Self-Esteem and Sexuality: Another approach to Chastity

Aaron R. aka RicoCulture, Mormon, sexuality 21 Comments

I want to take a lead from Hawgrrrl, who recently posted on the value of Sex Education in trying to reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies and instil values of chastity in young people, but approach it from a different avenue.  I recently attended a seminar which presented results from an investigation into the relationship between self-esteem and sexual activity for people in their teens.  Her results showed that having high self-esteem (perhaps to the point of being arrogant) actually serves a protective function against having sexual activity.  Simply stated: having high self-esteem means that you are more likely to have sex later in life.  However the results are not quite that simple.

The results run like this:

  • High Self-Esteem = Having sex later in life
  • High Self-Esteem =Increased Promiscuity – This means that they will be less likely to have sex, but when they do they are more likely to have sex with a variety of partners.  Although on average, higher self-esteem does have a protective effect (i.e. it lowers the numbers of sexual partners).
  • Higher Self-Esteem = Increased chance of using a condom.  Although for the highest levels of self-esteem this actuall drops slightly.
  • High Self-Esteem = Means they are more likely to use a form of Birth Control.

What this indicates is that if the Church wants to decrease the number of young people having sex at a young age then they need to emphasise building self-esteem.  However, this raises other issues around how the Church might do this and whether other problems might arise from having young people with high self-esteem.

So what do you think?

Does this sound plausible?

Is it useful?

How would the Church go about increasing self-esteem in the youth?

Comments 21

  1. I really like this, I would love to read the article.

    I wonder if Self-Esteem and Humility are polar opposites. If you could have a high level of self esteem and humility; perhaps this is the solution.

    I think the only real place that self esteem can be fostered is in the Home, I do believe that the Church teaches us to foster self esteem within the family, however perhaps too few listen to the council.

  2. Thanks for the response. The research has not been publihed yet. There is a great article by M. Catherine Thomas which argues that self-esteem emerges from an appreciation of our relationship with God and that humility can be part of that dynamic.

    I sense that often kids find their worth outside the home and that we as parents need to prepare them to deal with be seen in conflicting ways. It appears that being both dis-liked and liked for doing the same thing is one of the difficulties of living and so self-esteem needs to have humility but also have an appreciation of the fact that we will inevitably do things others do not like and therefore cannot base our sense of worth on them.

  3. Very interesting results! From personal experience I find these results hard to understand fully tho. Many of my peers at school who had very high self-esteem (seemingly), were comfortable and confident with the opposite sex and would have many sexual partners at a younger age whereas the kids with seemingly low self esteem wouldn’t attend as many parties, social gatherings and were not comfortable and confident with opposite sex.

    However I can see a correlation of someone who has low self-esteem wanting to get this through being sexually active, but I could only see this working from a female stance. Hmm maybe I’m confusing confidence with self-esteem?

    I agree with MrQandA that as with most things, a balance would be needed as it could clash with instilling humility.

  4. Qualia, your right that the measures of self-esteem in this study are important. There has ben othre research which has different results, i.e. high self-esteem can increase probability of sexual activity. They use friendships, family background, and some other child characteristics to create a self-esteem scale. I have also met many people, in the UK at least, that lied about being sexually active because of this pressure.

  5. I would agree with this assessment, but I think that the term self-esteem is a very misplaced one. Seems the Church does try to teach self-worth, which, in my mind, is a more honorable and worthwhile notion. Also, there was a such a number of yeas ago to teach and promote “self-mastery.”

    I’m afraid that the term self-esteem is over used to the point of losing it’s meaning. A shot of humility wouldn’t hurt either.

  6. Post

    #5-6 – I actually agree that the concept of self-esteem is ambiguous. Yet, in this context there are a variety of other titles that this could be given, like increased levels of interpresonal connectivity and confidence. As the link I referenced earlier argues, Self-Esteem is a bit of a red-herring, in that it leads us down other paths that may not be the source of our problem. I actually believe that the youth programme, with all its flaws, does a good job of trying to provide for young people a set of peers who are similarly valued and (hopefully) more accepting of each other. In such environments youth might have the security to pursue their sexuality in healthy ways.

