Self-pleasure, self-esteem and everything in between
Our recent considerations on body positivity seem to confirm to what extent our body image affects our wellness, within the sexual realm and beyond. Under the influence of a number of factors, including but not limited to media-defined beauty standards and the judging gaze they encourage, body image has a direct effect on our self-esteem. This obvious connection left us wondering: can a sex positive mindset and strong self-pleasure routine make an impact on self-esteem? We therefore looked to a number of academic papers; here are a few conclusions.
Body image has a major effect on the construction of the sexual self.
Let’s consider a double phenomenon: body dissatisfaction and self-objectification. A direct consequence of objectification, self-objectification stems from adopting a third-person perspective on ourselves, with a strong emphasis on the way we appear to others rather than on our own sensations. In the intimate sphere specifically, this translates as the internalisation of our self-perception as either objects or collections of body parts.
This phenomenon is further encouraged by the cultural context in which the patriarchal model seems to thrive, one that provides fertile grounds for female sexual objectification. Seen through a heteronormative lens, women are often subjected to a non-reciprocated male gaze and become sexual objects whose main purpose is to please men. This relates to a double conditioning mechanism: men are conditioned to eroticise female subordination, and in turn, women are conditioned to buy into the male narrative on female sexuality. This is how self-objectification operates, with further influence from the media and society-defined gender roles.
Self-objectification and the negative body image it tends to encourage were observed to have direct negative consequences on sexual desire and stimulation, at times resulting in sexual avoidance.
Body image defines how we experience pleasure.
Beyond desire and sexual initiative, physical self-perception and body image have a direct effect on pleasure, be it positive or negative. A study revealed 48% of heterosexual women and 47% of lesbian women observed how a positive body image had a positive effect on the enjoyment of their sex lives and feelings of acceptability as a sexual partner, while a fourth declared how their negative self-image had a similarly negative impact on their sexuality.
The interaction between body image and physical pleasure is mediated by sexual self-consciousness. As a major cause of sexual self-conosciousness, body shame places most of the focus on appearance, therefore becoming an obstacle to enjoying sensations and experiencing pleasure.
The pornification of society has a negative impact on self-esteem in general, and genital self-image in particular.
While a few directors (women mostly) have tried to explore an alternative perspective on pornography from a female gaze, the pornification of society mostly stems from men’s representations and the male gaze. Defined as the prevalence or normalisation of sexual themes and explicit sexual imagery in popular or mainstream culture, pornification promotes distorted images of women, be it in their behaviour, as they are shown as passive subjects, or in their physical appearance.
Genital representation in particular, which speaks to narrow, limiting and unrealistic standards, creates a sense of shame and even disgust towards our own anatomy, which we perceive as either abnormal or unattractive. Women who manage to overcome the pressure to achieve “genital perfection” experience major sexual empowerment as a result, often related to masturbation. Appreciating one’s genitals seems to encourage exploring one’s pleasure. Several studies showed a positive correlation between masturbation frequency and genital self-image; reciprocally, a strong masturbation practice was proven to encourage a more positive perception of one’s genital anatomy.
A positive masturbation practice promotes sexual self-esteem.
Circling back to our initial questioning on how self-pleasure and self-esteem affect each other, we stumbled upon a study on the interactions and correlations between sexual subjectivity, defined as a series of self-perceptions such as sexual self-esteem, sexual entitlement and sexual self-efficacy, sexual assertiveness and masturbation. The results showed that, while masturbation does have an effect, it is not so much about frequency than it is about satisfaction (measured in terms of orgasm); women who reach orgasm via masturbation are more aware of their bodies, feel more in control and more assertive during intercourse with a partner. Assertiveness is in fact a major component of what participants described as a satisfying sex life. In addition, masturbation-induced orgasms were often seen to encourage the internalisation of a more positive self-perception both in terms of desirability and attractiveness.
Overall, a strong self-pleasure practice can boost self-esteem, but only if body image isn’t so negative as to become an obstacle to pleasure.
The various academic studies conducted in the field of female psychology demonstrate a clear causal relationship between self-pleasure and self-esteem. Masturbation is no miracle cure for lack of self-esteem; it can however become a potent tool to optimise levels of assertiveness, confidence and satisfaction, and through them, promote major sexual wellness. In order for this practice to make a positive impact, we very much need to deconstruct the cultural models and social dynamics that encourage negative body image. There may not be a simple and universal way to learn how to love one’s body, but we might attempt to build this love on an alternative basis, moving away from the tyranny of looks, something body neutrality might provide an effective blueprint for.
Bowman, Christin P. (2013), “Women’s Masturbation: Experiences of Sexual Empowerment in a Primarily Sex-Positive Sample”, Psychology of Women Quarterly 2014 38: 363
Hilmarsdóttir, Hildur Ýr (2017), “The Association Between Women’s Masturbation, Sexual Subjectivity and Sexual Assertiveness”
McKay, Tanjare’ (2013), “Female Self-Objectification: Causes, Consequences and Prevention“, McNair Scholars Research Journal: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 7.
Satinsky, Sonya; Reece, Michael; Dennis, Barbara; Sanders, Stephanie and Bardzell, Shaowen (2011), “An assessment of body appreciation and its relationship to sexual function in women”, Body Image 2012 9: 137
Shulman, Julie L. and Horne, Sharon G. (2003),“The Use of Self-Pleasure: Masturbation and Body Image Among African American and European American Women”, Psychology of Women Quarterly 2003 27: 262
Weaver, Angela D. and Byers, Sandra E. (2006), “The Relationships among Body Image, Body Mass Index, Exercise, and Sexual Functioning in Heterosexual Women”, Psychology of Women Quarterly 2006 30: 333
Woertman, Liesbeth and Van Den Brink, Femke (2012), “Body Image and Female Sexual Functioning and Behavior: A Review”, The Journal of Sex Research 2012 49: 184