Sex, Discipline, and Mental Illness

No, this isn’t a post about S&M, women in leather cracking whips, or anything like that. It’s about an interesting post I read on a blog called Project M that discusses the link between monogamy and prosperity.

As the United States struggles to emerge from the depths of what many have deemed the “Great Recession,” regaining economic prosperity is an issue that’s top of mind for many. Unfortunately, many of us also have some serious doubts about this country’s ability to recapture its past glory as an unmitigated financial success.

After all, with an education system that places our students far behind those in Asia, it won’t be long before the best and the brightest begin relocating to areas like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and Japan. In fact, this “brain drain” has already begun.

My parents have lived in Hong Kong for three years now, and another one of my friends just joined their ranks. Hong Kong’s economy—like the city itself—is vibrant, fast-paced, and exciting. It was far less affected by the downturn than the U.S., and it has recovered much faster.

I won’t be surprised if—just as the U.S. took the superpower mantle from the British after WWII—China, led by Hong Kong, takes it from us now, in the wake of the Great Recession.

But I digress. Back to sex.


The Project M post references a book written in 1934 titled SEX AND CULTURE, one used copy of which is available on Amazon for the low, low price of $993.12. Interestingly, after studying 86 different civilizations—including those of the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians—the author of this book (J.D. Unwin) concluded that there’s a direct link between monogamy and the “expansive energy” of civilization.

From the Project M post:

Unwin found without exception that these societies flourished most during eras that valued sexual fidelity. Civilizations such as these always began with the ruling classes being the chastest, with the middle class soon following suit, leading to increased prosperity. But as decadence among the upper classes increased, strict monogamy loosened. Sexual opportunity became easier, society’s mental energy weakened, and it lost its ability to innovate, create, and expand, and was soon taken over by a robust monogamous society.

What particularly struck me about this passage is the idea that promiscuous sex weakens “society’s mental energy.”

Certainly, the idea of sex diluting a person’s physical energy isn’t a new idea. How many movies have you seen in which a sports hero refuses to sleep with his wife or girlfriend the night before a big game in order to preserve his fierceness on the field?

In this context, the idea of abstaining from sexual activity in order to preserve ambition and creativity isn’t a huge leap. But Unwin makes it clear that it’s not sex itself that’s the problem; it’s easy, promiscuous sex that brings societies down.

Although certain Christian organizations have used Unwin’s findings to promote their own moral agendas, Unwin wasn’t up on a soapbox preaching that promiscuous sex was against God’s will. So what was he preaching?

Yep, you guessed it. The issue at the heart of SEX AND CULTURE isn’t really sex. It’s discipline.


Again, when I use the word “discipline,” I’m not talking S&M, punishment, or abject denial. I’m talking about restraint and self-control.

You see, no matter how romantic you think it is to practice chastity before marriage, abstinence requires discipline. No matter how much you love your spouse, monogamy requires discipline, too.

Both chastity and monogamy necessitate that you avoid putting yourself in situations where inappropriate feelings could develop. They demand defending your personal boundaries, even when you don’t feel like it. They require that you deny yourself pleasure, and perhaps even that you stand out as a bit of an odd duck amongst your friend.

And, guess what? Recovery from mental illness requires all these things, as well.


As a recovering food addict, binge eater, and bulimic, I don’t wander into candy shops just for the fun of it. It’s possible that being in a candy shop would trigger inappropriate feelings that would lead me to binge.

As someone with bipolar disorder, my husband doesn’t stay up until three o’clock in the morning, even when he really wants to keep working on a brilliant idea he’s had. It’s possible that staying up so late could trigger a return of his mania and psychosis. He knows he has to respect his boundaries around his sleep schedule in order to stay well.

It takes discipline to stick to a recovery plan, just as it takes discipline not to indulge in easy sex.

Sure, you might be saying, the consequences for not being disciplined around a recovery plan are clear: relapse, unhappiness, and hospitalization, to name a few. But sex? What’s the problem?

I can’t speak for everybody, but I do know that, for me, sex without love and commitment is empty. It might feel good in the moment, but much like bingeing and purging, it never made me happy long-term.


As someone who used to think that creativity was the product of spontaneity, the fact that I’m at my happiest, most imaginative, and most productive when I’m the most disciplined about how I live my life surprises me even still.