  7. Interesting survey. To avoid argument, I’ll substitute the term “self-worth” for “self-esteem.” In watching girls in our ward over many years, I’ve seen that those with a healthy feeling of self-worth recover from sexual transgression and move on with their lives and those lacking a healthy self-worth do not. I have concluded that it isn’t sexual transgression that destroys young lives as much as low feelings of self-worth.

    Self-worth is built in the family, primarily, but I think the church could help by changing emphasis in a couple of areas. 1) Decrease the emphasis on large families. Nurturing capacity varies. Overwhelmed parents can’t give children the time and attention needed for building a strong sense of individual worth. 2) Lessen the emphasis on guilt in YM/YW lessons. Normal sexual feelings are normal–chastity should be taught without condemning normal impulses.

  8. I’ve read that the place where you’re likeliest to find people with high self-esteem is — prisons.

    “The most hostile group was the one with high but unstable self-esteem. These people think well of themselves in general, but their self-esteem fluctuates. They are especially prone to react defensively to ego threats, and they are also more prone to hostility, anger, and aggression than other people. […] The bully has a chip on his shoulder because he thinks you might want to deflate his favorable self-image.”

    — Roy Baumeister, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, 1997

    Earned self-esteem — let’s use the term “self-respect” — is a good thing. Unconditional self-esteem — the kind flacked by the jargon-spouting illiterates who staff schools of education — is a destructive, unscientific fraud.

  9. I’m not surprised by the result (though I bring my own concept of self esteem to the table, which is probably more akin to the self worth label offered by other commenters).

    In my mind, it is certainly healthier to teach self mastery to someone who knows who he or she is (eg, a child of God with all the blessings that brings) rather than teaching negative images of punishment and doom for transgressors (at an age when young people don’t understand why they have these “transgressable” feelings raging inside).

    Our self worth comes from many sources, certainly our family of origin may be a large contributor. It was for me, and it was for my wife. We both felt growing up that there were expectations — reasonable ones, I think — about our behavior because we were members of our families. That said, the same technique was not true for some of our children. Some of them hit adolescence hell-bent on charting their own course and breaking family rules / mores in the process.

    That said, even our oldest (who was most angry in his rebellion) now at 28 feels very much connected to our family, and it is very much a part of his self worth, I believe.

    Back to the point: It seems a person with a healthy sense of self-worth is more likely to make his or her own choices about sexuality (or other things) rather than to feel pressured by a need for companionship or friendship or love or even release than one who does not have that sense of self-worth. That’s my feeling; it would be interesting to see if there are data to support that view.

  10. I don’t want to get into the Pride vs Self Esteem thing but it seems to cause disonance in the minds of those who start to develop moderate to high self esteem in the church.

    For example how do I stay humble when I am such a good listener, have developed so many talents, so good looking from living such a righteous wholesome life, and been blessed abundantly financialy from paying my tithes and offerings.

  11. Post

    #8 – I think that is an interesting idea. I know that in my experience fo dealing with such situations I have felt the need to focus much more heavily on helping me feel God’s love rather than in helping them feel how serious what tey have done is.

    #9 – Earned self=esteem is also difficult because that is, it seems to me a very mormon idea. In that we earn self-worth when we are obedient. Then God loves us and we know we are of worth. I think that this is dangerous. I think unconditional self-worth is the way to go but it should be rooted in someone else rather than ourselves. but this leads down destructive paths as well.

    #10 – I agree that the family is important. Except that I see very few families that do this well. I see lots of people who struggle with these feelings because of failings in the amily and therefore I think the Church does have a role to play but it is difficult to navigate what this is?

  12. I think what Thomas is describing in prison systems is sociopathy: when you have high self-esteem but low esteem or empathy for others. That does seem like another reason for sexual promiscuity, especially if an individual has no other hallmarks of morality to restrain their behavior (e.g. adverse consequences to self). The old self-esteem model assumed a common morality (that it turns out isn’t that common) and a long-term understanding of consequences that is not logical to assume except in a very narrow social construct (like Mormonism). IOW, most Mormon kids would agree that promiscuity is not in their long-term interests and that it is a societal and interpersonal (moral) wrong. Kids with those assumptions who ALSO have high self-esteem are less likely to be promiscuous. Kids with high self-esteem who don’t share those assumptions may have different results.

