Sex Ed, Sex Tips

What Does A Woman’s Body Image Say About Her Sex Life?

September 30, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

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Sexual difficulties are common. National survey data have
found that as many as 43% of women and 31% of men in the United States report
some type of sexual dysfunction, ranging from the absence of orgasm, to painful
intercourse, to difficulties with erection and vaginal lubrication [1].
Pinpointing the causes of sexual problems is complicated because biological,
psychological, and social factors can all contribute. In this post, I’d like to
take a look at one specific factor that has been implicated in a wide range of
sexual difficulties, especially among women: body image.

What we’re talking about here is one’s overall level of body
satisfaction, not just satisfaction with one specific body part. So how do women
feel about their bodies, and what does this mean for their sex lives? In a
survey of 3,627 women aged 14-74, 40% reported that they were at least somewhat satisfied with
their bodies, with the remaining 60% reporting some level of dissatisfaction [2]. In
addition, 90% reported that they were at least somewhat self-conscious about
their physical appearance, and even more (95%) reported that their appearance
matters a lot in their everyday interactions with others.

Women who were dissatisfied with their bodies reported less
frequent sex, a lower likelihood of initiating sex with their partner, more
discomfort undressing in front of one’s partner and having sex with the lights
on, and less willingness to try new sexual activities. In addition, women who
were less satisfied with their bodies reported having fewer orgasms and a
greater likelihood of having ever faked an orgasm with their partner.

Aside from less frequent sex and only having sex under
limited circumstances (e.g., with the lights off), one other way poor body
image can contribute to sexual and relationship problems is by creating
distractions during sex. Research has found that women with more body image
concerns reporting having more distracting thoughts about their physical
appearance while they’re between the sheets (e.g., they are more likely to be thinking to themselves, “How does my body look to my
partner?”) [3]. Perhaps not surprisingly, women who report more such
distractions report being less sexually satisfied.

In short, the less content women are with their bodies, the
more sexual difficulties they tend to encounter. Of course, it is important to
keep in mind that body image concerns do not always precede sexual
difficulties; sometimes, having a sexual difficulty can lead one to feel worse
about their body and that, in turn, can worsen existing sexual problems. Either
way, it is clear that body image and sexual dysfunction and intimately
intertwined and the way we feel about our bodies is likely to be an important
consideration in any sex therapy program, but not just for women. Helping people of all genders learn to love their bodies can lead to better sex, and better sex can help people learn to love their bodies even more.

Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Laumann, E.O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R.C. (1999). Sexual
consideration in any sex therapy program, but not just for women. Helping people of all genders learn to love their bodies can lead to better sex, and better sex can help people learn to love their bodies even more.

Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Laumann, E.O., Paik, A., & Rosen, R.C. (1999). Sexual
dysfunction in the United States. The Journal of the American Medical
Association
, 281, 537-544.

[2] Ackard, D.M., Kearney‐Cooke,
A., & Peterson, C.B. (2000). Effect of body image and self‐image
on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 28,
422-429.

[3] Pujols, Y., Meston, C.M.,
& Seal, B.N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body
image in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(2pt2), 905-916.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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