FEMALE SEXUAL SELF-ESTEEM
Robert W. Birch, Ph.D.
Sexologist & Adult Sexuality Educator
Volumes have been written on the topics of body-image and on self-esteem, but very little has been said about one important aspect of a woman’s self-perception... her sexual self-esteem. This is a delicate topic, but to understand it we are required to look unflinchingly at the psychological and sociological factors that influence a women’s concept of her sexual self. At the onset, however, let me first acknowledge two obvious things: First, I am a male (which for some readers will automatically disqualify me as an expert on this topic) and second, many women already have a marvelous sexual self-esteem (and what I will be saying will not apply). With this said, I will risk continuing.
Anatomically, young females see little of their genitals as they look down their bodies. Well know sexuality educator Jessie Potter had remarked that girls have “privates,” boys have “publics.” Because of female anatomy, I would suggest that for many girls their “privates” were also their “secrets.” A female’s genitals are not only secret from the world, they often remain secret for many of their owners.
There can be something exciting about having something secret. Mystery and intrigue surround things held secret, but things secret also have a more negative potential. If what is concealed by design and held in private by mandate is also portrayed as bad, anxiety and shame can become associated with it. The socially responsible message to “just say No” does not help a sexually response young woman deal with her erotic desire. If a teenager identifies this natural desire as ‘lust’ or as ‘sin,’ she is likely to feel guilty about her sexuality and shameful of that part of her body that seems responsible.
Add to the perception of genitals as bad is the stereotype of a vulva as being ugly and smelly. The concept ‘dirty’ becomes associated with female genitals. A revered physician and sexuality educator, Dr. Mary Calderone, would often remind us that may women have grown up with the bizarre message, “Don’t touch yourself down there, it’s dirty. Save it for the one you love.” One must wonder, if what is down there is so dirty, why would a woman ever want to give it to someone she treasures?
To some extent, the well-intended messages about menstruation can also add to a young woman’s sexual self-consciousness. Menstruation is something that must remain hidden. Tampons don’t show, pads with wings keep the secret, and mini-pads allow for normal appearing movement. Belts went the way of the bell bottoms, so women no longer had to worry about telltale lines, I wonder how many women grew up thinking they were called ‘sanitary pads’ because there was something sick or dirty about a very normal process. The cross section of a woman’s pelvis in the flier of a tampon box is drawn without a clitoris. A brochure on benign prostatic hypertrophy would never show a cross section of a man’s pelvis without including a penis. Boys have ‘publics,” girls have ‘privates!’
Aging women are faced with the challenge of maintaining a good sexual self-image in the face of the media presentation of sexy as a woman with a perfectly proportioned and remarkably firm body, and as sex as an activity engaged in by this perfect woman and a perfect male partner. Aging heterosexual women and lesbian women of all ages are disenfranchised by the notion attracting a sexy young man is the mark of a woman’s sexual attractiveness. Bodies change as we age, but we do not see these aging bodies in hot steamy love scenes. Sex is for the young, the beautiful and heterosexuals. There are jokes about we older folks doing it, or more often than not, about we older folks not doing it.
There is another problem that many older women have grown up with, but I think might finally be changing. This is the image of the passive female and the sexually aggressive male whose role is to seduce her. Once seduced, the woman having been turned on by the man is laid in a passive position and mounted, the male orchestrating the coital dance. Many women still in that supine position wonder why they are not reaching orgasm during intercourse, never realizing that the majority of women never do reach orgasm during intercourse and that the missionary position is one of the most ineffective ways to attempt to do so. Men in the superior posture act out their image as active, dominant, in control, and reliably orgasmic. The women on the bottom remain passive, receptive, to some extent helpless, and often wondering “Is that all there is?”
As I stated at the beginning of this article, many women have a wonderfully positive sense of sexual self-esteem, and most of these have probably quit reading this by now. Those of you who are still with me, bear with me a bit longer as I now attempt to offer some tips on improving your sexual self-esteem.
Get your genitals out of the closet. Perhaps nurses more than any other women have seen genitals with problems. They have not been sensual loving lustful vulvas... they have those that are infected, diseased, or injured. When was the last time you looked at yours, other than wondering about that itch or worried about that discharge. When did you last look and say to yourself, “Neat!” Take a hand mirror and with ample light, look and say “Hello” to that very special part of your body. Give your vulva a playful nickname! Take pride in your womanhood and remind yourself that there is nothing dirty or ugly or smelly about your body.
It is hard when a woman loses one or both breasts to cancer. Remind yourself that sexuality is not about anatomy, it is about attitude. It’s no secret that breasts change their appearance as women age... lots of things begin to sag. Reminisce joyfully about the firmness of your youth. Value your past without morning your loss. Stand in from of a mirror and find the angle that are most attractive. Look for the areas that are still sexy.
Take responsibility for your body and for your satisfaction. If you have never masturbated, give yourself permission to try... it really is a very effective way to own your body and your sexuality, not to mention learning what really does work best. If you have a partner, be more active, ask for what you want, and try new things. If that partner happens to be male, have him lay on his back and you mount him. The female superior position is very effective for many women, as they are able to control the movement and get the clitoral stimulation needed for maximum coital pleasure. (Typically this works best when the woman leans forward, stays in tight against her partner, and slides back and forth... rather than sliding up and down.) Take charge, be in control and get what you want. Most men love being “used.”
Allow yourself to have sexual fantasies in which you are the pursuer... the seducer. Wear comfortable underwear that helps you feel sexy. Do it for yourself, not for others. Be playful with your little harmless sexual secrets... chase away any old guilt or shame.
Talk to other women about the myth of the passive sexual female or the over-the-hill stereotype. Talk to your partner about your positive sexual attitude. Share your understanding of your own body and what you like and need. Flirt with your partner.
Remember, you are a complete sexual being, packaged in a marvelous body and capable of superb sexual experiences... of your choice.
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UNDERSTANDING FEMALE SEXUAL ANATOMY
GO TO THE VAGINAS PAGE TO LEARN ABOUT THESE THREE ENDORSEMENTS OF FEMALE SEXUAL ANATOMY:
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