Sexual Self-Esteem: Who Has More of It?

August 2, 2020


Sexual self-esteem influences almost every sexual decision you make, from who you engage with and when to whether you constrain yourself and how.

However, very little is known about sexual self-esteem and who has more or less of it. This is particularly important because sexual self-esteem and sexual satisfaction are closely related. Several studies suggest that lower sexual self-esteem negatively impacts sexual satisfaction. Another study, by Hale and Strassberg, reported the results of an experiment to test the effects of low sexual self-esteem and showed that male participants’ sexual arousal was significantly and negatively affected by poor sexual self-esteem.

What Is Sexual Self-Esteem?

Sexual self-esteem is feeling capable of being involved in sexual practices with successful procedures and results. Sexual self-esteem tends to differ with age and one’s partner’s sexual skills or interest, and it may vary for men and women and across cultures.

Studies also suggest that sexual self-esteem is negatively affected by a variety of life experiences, including childhood sexual abuse, sexual victimization, physical disabilities, and health issues. Another study found that sexual self-esteem is positively associated with general self-esteem.

More broadly, many cultures push us to restrict our thoughts about sexuality and to develop low sexual confidence. Others tie sexual self-esteem to ideals of beauty and attractiveness. In turn, there's always the urge to chase after these ideals. When we don't succeed, we may experience it as a reflection of our lack of desirability and develop low self-worth.

Who Has the Highest Levels of Sexual Self-Esteem?

Many think that married people have the highest level of sexual self-worth. After all, the one person they are with already knows them very well and they likely don't feel threatened by that person. Competition is low and ideals of beauty and attractiveness are fading over time. Moreover, many cultures sanction and idolize marriages and it only makes sense that married people would feel better about themselves.

However, my new findings suggest that this is not the case when it comes to sexual self-esteem. Using the ninth wave of the Pairfam (Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics) dataset and analyzing the responses of 3,207 respondents in total, findings indicate that married people have lower levels of sexual self-esteem than almost all groups measured.

Seven relationship-status groups were included in this study: married individuals, who comprise the largest group of the sample (57.4%); never-married single (14%); never-married individuals who have a partner but they live apart (4.3%), never-married individuals who cohabit with their partner (13.1%); divorced/separated single (5.3%), divorced/separated individuals who have a partner but they live apart (2.7%), and divorced/separated who currently cohabit with their partner (3.3%).

The results are striking. In terms of sexual self-esteem, men who were divorced/separated and living apart from a partner and never-married cohabiting men were comparable to married men, while only never-married cohabiting women showed lower ratings than married women. The detailed and rich data of the Pairfam survey show that even singles who have never been married tend to report higher levels of sexual self-esteem.

In this study, sexual self-esteem was a constructed variable composed of the following two items: “I am a very good sex partner” and “In general, I can fulfill the sexual needs and desires of my partner very well.” This item is a new development made by the Pairfam survey team. 

Why Married People Have Lower Levels of Sexual Self-Esteem

As in my other post on sexual communication skills, we can only speculate about why married people showed lower levels of sexual self-esteem than most groups. One possibility is that sexual self-esteem levels work in reverse: People with lower sexual self-esteem may be more likely to marry. They might be motivated in part by wanting to feel safer and to cover for their lower sexual self-esteem.

In any case, these findings suggest another reason that singles and unmarried couples should not feel inferior—although society often makes them feel this way.

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