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Sex and the Problem of Self-Esteem 

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Though it may be difficult to see, we have a serious self-esteem problem in our society. We are, in short, either taught that we don’t exist, taught to hate ourselves, or some combination of the two. Most people you see walking around on the street don’t feel worthy of love. And this seems to be a matter of self-love, or the lack thereof.

If we are lacking self-esteem—a problem so pervasive as to be invisible—we are going to have a lot of problems in relationships. This can account for much of our stuff around jealousy. For example, if we need a relationship to know that we exist, then we will naturally feel that our existence is threatened if our partner so much as smiles at someone else.

If much of our trip in relationships is designed to cover up a lack of real self-awareness, we are adding several dense layers of complication to finding out who we really are. It would seem that the real solution to our relationship stuff, our jealousy, our loneliness, and many other factors, is to figure out who we are, enter a conscious relationship with that person, and then take that into our relationships with others.

In other words, we need to get to the place where the most honest relationship we have in the world is with ourselves, and then let that overflow into our encounters with the people around us—not forgetting in what order these things happen. Unfortunately, we are taught to have relationships with ourselves that are based specifically on denying and deceiving ourselves. This is a sad state of humanity, but one that could be easily addressed—if we were somehow relieved of the fear to look within.

And a lot of other kinds of fear. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, during his first season in office, he hired the Heritage Foundation to lobby Congress for something called abstinence-only sex “education.” This is a program, taught in public schools and elsewhere, that indoctrinates kids to remain abstinent until heterosexual marriage. Kids are taught that birth control does not work. Masturbation and homosexuality are not mentioned. It is direct-denial sex education. You pay to have this taught in public schools.

We now have a whole generation—more, really—of people who were raised with this influence. Before we can start to address the damage, we need to figure out what it is. That is going to take a while, and it’s going to take some deep introspection when that is usually the last thing on our minds. To do this, we’re going to need to talk about sex, something that most of us are poorly equipped for, and generally embarrassed to do.

Usually, this process starts with getting people freaked out about masturbation. While this form of sex has never had too much respect, early in the 18th century, it was turned into the combination of a disease and a moral blight. Around 1712, a book called Onania packaged up all of society’s misgivings about self-given sexual pleasure and proffered them with a degree of marketing genius. The book was really an infomercial for the author’s snake-oil cures for the “disease,” but somehow it became a classic, making its way from London’s Grub Street to the height of European society.

The ideas stuck, and persistently plague us to this day. What could have been a source of introspection, learning, and self-fulfillment was turned into an attack on nature and self-awareness.

Many of our relationships today are based on a lack of individuality and missing sense of existence. We rely almost exclusively on “one special other” as a source of fulfillment. Many people are desperate for sex or feel trapped because masturbation is lonely, unfulfilling, and supposedly shameful. It did not start that way; it was made that way. Imagine if we could turn that around; if we could (on a culture-wide level) make masturbation hot and satisfactory, and then start our partnerships from a solid, level place, and then seek out one another to share from there. It would be a whole different world. We’re not in that world yet, but we can surely get there if we want.

What would Lincoln say?

One of my many ideas for films and novels tells the story of the wife of an extremely wealthy, well-connected corporate executive. He’s an absentee husband, and, day after day for years, he leaves her stranded in this huge suburban house without any money or the ability to travel. He does whatever he wants; her credit card has a $500 limit. It is a kind of “passive” abuse, and it goes on for a long time. She is basically his prisoner, trapped in a 16-room mansion, supervised by maids who come in to spy on her and report any suspected transgression. Finally, one day she gets sick of it.

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  • Eric Francis Coppolino examines the interlacing among self-esteem, sex, and relationships.

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