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Sexual Self-Esteem: A Short Course

Sexual self-esteem affects every sexual choice you make -- who you choose to have sex with and when, whether you limit yourself sexually and how, and whether you choose to use protection or not.
07/20/2016 01:08pm ET | Updated July 21, 2017
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Like all living things, we are inherently sexual beings. Our sexuality is rooted in how we understand and define ourselves, how we perceive others, and how we see the world. Sexuality is a multi-dimensional, complex mix of physiological, interpersonal, cultural, emotional, and psychological factors. It's important for us to reflect on all these aspects of ourselves and the role they play, as the relationship we have with our sexuality reflects our sexual self-esteem. And just as we talk about the value of developing healthy self-esteem, so too, should we be paying attention to developing a healthy sexual self-esteem. As a sex therapist, this is one of the things that I am most often asked about. So, here are some key aspects to sexual self-esteem that in my experience, are worth exploring.

When I talk about sexual self-esteem, I'm referring to the feelings you have about your body, and your confidence level in how you relate intimately to someone else. It's what you bring of yourself, both emotionally and physically, to sex and relationships -- what you do with that and how you share that with someone else. Sexual self-esteem affects every sexual choice you make -- who you choose to have sex with and when, whether you limit yourself sexually and how, and whether you choose to use protection or not.

1. Feelings about your body: How you feel about your body affects your ability to express yourself sexually.

Our bodies house our sexuality -- it is through the body, essentially, that sexuality finds expression. So being aware of just how we feel about our bodies, is revealing. A client once described her anxiety about how her stomach looked when she sat on top of her partner. She shared that she would either suck in her stomach or try to reposition herself so that it appeared flat. The focus on her stomach took her out of the sexual moment and instead of the pleasure and connection she wanted with her partner, she instead felt like a spectator to her sexual experience. Her partner sensed that she was disconnected and interpreted it as a lack of attraction to him and a lack of interest in sex. As a result, both gradually stopped initiating sex and they began to lose their sexual connection. So, clearly, our internal voice about our body, echoes loudly. Of course, the way we see our body is highly influenced by magazines, billboards, TV and web ads that offer us idealized images of what our bodies 'should' look like, even though these images have little relationship to what most of us actually do look like.

Here's what can help.

Do a body scan: It's worth taking time to reflect on how you feel about your body -- every part of it. Think about what parts you like and dislike. Are there parts that you feel ashamed of? Reflect on all of it, as a lack of confidence can show up in subtle ways. Don't forget your genitals. How do you feel about them? My experience as a sex therapist has shown me how influenced people are today by the mainstreaming of porn, so that both men and women compare themselves to what they see -- comparing labia, breasts, penis size. Is this something you do?

And then ask yourself: Who gets to decide how you feel about your body? Cosmopolitan? Your co-worker, the stranger at the gym? Who owns your body? Does that billboard you drive past every day challenge your self-acceptance. This kind of self-awareness gives you the opportunity to think about these fixed ideas you may have about your body, and with that, begin to do things differently.

2. Your sexual narrative: The stories we have and hold on to.

We all have sexual stories that begin in early childhood, and these stories influence our later sexuality. The stories come out of the way sex was spoken about (or not) in the family; the religious or cultural ideas about sex in communities; how your caregivers felt about their bodies and showed affection to one another; the experience of touch; first experiences of masturbation, etc. Some sexual stories generate feelings such as shame, guilt and anxiety. Is this how it feels for you?

Here's what can help.

Get to know your sexual story: Did you talk about sex in your family or community? When you were growing up, what attitude was communicated to you about the different parts of your body? For example, when you were a baby and naming parts -- eye, nose etc. -- were your genitals given a cute name or simply called "privates" and were you told that they were not to be spoken about or touched? What kind of relationship could you expect to have with a nameless, often ignored or just shameful body part? What kind of effect did these experiences have on you?

Form new narratives: Challenge your ideas and beliefs about your sexuality. (Do they continue to work for you? Are they helpful?) Becoming aware of what has influenced you, gives you the power to develop new ways to tell your sexual story

3. Communication: Communication is the foundation of a great sex life.

We spend a lot of time worrying about technique -- we read books and magazine articles that promise all sorts of results if only you do this or that. And then we spend most of our time in bed worrying about whether we remembered the "right" move. People come in to my office and ask how they can improve technique. My response is to say that they shouldn't worry about what they think their partner thinks of their sexual skills, and should rather just communicate! Talk to your partner. Ask, 'Does what I'm doing feel good?' or say 'I like it when you do ...'. Because we are unique individuals, each of us has a unique sense of what feels good for us. So you won't know for sure unless you ask! And don't assume that your partner will know what feels good for you either. You need to communicate what you like or what turns you on. Your primary sexual relationship is with yourself. It is not your partner's responsibility to know what feels good for you.

Here's what can help.

Reflect on your feelings about sharing your sexual preferences: How do you feel about communicating what you like or want? Do you judge yourself for what you like? Withholding that information can certainly lead to a dissatisfying sexual experience. You may feel more vulnerable talking about sex in bed, so it's worth having conversations outside of the bedroom. And when you do, be sure to make eye contact, listen without judgement, acknowledge what your partner is saying. And if you're not sure of something, ask.

4. Sex and Meaning. Sex means different things to different people.

Lastly, there's sex and meaning. What does sex mean to you? Sex itself is just a body part doing something to another body part -- perhaps it's a finger doing something to an anus or lips doing something or a tongue or maybe it's just a penis into a vagina -- there's no intrinsic meaning to these actions, just the physical mechanism of movement. But as humans, we are meaning makers-we make meaning out of everything and we attach a LOT of meaning particularly to sex. Sex can mean power, connection, physical pleasure, a declaration that now we're a couple. It can be a bargaining point or the symbol of a contract - in short, it can mean as many different things as there are people in the world. And so of course, sex can mean completely different things to the two people in a relationship, and people rarely discuss their respective meanings. For example, a client of mine, eager to be in a committed relationship, usually had sex with men on the second date. She often didn't hear back from the men she had just slept with and this confused her. For her, sex was an expression of emotional intimacy and she assumed it was for her sexual partner as well. It often feels too difficult or simply doesn't occur to a couple to discuss what sex means to each of them before having it.

Here's what can help.

Take a moment to think about what sex means to you. Be clear with both yourself and a partner before a sexual encounter, about just what exactly you're about to do, means to both of you. It's okay to have different meanings, it's just helpful to have the information in order to make a clear sexual decision.

What I've offered you here are some key points to consider and reflect on. They are the fundamental ideas that repeatedly show up in my work with clients. I encourage you to use them to really think about the way you relate to your body, your internal dialogue about sex, and how you express your sexual needs. The more self-acceptance you have about your sexuality -- the whole thing, every stretch mark, dimple and saggy buttocks, every fantasy and desire -- the more engaged your sexual experience and sexual satisfaction.