“Promiscuous” is a term that is almost always used when speaking about a woman. And it is pejorative. It refers to a woman—usually a young woman—who has sex frequently and casually. This behavior is considered reprehensible and evidence of an emotional failing of some sort. Young men who engage in similar behaviors are not thought of quite the same way. A “womanizer” is a man who actively pursues women sexually; but this term is used almost always in a context where the man has been betraying someone with whom he is in a committed relationship. A single young man who sleeps readily with a number of women would probably not have any label attached to his behavior. The more recently defined term, “sexual addict,” refers to compulsive sexual behavior, usually on the part of a man.
Promiscuity, that is, casual sexual behavior in women, is no longer viewed quite as negatively as it used to be. I think the principal reason for this change in attitude is the much longer period of time women date before settling down and marrying. There is more time for more sexual involvements. I cannot remember the last time some man expressed reservations to me about a particular woman he was interested in because she had been “promiscuous.” Some men have an inordinate interest in their girl-friend’s previous sexual relationships, but most do not. Those who do are likely to feel insecure, and jealous. Exaggerated jealousy is not rare, unfortunately; but it has nothing to do with the woman’s previous sexual behavior. In fact, it has very little to do with love. It reflects a proprietary feeling towards the woman, a suspicion of being fooled and taken advantage of. It occurs only when the man has reason to feel the woman ”belongs” to him, as he might if they were married.
In fact, most of the time I hear of someone being promiscuous, it is the woman herself who describes her behavior to me that way. And she is always referring to a particular time in her life. No one is promiscuous over the course of a lifetime. Usually, the woman has a ready explanation for why over that particular time she engaged in such behavior.
During high school and college years: “I felt insecure,” is the usual reason. “I felt better when I realized that men were interested in me.” She felt more desirable and better about herself despite the general opprobrium for this kind of behavior. But being insecure is not uncommon for young women. Why does someone engage in sex to reassure herself when others do not resort to this device? I think it is fair to say that these particular girls and women have fewer emotional resources to rely on when coping with the very common feelings of inadequacy that probably everyone feels from time to time growing up. A few of these women had families who were notably not caring and not supportive.
For some of these women, there is an element of defiance in their speaking of these matters. They will decide for themselves, they seem to be saying, how they will live, no matter what others think.
During particular periods of self-doubt: It is not uncommon for women to engage in sex frequently, even indiscriminately, following a divorce. “I needed to be reassured that I was still attractive to men.” I can think of two women where this self-doubt was magnified by special circumstances.
One woman was disfigured by an accident and an operation that removed her bladder. She had multiple scars on her legs and abdomen, and required a bag attached to an opening in her abdomen to collect urine. After her divorce she was convinced that no man would be willing to make love to her. I told her that was not so. By the time a couple undresses, men have developed a head-long interest that is not deterred by physical defects of this sort. She slept with the next half-dozen men who came along before she was convinced that I was right.
A second woman was strongly affected by a bizarre experience that occurred to her. She was thirty-five years old and was also recently divorced. She was having sexual intercourse with a man whom she had been dating for a few months. Suddenly, without warning—in the middle of the sexual act—he got up, exclaiming, “I can’t take this anymore!” and left without a further word. Although she had good reason to think she was attractive to men, she was shaken by this encounter and, like the other woman described above, slept promptly with the next number of men who came along.
Although some promiscuous women are reckless, becoming pregnant or catching a venereal disease, most of the women I describe above were not. They took proper precautions against these eventualities and were not deterred by the thought of them. Neither were they deterred by what others might think. They felt that they were morally justified in doing whatever they wanted to do sexually. Although they said they did not care if other people disapproved of them, they all stopped after a few months or, sometimes, years of sleeping indiscriminately with anyone they felt momentarily attracted to. When I asked them why, they usually shrugged.
“It just got old,” someone said. “I lost interest,” someone else said. Knowing them though, I thought they were bothered by the fact that these men, whom they were treating carelessly, treated them carelessly in turn. They were annoyed, even when they would not admit it, by a man not calling them the next day after having slept with them. They were more affected by these social expectations than they liked to admit. Using men, they came after a time to feel used by them. The disappointments and disrespect that was part of their experiences with men began to outweigh whatever psychological advantages that they had obtained, and they stopped.
In general, when I speak to patients, I tell them that as long as they do not behave in a way that is likely to hurt others, they are entitled to do what they like; but I point out that everyone finds promiscuous behavior unsatisfactory in the long run.
Of course, sexual behavior is complicated and expressive, sometimes, of complicated feelings. Prostitutes, for instance, sometimes talk of the feeling of power they experience when they are with men. They are talking about a feeling of control when engaged in sexual acts. They, too, soon feel the disadvantages of that particular way of life.
When I think of this subject, I always remember a particular middle-aged woman who seemed to regard her sleeping around as a weapon she could use against her husband. But even in those terms, what she did made no sense to me. When her husband treated her badly, she would go to a bar in a bad part of town and pick up the ugliest, most disgusting man she could find and sleep with him. She would not report these incidents to her husband.
I asked,“Putting aside the fact that you are injuring yourself by engaging in behavior loathsome to you, how, exactly, are you revenging yourself on your husband if he doesn’t know what you are doing?”
“But I know,” she said, inscrutably. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog