Sexual Satisfaction:
How Body Image Concerns Can Get in the Way of Having Good Sex

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What Exactly is Sexual Satisfaction and Why is it Important?

What is sexual satisfaction and why is it important in our lives? Sexual satisfaction refers to a person’s subjective evaluation of their sexuality, and includes both personal and relational aspects.[1] A variety of positive sexual outcomes, like feeling connected with one’s partner or experiencing enjoyment through sexual activity, contribute to sexual satisfaction. It goes without saying that sexual satisfaction is an important aspect of sexual well-being, but the impact of sexual satisfaction also extends beyond one’s sexual experiences and romantic relationships. Sexual satisfaction is associated with general well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness for both women and men.[2]

Aspects that Contribute to Sexual Satisfaction

Sexual satisfaction is influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Biological influences range from hormones to physical functioning. Psychological influences include personal needs, expectations, and relational aspects. Psychological influences tend to be intertwined with sociocultural factors, like gender roles and scripts (i.e. messages about how people of different genders “ought” to act) and social experiences. One particular factor influencing sexual satisfaction that exists at the intersection of psychological and sociocultural influences is a person’s perception of and feelings about their body. The way a person perceives and feels about their body can impact many areas of their life, including sex and sexuality. This is especially true when someone dislikes or feels self-conscious about their body’s appearance. Body self-consciousness, body image dissatisfaction, and body-shame are actually among the most commonly researched factors impacting sexual satisfaction. It’s also important to note that the influence of body image and body self-consciousness on sexual satisfaction is not just a ‘women’s problem.’ Although women do tend to struggle more often with body dissatisfaction, body image concerns impact both men’s and women’s sexual satisfaction.[3]

How Body Image Concerns Impact Sexual Satisfaction

Body image concerns and body dissatisfaction can hamper sexual satisfaction through reducing sexual desire, sexual arousal, and the pleasure and enjoyment that a person feels during sexual activity. There are a couple reasons for this: (1) self-criticism gets in the way of the brain and body’s ability to be attentive and open to sexually relevant cues/sensations, and (2) focusing disproportionately on one’s own body’s appearance lowers awareness of physical sensations.

Self-Criticism

Let’s break down the first reason for body image concerns and body dissatisfaction negatively impacting sexual satisfaction. If you’ve experienced body dissatisfaction, you’ve probably found yourself being critical of your body’s appearance. Self-criticism is a form of stress. Our brains interpret self-criticizing thoughts like “I look unattractive” as “I am at risk.” This triggers the stress response (i.e. activation of the sympathetic nervous system resulting in a fight, flight, or freeze response). When we are in this sort of state, our brain and body are on guard rather than calm and relaxed, which interrupts both our mental and physical ability to become sexually aroused.[4] In order to be open to and interested in sexually-relevant cues and sensations, we need to feel safe and calm, and self-criticism gets in the way of this.

Focus on Body Appearance

Body image concerns and body dissatisfaction can also affect sexual satisfaction through shifting how a person experiences their body. Focusing disproportionately on how one’s body looks during sexual activity is often referred to as self-surveillance or spectatoring. Research shows that people who tend to engage in self-surveillance/spectatoring during sexual activity experience lower sexual satisfaction. One explanation for this has to do with the relationship between focusing on body appearance and awareness of physical sensations. When we are tuned into external aspects of our body (e.g. how our body looks), we actually become less aware of internal physical sensations (e.g. what feels good or pleasurable).[5] In order to experience physical pleasure, we need to tune into what we feel in and through our body, and focus on body appearance gets in the way of this.

If You’re Struggling with Body Image Concerns that are Impacting Your Sex Life…

If you’ve resonated with this information and find your struggle with body image impacting your sex life, you’re probably wondering what you can do to improve how you experience your body and sex. The great news is there are a number of options that are helpful for people experiencing body image-related challenges to their sex life. Here are a few starting points:

  • Focus on shifting your attention from how your body looks to how it feels to be in your body. This takes practice, especially if you’re more used to focusing on your body’s appearance. A practical way of shifting your attention to what you are feeling in your body in the present moment is through mindfulness practice. You might do this by intentionally and non-judgmentally paying attention to physical sensations throughout your day, and specifically during sexual activity. Getting into the practice of mindful body scans is another way to strengthen the ability to tune into physical sensations. You can find an example of a guided body scan exercise here: https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/bodyscan_cleaned.mp3
  • If you find yourself struggling with appearance-related self-criticism, practicing self-compassion might be especially helpful. Dr. Kristin Neff is a researcher and author specializing in self-compassion, and offers a variety of free self-compassion exercises available here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
  • You might also want to talk about your challenges with body image, body dissatisfaction, or body shame with someone you trust, like your partner/spouse, family member, friend, or therapist. Being able to work through difficult thoughts and feelings with a caring, empathetic person can lessen feelings of fear, sadness, and shame, and positively change way we think about our bodies.

References


[1] Byers, E. S. (1999). The interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction: Implications for sex therapy with couples. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 33, 95-111.

Pascoal, P. M., Narciso, I. B., & Pereira, N. M. (2014). What is sexual satisfaction? Thematic analysis of lay people’s definitions. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 22-30. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.815149

Rehman, U., Fallis, E., & Byers, E. (2013). Sexual satisfaction in heterosexual women. In F. Denmark & D. Castaneda (Eds.), The Essential Handbook of Women’s Sexuality. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger

[2] Apt, C., Hurlbert, M. K., Pierce, P. P. & White, C. L. (1996) Relationship satisfaction, sexual characteristics and the psychosocial well-being of women. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 5, 195.

Laumann, E. O., Palik, A., & Rosen, R. C. (1999). Sexual dysfunction in the United States: Prevalence and predictors. JAMA, 10, 537-544.

[3] Holt, A., & Lyness, K. P. (2007). Body image and sexual satisfaction: Implications for couple therapy. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 6, 45-68. doi:10.1300/J398v06n03_03

[4] Lorenz, T. A., Harte, C. B., Hamilton, L. D., & Meston, C. M. (2012). Evidence for a curvilinear relationship between sympathetic nervous system activation and women’s physiological sexual arousal. Psychophysiology, 49, 111-117. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2011.01285.x

[5] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x

Spoor, S. T., Bekker, M. H., Van Heck, G. L., Croon, M. A., Van Strien, T. (2005). Inner body and outward appearance: The relationship between appearance orientation, eating disorder symptoms, and internal body awareness. Eating Disorders, 13, 479-490. doi:1080/10640260500297267

About the Author
Chelsea Beyer

Chelsea Beyer

Counsellor with ThriveLife Counselling & Wellness. Find out more about her counselling work here.

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