Emotional Prudery and Promiscuity

May 2, 2012

Steven Rhoads, a University of Virginia politics professor who specializes in gender and culture, has written about The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up. He notes that a lot of young men share one student’s view that “he was not interested in love at that point because he hadn’t slept with enough women yet.” The capacity to separate emotional intimacy from physical intimacy is something we consider a typical characteristic of male sexuality. For most women, this is difficult if not impossible, and Rhoads notes that most of his female students who have tried casual sex quickly grow to dislike it. As one female student wrote:

We are told not to be sexual prudes, but to enjoy casual sex, we have to be emotional prudes.

Tyler Blanski, a young male musician and writer, shares her view, and suspects that casual sex stunts emotional growth for both men and women:

I wonder if by pretending that sex is emotionally and morally no-strings-attached, a person becomes an emotional prude. An emotional prude uses sex to escape the commitment and vulnerability required in general relationship.

Ideally, emotional and physical intimacy are in balance. For most people, both emotionally slutty behavior (strong emotional intimacy without sex) and emotionally prudish behavior (powerful physical intimacy without emotion) may be said to describe a state of disequilibrium:


Emotional prudery obviously carries great risk – you’re either succeeding in disconnecting yourself emotionally from a human being you’re having sex with, or you’re catching feelings after all. You tell yourself you don’t care if he hooks up with other people, you’re happy to see where things go, blah blah blah, but face it, you’re getting invested and attached. Blame it on hormones – it’s actually possible to get hung up on a guy you don’t even like that much, just from having sex with him. 

There is also great risk in emotional promiscuity. You’re not having physical sex, but your emotions are in overdrive as you connect deeply with another person. We usually hear about this happening in the context of the emotional affair. When there’s something lacking in a committed relationship, it can be tempting to get close to someone new, someone who “gets you.” These emotional affairs often start out innocently. Sheri Meyers, author of “Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love and Affair-Proof Your Relationship” calls it emotional sex:

Emotional sex is a friendship that escalates into something that feels the same as romantic love and can manifest itself in numerous ways — physically, romantically, emotionally, lustfully, verbally, or virtually.

Friendship becomes emotional sex when the feel-good brain chemicals and hormones that are released when even thinking about that person take over. Any contact with the person becomes as potent as a drug addiction.

…Emotional sex can be even more enthralling than physical sex, and it can cause the same havoc, mistrust and betrayal in a relationship as sexual infidelity, often leading to a break-up.

While emotional affairs are generally discussed in terms of their threat to existing relationships, it’s very possible to be emotionally promiscuous when one is single. It happens when you have a platonic connection with someone that suddenly revs up into something much more. If your feelings are requited, you are likely to wind up in the “In Love” box on the top right. However, if your affection is not returned, you wind up in the unenviable state of heartbreak. Most frequently this takes the form of getting stuck in the Friend Zone with someone you’ve fallen for. If you really have a death wish, you’ll have sex with them anyway, sentencing yourself to that particular hell of being in the In Love box alone. 

Whether you’re in a friendship with someone of the opposite sex or have met someone new, it’s important to maintain emotional equilibrium.

  1. Never get more than one step ahead or behind of the other person emotionally. 
  2. Restrict physical intimacy that does not match the emotional intimacy in the relationship. 
  3. Don’t remain in the Friend Zone. If you’ve caught feelings for someone and they don’t feel the same way, rewarding friendship is impossible. Cut your losses and make a clean break. 
  4. Don’t kid yourself into believing you can pull off the Emotional Prude role. You’re not in the 1%.

Remember, every time you get out of whack emotionally, you’re wasting your time and energy. Ideally, you’ll tread the path from Solitude to In Love. That requires enormous self-discipline, and, as always, a bit of luck.