Being Slutty Made Me More Empathetic

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Promiscuity has made my once-judgmental heart more forgiving.

Just as there’s no point crying over spilt milk, there’s no point crying over a failed erection. Or at least, that’s what I used to think. When men with whom I was sexually entangled became distressed by their penis’s shortcomings — occasional side effects of alcohol, medications, or nerves — I’d put up a sympathetic front while inwardly rolling my eyes. “Can’t we just do something else?” I’d wonder. “Do you really think the well-being of the universe depends on your dick?”

But that was at least two years and a dozen sexual partners ago. And my ascent since into slutdom has been a crash course in empathy. Over the past couple years, my number of lifetime sexual partners exploded from two to 17 — and while some people might not consider that a lot, I now self-identify as a “slut” both numerically and ideologically. And what’s more: Being promiscuous has made my relationships more harmonious and my once-judgmental heart more forgiving, both in and out of the bedroom.

My theory, you see, is that the intimacy often required for sexual interactions changes you. It’s deeper and more emotionally demanding than that required for small-talk at a party or pleasantries in the breakroom at work. That’s not to say all sex is intimate, or that no non-sexual interactions are — but having sex with someone tends to get you up close and personal with their insecurities, their fears, and their baggage. Sex is emotionally precarious territory for many, wrapped up in body-image worries and disastrous past ridicules. When you invite someone into your bed, you’re also inviting them into the shadowy parts of your brain and heart.

When you invite someone into your bed, you’re also inviting them into the shadowy parts of your brain and heart.

For people who like to talk about sex before, during, and/or after having it — which I’d guess is most of us — that process is also a continual lesson in communication skills. Asking for what you want, respectfully declining to give something you’re not in the mood for, patiently teaching someone how to please you, phrasing criticism tactfully and kindly, and handling rejection without taking it personally — these are all interpersonal skills that sex can sharpen. And when you have sex with a broad range of people, you learn to understand and communicate with a broad range of people, too.

I’ve privately pondered this theory for months, relishing how it contrasts with our culture’s stereotype of the slut as a cold-hearted cad. And then some science emerged which may bolster my hypothesis.

A study done last year by Canadian psychology researchers found that people who score highly on measures of altruism — “selfless concern for the well-being of others” — tend to have more sexual partners than less altruistic folks, as well as higher self-reported desirability to others and greater frequency of sex when in a relationship. The study authors posit that altruism is an evolutionarily attractive trait and therefore gets you laid, a finding many of us can corroborate from times we’ve swooned over nice people. But I wonder if this correlation’s causation might go the other way, too: Maybe having more sexual partners can make you more empathetic and altruistic over time.

When you have sex with a broad range of people, you learn to understand and communicate with a broad range of people, too.

Let me be very clear here: I am not arguing that promiscuity is the only or the best way to develop empathy, or that you should pursue a slutty lifestyle if you don’t want to. In fact, you don’t have to pursue sex at all if you don’t want to: Some people are asexual or just don’t prioritize sex very highly, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But promiscuity has consistently been stigmatized, from the Whore of Babylon of yore, to the vilified free-love hippies of the ’60s, all the way up to Taylor Swift’s famously hoppin’ love life and beyond. And in a world which tells us sluts are emotionally stunted or unloveable “damaged goods,” it’s refreshing to entertain other notions. My social and professional communities are full of proud self-identified sluts who, contrary to that label’s bad rap, are emotionally intelligent, intuitive individuals with tons of love to give. I hate to see these people — and myself — denigrated in popular rhetoric for our promiscuity, when I believe so strongly that it has helped make us the caring, compassionate people we are.

Of course, there are many ways of being promiscuous and many reasons for doing so, not all of them healthy or good. There is some evidence that casual sex is linked to depression in teens, though I’d wager that has more to do with social stigma than the actual sex being had. And there are grains of truth in stereotypes about sluts: Narcissists and psychopaths are indeed more promiscuous than their neurotypical counterparts, though that obviously doesn’t mean all sluts are narcissists or psychopaths. It might be more accurate to say that if you are emotionally engaged, conscientious, and a kind communicator to begin with, having lots of sex with lots of people can lead you even further down that path. Being an “ethical slut” (to borrow a bon mot from a book beloved by sex nerds) may help you learn how to be even more ethical and empathetic, both in your sexcapades and in your other relationships.

Have sex a few times and you quickly learn: The person you’re banging is just another human, like you.

In my work as a sex educator, I constantly encounter people whose lack of sexual experience fuels a lack of empathy. Young straight men frequently write to me asking for tricks that will help them please a female partner someday — even though I’m sure they know their own bodies and minds don’t just mechanically respond to “cheat codes” like that. They view women either as robots who will dispense sex when certain buttons are pressed, or as aliens who respond not to logic but to complex, baffling courtship rituals. But have sex a few times and you quickly learn: The person you’re banging is just another human, like you. They have human desires, motivations, hang-ups, and anxieties. And if you learn that during sex, maybe you can take that knowledge with you into the rest of your life as well.

Empathy has steadily declined among youth for the past 30 years, research shows. Scientists blame this on social isolation: Our communities aren’t as tight-knit and engaged as they used to be, and our social lives mostly play out online. While I’d never argue that the internet is unraveling our society, watching friends’ lives unfold on newsfeeds and timelines is markedly different from living amongst them.

Maybe sex, in its shocking intimacy and unavoidable closeness, can act as a balm for all that digital distance. Maybe if you start to see other people as merely their profile pictures and Tinder bios, it can bridge the digital-analog gap to see their face twist up in pleasure, hear their moans and squeals of delight, and feel their muscles tense beneath you.

Maybe sex, in its shocking intimacy and unavoidable closeness, can act as a balm for digital distance.

Sex lets us see other humans stripped naked, both literally and psychologically. It shows us the beauty in one another’s flawed, fleshy bodies. Someone you might deem a schlub on the subway can seem ethereally, life-changingly gorgeous when they’re writhing in your bed. And by seeing others in that golden light, we can learn to extend forgiveness to ourselves, too. Each time I run my hands reverently along someone’s furry, chubby body, each time I elicit a joyfully ugly noise from someone while they’re coming, each time I tell someone his uncooperative boner is no big deal and mean it, I get better at loving and accepting not only my fellow human beings, but also myself.

That’s the bliss of empathy, and the bliss of being a proud, happy slut.

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