Is This Common Hang-Up Messing With Your Sex Life?

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by Vera Lair / Stocksy

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Here are some questions not a lot of people ask each other: How do you feel about your private bits? Do you like the way your vulva, penis, or what-have-you looks? How about the way it feels and functions?

Some people have perhaps never given these questions any thought at all; for many others, however, they're the source of a lot of deeper anxieties they have around sex. And according to a growing body of research, a person's so-called "genital self-image" is actually closely linked to their sexual satisfaction, levels of sexual desire, and even their ability to have an orgasm.

A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy surveyed over 6,000 cis men and women between ages 18 and 40 about their general body image, their genital self-image, and their sex lives. People who felt more confident about their genitalia tended to have a more positive body image and reduced stress about "performance" during sex. Women with a higher genital self-image not only enjoyed sex more—they also tended to have higher sexual functioning, which includes getting turned on more easily, having more vaginal lubrication, being able to reach orgasm with more ease, and even having less sexual pain.

Those are some huge gains from a little genitalia confidence.

Feeling self-conscious about how you look down there.

Feeling self-conscious about your genitals is actually quite common. We've all heard the jokes, judgments, and jabs about penis size regularly tossed around at men (usually by other men) as some kind of arbitrary barometer of manliness or sexual prowess.

"Satisfaction with penis length and/or circumference is often related to men's self-confidence and feelings of masculinity," the researchers note in the paper. "However, many men hold misconceptions about the average penis length and often misjudge their own penis length to be shorter than the average." (For the record, the average penis size is about 5.5 inches while erect.)

Meanwhile, people generally have far less of an understanding of what vulvas look like, which can lead to women who have them having distorted or unrealistic expectations. "Images of women's genitals in pornography and other media can contribute to societal biases about the way that women's genitals 'should' look. As well, women's genitalia are generally less visible and traditionally have been more taboo for discussion, thus they may seem more 'unknown' or unfamiliar to women," the researchers write.

Furthermore, general expectations for vulvas to look "beautiful" and "smell good" (in line with other standards of "femininity") have given rise to a thriving industry of vagina facials, aesthetically driven labiaplasties, various vagina "perfumes" and cleansing products, and much more, all of which claim to make for a more "attractive" vulva and vagina—usually at the expense of their health.

In addition to worries about the appearance of their pelvic region, women with vaginas also tend to have an additional layer of anxiety about how well they work. Can they get wet enough? Do they get off quickly enough? Can they get off at all? "In a qualitative analysis of women's attitudes about their genitals, participants tended to focus their anxieties concerning their sexuality and their bodies onto their genitalia," the researchers write. "Women may feel dissatisfied with their genitals if they feel that they do not meet an internalized ideal for their function and/or appearance."

Transgender and intersex people may carry a combination of many of these anxieties, in addition to the hurtful messages they may receive from unaccepting outsiders and the generally dissociative experience of having sexual body parts that may not align with your gender identity. 

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How genital self-image affects sex.

Dozens of past studies have shown our body image can directly affect our sex lives: People who are self-conscious about their bodies tend to engage in riskier sexual behaviors because they're less likely to advocate for themselves in bed. Meanwhile, just having a partner who loves and celebrates your body can boost your sexual desire, satisfaction, and orgasms. It follows that how we feel about our private parts in particular might follow these same trends.

A lot of this stems from how distracting body anxiety can be during sex. One 2015 study found men with poor genital self-image tend to have more erectile difficulties because of their anxiety.

"These men may find themselves distracted during sex by sexual anxiety, and thus experience difficulties with sexual functioning," the researchers of the present study explain. "Poor genital self-image and self-consciousness about their genitalia also affects women's experiences during sexual encounters. Women who are concerned about their partner's perceptions of their genitals are more likely to report decreased self-esteem, reduced sexual satisfaction, and reduced enjoyment of sexual activity, as well as increased genital-related self-consciousness during sexual activity."

It's hard to enjoy sex when you're too busy feeling bad about your body and worrying about what your partner thinks of it. Moreover, the idea that loving the look and feel of your genitalia can affect the way your body physically functions and responds during sex is clear proof of the mind-body connection.

"It likely works both ways," explains Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health who's researched genital self-image extensively and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, in an interview with mbg. "On one hand, people who feel better about their genitals may feel more comfortable receiving oral sex, for example, which may then translate into easier orgasms. It's also possible that the reverse is true—that those who lubricate more easily or orgasm more easily feel better about their sexuality and their bodies, including their genital self-image. We also know that all kinds of mental states translate into physical responses—feeling aroused can translate into lubrication or erections; feeling anxious can decrease both."

How to increase your confidence in bed.

If you tend to be self-conscious about the way your private bits look, it's worth spending some time building up that confidence—both because it'll make for much more enjoyable sex and also because our bodies are where we live, and we should be able to honor them for the marvelous things they are. Our genitalia, in particular, have the opportunity to bring us so much pleasure, intimacy, and fun, so they deserve a whole lot of love.

"Spend conscious, intimate time with your body," Cyndi Darnell, clinical sexologist and creator of The Atlas of Erotic Anatomy & Arousal, suggests to mbg. "It could be as simple as creating space in your week to lie in bed and run your hands over yourself, either for pleasure or simply for exploration. These rituals allow us to become more familiar, comfortable, and close to our bodies—and thereby remind us that our body is ours and no one else's."

You might also consider spending some time with a hand mirror just scoping out your pelvic region. For people with vaginas, The Vulva Gallery and The Beautiful Cervix Project are also wonderful resources for celebrating the beauty and diversity of our bodies.

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