  13. Sorry for two consecutive comments, but I wanted to say something about the family angle as well. It seems to me that one’s family is mostly a genetic influence (nature vs. nurture) when it comes to promiscuity. Although people can choose chastity, it seems that a tendency toward promiscuity repeats from generation to generation (just as other personal traits often do, e.g. temper or charm). That’s just an opinion, of course.

  14. What I’m missing here is what “self-esteem” really means, and then, how to get it. I think a lot of people throw the word around, and don’t really understand it. I think, for example, that “a high self-esteem to the point of arrogance” is NOT really self-esteem.

    Also, how do you build self-esteem?

  15. #11, 15 – Your both right that there are problems with the concepts. Moreover, in the Church they bring out other issues that are difficult to reconcile. It seems that the researcher involved does indicate that self-esteem is tied to the degree to which an individual successfully integrates in their community.

    #13-4 – I agree with your comments regarding sociopathy. Moreover, I wonder whether the Church can ever bring geentic inheritance into their views of repentance without creating some major problems. it seems that as scientific research progresses this is going to cause some problems for ideas like accountability and agency.

  16. Hawkgrrrl #14

    I would like to see studies on that. I don’t believe that promiscuity is hereditary, perhaps a propensity to have children at an early age but not a drive to be promiscuous above the general sexual urges.

    The difficulty is controlling the external factors, a child born into a promiscuous setting would unavoidably be influenced there parents, in adoptive cases again external factors would be warped feelings of self worth, ie rejection. Possibly the only control group would be non-promiscuous adoptive parents who didn’t tell the child until adolescence was past.

    They may however find the promiscuity gene and that is above my understanding.

  17. #17 – But if there is a strong (even over-powering) sexual drive that is ascribed via a genetic code would this not lead to a propensity toward promiscuity. I am not saying that genetics causes, in the same way I am not sure that genetics causes other behaviours, but could it lead to an increased probability.

  18. Rico – “It seems that the researcher involved does indicate that self-esteem is tied to the degree to which an individual successfully integrates in their community.” I read an interesting book recently called Connected: The Power of Social Networks. It talked about the four different personalities that emerge in all societies: collaborators, freeloaders, punishers and loners. There is a pattern that seems to occur: 1) individual loners live in relative isolation or small family groups, 2) individuals learn that they can achieve more in collaboration, 3) some individuals in the system decide they can reap the rewards without participating, 4) some individuals resent the freeloaders and self-designate as punishers to control the behaviors that irritate them and are counterproductive to the society’s greater good (at least in their view). Although these types of individuals emerge, all four exist simultaneously in all societies. Collaborators are the “norm” or the “majority.” Loners are simply there, but don’t really participate or interact much, so they are generally neutral. It’s the freeloaders (selfishly using the system for personal interests at the expense of other individuals or the group) who start the problems, and the punishers can exacerbate those problems if they get out of control (similar to antibodies fighting off a disease – you can develop allergies to harmless things if the antibodies don’t simmer down once the threat is at bay). Sexually speaking, out-of-control punishers probably damage healthy sexual attitudes if they overreach in their desire to keep sexual freeloaders at bay. Likewise, someone who has encountered a sexual freeloader may develop an unhealthy perspective on sex because they were “victimized” or “used.” As to the loners, that seems like a different post . . .

    On the genetics question, there’s no promiscuity gene that I know of, but studies do show that twins raised separately both exhibited genetic traits like low threshold for temper and poor social skills. If promiscuity is linked to poor ability to navigate social situations and/or poor impulse control, that certainly seems similar to the studies I read. I believe this was in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, but it could have been Freakonomics. Can’t remember for sure. Funny how I associate promiscuity with poor ability to navigate social situations, but Rico associates it with high sexual drive. Vive la difference!

  19. Hawk – I think this idea of people creating different connections with others might be worth considering. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that my character type is determined by also recognise that this is probably largely true. I can certain agree that being able to navigate social situations is important, but unless they have those strong impulses (perhaps this is linked with a sexual drive, but I recognise that it might also be linked with desires for acceptance, companionship etc.) then they might not need to navigate anything. It certainly seems to me that some people have very powerful sex drives while others do not. I am not sure why?

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