Body image and sex…. a super sensitive topic for a lot of people. We’ll try to be gentle, but we’ll also be challenging you to do some serious thinking about your self-image and the expectations you’re bringing to your sexual intimacy.
This is a really stressful topic, and guys walk on eggshells around it. Caleb likens the topic of sex and body image to a mousetrap. There is a lot of high-strung energy there, and if you don’t touch it everything is ok. But if you DO happen to touch it, it snaps and releases every bit of energy at once. No wonder men get nervous about the topic!
The Problem of Sexual Self-Consciousness
There is a wide range of research that supports the fact that holding a poor body image impacts my own sexual functioning negatively. There are a number of theories out there as to why this happens, but one of the more prominent theories is the issue of sexual self-consciousness.[i]
Sexual self-consciousness is when your mind and thoughts are overly preoccupied with your body in a sexual context. When this happens, you direct your attention towards your appearance and away from the sexual pleasure which takes you far away from enjoying the moment, or the sense of togetherness and connection. Thoughts such as “Am I jiggling while we’re doing this? Does he think I’m too fat? He seems disinterested – Is that why he always has his eyes closed? We can only have sex with the lights off” show that you’re more focused on what you look like instead of being present with your spouse.
Here is what the researchers found when looking at the issues of sexual self-consciousness:[ii]
- Women are significantly more likely to report appearance concerns than men. No surprise there. But here’s something to note: appearance concerns were positively related to sexual problems for both men and women. So the concern is there for more women than men, but if the concern is there, it doesn’t matter what gender you are.
- The relationship between body shame and sexual pleasure and problems was mediated by sexual self-consciousness during physical intimacy. Men and women’s body shame was related to greater sexual self-consciousness, which in turn predicted lower sexual pleasure and sexual arousability. That just means that there is a chain of thought from shame to self-consciousness to reduced pleasure and arousability.
- Sexual self-consciousness affected men and women’s sexual arousability and pleasure to the same extent, but women’s body shame was a stronger predictor of sexual self-consciousness, so a higher vulnerability to body shame was there.
So, it seems that body shame in a sexual context affects both men and women in the same manner, but women are more susceptible to being triggered into feeling sexually self-conscious which leads us to the question, why do women have such high levels of body shame?
The Social Context of Body Shame and Poor Self-Image
Body shame literally means feeling ashamed of your body and physical appearance. This comes from our culture’s emphasis on women’s beauty and physical appearance which leads to self-objectification.
Self-objectification is the tendency to regard one’s physical self primarily in terms of appearance and to adopt an outsider’s perspective on the physical self.[iii]
We can define our physical self in terms of health, self-care, comfort in our own skin, etc, but it’s difficult. My physical self does have an appearance, and all the marketing is about appearance. It is easy to buy into this idea that my physical self is entirely defined by my appearance rather than the healthier notion of asking myself if I feel comfortable in my own skin.
Our culture teaches women that their sexual partners are mostly concerned about their physical attractiveness. Even in the context of a marriage with Christian values, wives carry this same belief that their husband is primarily concerned about her physical attractiveness. This heightens this sense that physical appearance is of primary importance in our sexuality and also our day-to-day life.
There is even a larger cultural influence which says that women’s social and economic outcomes depend on their physical appearance. We may never explicitly acknowledge it, but the point is that this results in women showing more self-objectification than men.
We could really get mired in the social and cultural stuff here but the purpose is not to change culture at this point – we’re just interested in your marriage. Unfortunately, there is more bad news before we get to some good stuff!
Body Image & Sexuality
Get instant access to a brilliant four-page worksheet that takes you through the whole body image dilemma and gives you a chance to pause and think about the roles that all of this might be playing in your own life. It also helps you plan out how you’re going to break the grip of sexual self-consciousness. It’s an incredible tool for personal growth and conversation with your spouse that you don’t want to miss.
The Impact of Social Media Use on Sexual Functioning
The whole concept of body image and shame and consciousness becomes even more magnified thanks to Facebook, Instagram and so on.
