Feature by Nikita Fernandes
I recently attended a phenomenal presentation by Dr. Lee Phillips through the Modern Sex Therapy Institute where I learned about the concept of sexual self-esteem. Sexual self-esteem refers to the way we conceptualize our sexual selves. It is the beliefs that people have about themselves as sexual beings. Someone with high sexual self-esteem might feel confident in their body and their sexuality and hence enjoy solo or partnered sex. Someone with low sexual self-esteem might have a hard time accepting their body and might struggle to feel comfortable in partnered sex. The formation of sexual self-esteem can be traced to a variety of factors including someone's upbringing, religious background, ethnicity, gender, etc. Someone who had a secure attachment style with their caregivers might struggle less with sexual self-esteem as attachment styles in early childhood development also play a role in the formation of sexual self-esteem.
In adult relationships, sexual self-esteem can be formed by finding comfort in partnered relationships. If a person feels safe, loved, and calm in an intimate relationship, this can impact the beliefs that they hold about themselves. On the other hand, low sexual self-esteem is a product of trauma, body image concerns, sexual and gender identity, shame, low sexual desire, etc. Shame and guilt are big emotions that can disrupt sexual self-esteem. To combat shame, one can work with a sex therapist and practice techniques such as conscious masturbation where people masturbate mindfully and wrap sexual shame with patience, love, and persistence.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help build sexual self-esteem. ACT was developed by Steven Hays in 1986. The basis of ACT lies is to accept what is out of our control and commit to action with the things in our control. For example, it is out of someone's control that they underwent trauma while growing up, but it is in their control to develop skillsets to cope with trauma. In a sex therapy setting, a sex therapist can help clients combat low sexual self-esteem by sharing positive sexual affirmations and encouraging acceptance of the client's body. The sex therapist can also help the client process how their sexual functioning is linked to their self-esteem. This can all contribute to overall well-being.
To summarize, sexual self-esteem refers to the way we conceptualize our sexual selves. In adult relationships, sexual self-esteem can be formed by finding comfort in partnered relationships. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help build sexual self-esteem. Thus, I invite you to get curious about your sexual self-esteem and bring it up in your therapy sessions.