But my shift in perspective has also enabled me to understand how societies that don’t value discipline can easily lose their competitive edge.

Although it may be tempting to say that, for this country—with its obsession with celebrity, calamity, and making an easy buck—it’s too late to change, I’ve seen amazing miracles of transformation occur at the eleventh hour in my Twelve Step recovery program. And since society is made up of individuals, the more of us who practice discipline in our daily lives, the more positive impact we’ll have on the culture as a whole.


6 Responses to Sex, Discipline, and Mental Illness

  1. Chris Wells says:

    This is a great post, and so true. It takes a great deal of discipline to be well when you have a mental illness, or are in recovery, or both. I remember when I had less than a year clean from smoking crack, and I had moved to LA and was making new friends. I started hanging out with people using drugs, and then someone pulled out a crack pipe in front of me. I thought, wow! I’m so stupid for putting myself in a situation like this. But it never occurred to me that I was putting myself in danger.

    I want to be able to stay up until 3 am so badly. To work and work on things. But I can’t. When my rhythm is thrown off, it places me at risk.

    Thanks for this. Sometimes I really need to be reminded why it’s important to maintain my structured, somewhat disciplined lifestyle.


    • Thanks, Chris. I’m so glad you realized you were putting yourself in a bad situation by hanging out with drug users.

      I sometimes think I’m tougher than I am, or that putting myself in risky situations won’t affect me/my recovery, but I’ve come to recognize that kind of thinking as arrogance. Even if I can resist temptation in that moment, being in that environment weakens my mental defenses. I’m not immune from relapse (or cheating, for that matter) just because I said no to one set of temptations at one point in time.

      When I was actively bulimic, there were many, many nights when I would leave a party where I’d abstained from eating only to hit up the drugstore for a whole whack of binge foods on my way home.

  2. Interesting ideas here, Heather, although from reading the other blog, am not sure Unwin quite fit all the pieces together.

    Monogamy as a conscious choice – I love this person, therefore I will avoid dangerous situations is all about discipline. Which, as you rightly point out, is an inner quality needed to deal with mental illness, eating disorders, and many other situations.

    Internal control is about slowing down when you drive in the rain, because you are making a choice to be safe – as opposed to slowing down when you see a cop car.

    Discipline is internal control, and ideally, in balance (carried to extremes it can lead to anorexia, for example.)

    Personally, though, even though I would agree that our students lag on standardized tests, the US still has the creative advantage, IMO. Google went to China (or tried to) not the other way around.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, the discipline idea is my interpretation of Unwin’s findings. Not having $1,000 to spend on the book, I’m not sure if my interpretation would change with closer study. 🙂

      Good point about discipline carried to an extreme. When discipline becomes rigidity, it can have hurtful consequences. That’s why I think it’s important to have someone else to check yourself against — a sponsor, a therapist, a mentor, or a good, honest friend.

  3. Chaz says:

    Hi Heather… fascinating post.

    I am biased in favour of fidelity and monogomy so I suppose I am an easy candidate to favour the ideas in your post.

    If I can set my personal biases aside for just a moment, I think the question does beg to be asked, if we cannot exercise discipline on this primal level of trueness to one’s own professed spouse, how is it that we can be disciplined and credible on more advanced matters?

    When Bill Clinton, at a time he was the most powerful man in the world as President of the United States, skirts the issue (no pun intended) of his infidelity to his wife by getting off (again, no pun intended) on a technicality of the definition of “sexual relations” not actually encompassing oral sex, what kind of a message does this send to our culture about truthfulness and discipline? Not much I would say.

    Now not blaming it all on poor old Bill. There are thousands of high-profile contributors to our culture of infidelity and promiscuity (lack of discipline). Just using his well-publicized, bufoonish behaviour as an example.

    I am not surprised by why Unwin has to say. I live in an area that is rich with immigrants. It is amazing how so many immigrant families prosper and stay together. Now who knows what goes on behind closed doors and how happy they are. But prosperous, they are and intact, they are.

    So I am inclined to agree.



    • Thanks, Chaz — I agree that they are a lot of high-profile examples of cheating and infidelity in our culture. Everybody makes mistakes, but it would be nice, as you point out, if people would take responsibility for them instead of trying to hide behind technicalities and lies.

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