An article from 2015, looked at men and women who had been using social media over the past 6 years. They measured involvement in Facebook, body surveillance, appearance self-worth, enjoyment of sexualisation, body shame, and sexual assertiveness. They found the following:[iv]
- Higher levels of Facebook use for both men and women led to greater objectified body consciousness, which led to greater body shame and decreased sexual assertiveness.
- The link between objectified body consciousness and body shame was greater in magnitude for women, but no gender difference was found in the association between body shame and sexual assertiveness.
Our social media use is actually wreaking havoc on the sex lives of perfectly normal human marriages. A rather scary thought, but it gets even worse – pornography…
The Impact of Pornography on Sexual Functioning
Pornography is all about sexual objectification. In pornography, women are typically portrayed as objects for men’s sexual pleasure and gratification.[v] This loops back to self-objectification (the idea of regarding yourself in terms of physical appearance and taking an outsider’s view of your physique).
Husbands, I’m going to be blunt. When you look at pornography, you are telling your wife that you view a woman as an object, and also that you place great value on physical attractiveness. Add to this her realization that she can never compete with the air-brushed, painted, electronically manipulated girl on your screen, and your wife feels like she will never be good enough for you. How can she be comfortable in her own skin and not sexually self-conscious or full of body-shame when you’ve turned to a “better figure” for your satisfaction.
Caleb has helped many men overcome their pornography addictions, and has great compassion towards you, but I can only see the pain of your wife. If you don’t have the sex life you long for, perhaps you are at fault. Please get help today. For the sake of your marriage. For the sake of your wife. For the sake of your own future.
Before I start telling you how strongly I feel about this, I will now step off my soap-box…
Not surprisingly, studies show that pornography use is related to lesser sexual satisfaction. Isn’t it ironic – in seeking the idealized sexual experience, it actually takes you further away. This is why porn is a lie: it is completely unable to deliver on what it promises as porn is not real people having real intimacy.
In 2012, researchers looked at the female spouse of men using porn and found that relationship quality was decreased, sexual satisfaction was decreased and self-esteem was decreased.[vi] In a later study, the same researchers looked at the men and found these men typically had avoidant and anxious attachment styles.[vii]
Attachment is a big topic in itself but to summarize the research:
- Anxious attachment is often associated with worry and insecurity about oneself (such as one’s sexual attractiveness or acceptability), because the underlying issue of anxious individuals is worry about rejection.
- By using or even substituting pornography and “fantasy” relationships for real intimacy, anxiously attached individuals may not have to become vulnerable with a real partner.
- Men who display these anxious and avoidant traits use porn more often. Likely, this is because pornography allows sexual gratification with no risk of intimacy or being rejected.
So yes, anxious husband, we get your fear, but also hope that you can take ownership of your anxiety issues because as much as these are real pains for you, you are absolutely destroying your wife if you’re looking at porn. It needs to stop. You’re killing her and you’re killing your marriage.
Sorry if that is too straight for you, but we’re also the people who get to talk to the wife who has thought about the possibility of suicide because of her husband’s ongoing addiction. Please get help: Caleb helps male porn addicts recover. He is very good at it. He has a lot of compassion and never shames his clients. If you’re not in treatment, you need to be. Today.
Pornography has a huge impact on sexual self-consciousness and the whole issue of body image and sexual functioning.
Read the rest of the story in Part 2…
[i] Diana T. Sanchez and Amy K. Kiefer, “Body Concerns In and Out of the Bedroom: Implications for Sexual Pleasure and Problems,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 36, no. 6 (December 2007): 808–20, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-007-9205-0.
[iv] Adriana M. Manago et al., “Facebook Involvement, Objectified Body Consciousness, Body Shame, and Sexual Assertiveness in College Women and Men,” Sex Roles 72, no. 1–2 (January 2015): 1–14, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-014-0441-1.
[v] Dawn M. Szymanski and Destin N. Stewart-Richardson, “Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Men’s Studies 22, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 64–82.
[vi] Destin N. Stewart and Dawn M. Szymanski, “Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction,” Sex Roles 67, no. 5–6 (September 2012): 257–71, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0164-0.
[vii] Szymanski and Stewart-Richardson, “Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships.”