes of the popular Whatever dating podcast and it won’t be long to see how far expectations have dropped for relationships. The host himself refuses to get married, for many of the reasons listed above.

If this is the climate, why wouldn’t we sleep around? Why would I wait to have sex? What are holding out for?

The mentality makes complete sense, given the circumstances. But frustration and a difficult dating climate does not erase what humans are wired to need, as revealed by attachment theory. We need love. We need security. We need safety. And we need support. If we do not have these things in our relationships, we live life from a deficit. Sex is not a need, but these things are.  If we fix our eyes on the picture of marriage that God designed, we would find it’s nothing short of breathtaking. A person whom you can be naked with no shame. Who will love every inch of your body. Where there will be mutual sexual attraction and mutual sexual anticipation, with an intoxicating payoff as soon as we tie the knot and have sex. A person who will fulfill your sexual needs, while you fulfill theirs. Someone you can be safe with, honest, open, communicative and feel supported on an emotional level. It’s clear that this beautiful picture of love is worth waiting for. And for those of us that have witnessed older couples that are married for forty years and still in a thriving relationship, it reinforces the idea that it’s worth waiting for. Waiting is not easy, but it becomes easier when we see the future self as an extension of the present self. But we also must be careful not to glorify marriage.  Contrary to what we learn in Jerry Maguire, another person cannot complete you. Scripture teaches that God is the only one who completes us.  Statistically speaking, 10% of the population is not going to get married. This can feel overbearing, since the cultural pressure that comes with being single is real. When you’re young, there’s a social stigma that’s placed upon you if you’re not dating or hooking up with someone. A recent Tinder ad on the NYC subway featured two people hooking up, with the tagline “realizing you’re not dead inside.” Whether intentional or unintentional, this could easily send the message that you are dead inside if you’re not hooking up and/or in a relationship. As you get older into your 30s and 40s, that pressure heats up around getting married. At this point, many fall into the trap of thinking they’ve failed at life itself since they’re not already married.  However, consider that Jesus himself was never married, and had the biggest impact on human history. Singleness is not settling. Singleness is not waiting for another person to show up. It’s true that 90% of the population will eventually meet someone and get married.  But the other 10% did not fail at life because they’re not having sex or didn’t get married. The life of Jesus is a testimony to this. We should never fall into a trap of putting our life on hold because we haven’t met someone. We should live life to the fullest, knowing that singleness is simply a different path that can be equally rewarding if we have the right mindset. That doesn’t mean we won’t experience loneliness at points, but secure attachments can still be formed from the intimacy experienced in close-knit friendships. We don’t need marriage, but every person needs love and connection with other human beings. The original church, which started with Jesus’s 12 disciples, was so beautiful because of how inclusive and mixed it was. You had singles, marrieds, marrieds with kids, widows and orphans all operating as one big family. This might seem unusual in the West today, since everyone has become so radically individualized. For a single person to live and/or consistently do life with a married couple might come across as odd.  But individualism isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s making us the most lonely and detached society in history. Marriage and monogamy are not the only things that need redemption, but also community, vulnerability and the sharing of our lives with one another.

CLOSING WORDS

To recap, we’ve learned the difference between horny and hungry, that sex is ultimately not a need and what type of relationships are worth holding out for. We’ve also learned scientifically-backed strategies for practicing self-control. But it’s important to close on this note: give yourself grace. As you pursue this vision, it’s not helpful to shame or guilt yourself if you fall back into bad patterns. Recognize what is happening, acknowledge you’re human and set your sights back on this renewed vision for your sex life. Ultimately though, deciding how to go about our sex lives is just one part of a much larger conversation related to who we want to become. Not what we want to accomplish, or what accolades we want to rack up, but the person we want to become in five, ten, fifteen years. Our society talks a lot about accomplishment, status and power as measures of a successful life, but rarely do you hear conversations about who we’re becoming. The problem with this is that our character is one of the key influencers of whether a relationship succeeds or not.  And character is NOT simply a byproduct of getting older. We can’t fall under the illusion that becoming securely attached to someone, getting married and having glorious sex is simply the magical result of finding the “right” person.  This is what is so deceiving about the “getting married later in life” narrative. We could be just as selfish at 32 as we were at 24. We could be just as prideful or emotionally closed off. We could be just as quick to hold grudges. We could be just as unwilling to sacrifice for another person. If we never work on these things, they’re not going to fix themselves. Age has far less influence than we think. Based on character alone, some 21-year-olds might be more capable of sustaining a relationship than a 35-year-old. There’s no way of getting around this. If we want to eventually have a successful relationship, we have to first become the type of person that is capable of loving another human in a self-sacrificial way.  Genuine long-term success is not possible otherwise. Which goes to say, for some it would be wise to not only press pause on sex, but dating in general, to make a concentrated effort of working on ourselves. Others might be ready to date right away. Ultimately you have to make that decision yourselves, ideally with the advice of your community. Maybe you’re thinking.. but how do I become a person of self-sacrificial love? Simple. By apprenticing under the person that did it best, Jesus.  We learn his rhythms. We commune with him through prayer. We observe how he responded in particular situations and then start practicing them in our own lives.  We understand how this dynamic works when it comes to our careers. As athletes, knowledge workers or blue-collar workers, we learn under the tutelage of someone who has gone before us. Someone who has mastered the craft. So why wouldn’t this also be true for our relational lives and building our character? Jesus is the ultimate model for self-sacrificial love. When you read scripture, every interaction is a sight to behold. His responses were breathtaking. The way he treated people was unlike anyone else throughout human history. And if we were to become like this, and our future spouse became like this, we’d be setting ourselves up for a very successful relationship.

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