Body Image and Sex

Posted by Emily Nagoski

From the Maximegalon Institute for Slowly and Painfully Working Out the Suprisingly Obvious (thanks, DA) comes this new #paperIlike: Woertman and van den Brink's (2012) "Body Image and Female Sexual Functioning and Behavior: a Review" in the Journal of Sex Research (JSR).

Guess what? It turns out negative body image interferes with desire, arousal, and orgasm for healthy women. It's also correlated with lower sexual satisfaction and greater genital pain. Adult women (the results are more mixed with adolescents) with more positive body image have more sex, partnered and solo, and more satisfying sex.

I know a lot of this probably sounds like, "Duh no shit," but it's actually really important that we have a nice juicy review of the existing literature to consolidate our understanding of the relationship between how a woman feels about her body and how her body works. At the end of the review, it's still not clear if there's a directional causal relationship between body and sexual satisfaction (is she having satisfying sex because she likes her body? or does she like her body because she's having satisfying sex?) or if there's an important third variable that ties the two together. It does appear that negative body cognitions and 'self-consciousness" or self-monitoring interfere with sexual functioning.

I'm sure ya'll have ideas about how the relationship between the two constructs might work and I welcome your thoughts because honestly it confuses the hell out of me, but I'm inclined to think that mood and anxiety probably underpin the whole thing, though it's got to a mutually interacting thing, not clearly directional.... anyway.

When I teach my class, in the very first meeting I say, "You can't be sex positive and without being body positive." This is a startling claim to the many women in the room who self-identify as sex positive and yet also carry the inevitable psychological battle wounds of living in a culture with powerful mandates about what a woman's body should be and do. For them "sex positive" is usually a combination of permission to themselves to have the sexual identity that feels right and the political permissiveness to grant others space to be and do what feels right for them, within the constraint of consenting peers.

But sex positive, from my point of view, goes beyond that. "Sex positive" extends into your very cells and out, way out, to your partners and to all the people who will never be your partners. The deepest sex positivity says, "Every cell of my body is normal and beautiful as it is. And every cell of every body of every partner I have is normal and beautiful as it is. And every cell of every body of every human I will never have sex with is normal and beautiful as it is."

(There's beaucoup room for debate about this kind of radical positivity when it comes to sex criminals etc etc, as there is with any unconditional positive regard or lovingkindness practice. But as a place to aim for, it's a great start.)

I'm still deep in writing the book, the last chapter of which is largely concerned with loving your body as you find it, and I mean really loving, not just tolerating or accepting. This paper is an important part of that.