Sexual Shame, Body Positivity and Talking About Sex: Wessex Scene Investigates

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For our Sex & Relationships magazine, we conducted a survey into the sex and relationship habits of our readership to see how they perceive sex, body image, sexual activity and openness about sexuality with regards to their gender and sexual orientation. We wanted to see if there is some correlation between gender identity and sexuality with body positivity and self image. We received 414 responses. We were eager to see how peoples sexual experiences affect their body positivity and their self esteem. With body and sex positivity seemingly on the rise across social and mainstream media, we wanted to see if this would translate to real people’s lives. 

The gender identities of those who participated in our survey were as follows:

Number of  cisgender women who responded: 283

Number of cisgender men who responded: 118

Number of queer people who responded: 1

Number of non-binary people who responded: 8

Those who preferred not to say: 2

Our largest proportion of respondents were straight or bisexual cisgender women. We were keen to see how the gender or sexual orientation of our respondents affects their body image, body confidence and self esteem. It was also important for us to see how the treatment of people of any gender or sexuality by medical professionals or past partners altered their personal body image. Moreover, with rising concerns over the effects of pornography and the media on body image, we wanted to see how people view their body and if that is effected by their consumption of porn or the media. Many LGBTQ+ people may feel less represented in the mainstream media and therefore less body positive or confident. With only 67% of our respondents being straight, our results with regards to body positivity later on do definitely correlate with this idea amongst those who make up part of the queer community. 

In the first part of our results, we were keen to focus on the amount people say they feel positive about their body image. With growing levels of mental health issues, eating disorders and body dysmorphia across the country, and the world in fact, people are becoming more and more aware of the way their bodies look, or how they believe they look.

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We asked people how they feel about their body image on a scale from 1-10 with 1 being poorly and 10 being very happy with their body.

We received very mixed responses to this question, admittedly, when asking it, I expected the results to be a lot more black and white. However, what we can see is that our lowest answer in this question, 2.9%, belonged to those feeling most enthusiastic about their body image, and the highest sat at 3, a below 5 response to positivity about body image. I would therefore suggest that this question does show us that those who answered our survey are not particularly positive about their body image. 

So, we then asked several questions focussed on body shaming, sexual shame, and a dialogue about sexual health and activity. 

We believed it was important to look into the focus of shame and sex in relating to ones own body.

From this question, we are able to see that people are affected by sex when it comes to their body confidence and self esteem. So what is it about sex that is welcoming this decline in body confidence? Is it sexual shame? 

It was evident that many people had experienced sexual shame, with a third of respondents saying that they had, but were there other factors at play, were there specific body issues or features causing this sex associated drop in body confidence? With such a large portion of people experiencing shame for their sexual activity and its frequency it is interesting that in this world of sexual liberation, contraception and casual relationships people are still experiencing sexual shaming. Almost a quarter of the people asked said they had experienced shaming for their physical appearance, be that their size, or their body hair, demonstrating that there are definite negative connotations as far as sexual activity and appearance goes, perhaps leading to a lack of body positivity when engaging in sex. 

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If people are experiencing shame and insecurity due to their sexual activity, it seems likely that they may not be being particularly open or honest about their sexual behaviours, with family, friends or medical professionals. We asked about this in our survey.

Comments we received further demonstrated the insecurity about conversing with a medical professional about sex. These included, ‘About the medical professionals question I think it depends on which, I have had to in the past a bit and sometimes I feel comfortable around someone and other times I felt pressured to talk more and horrible about the consultation.’ and ‘Feel like a doctor at Southampton presumed I slept with many people and appeared judgemental.’

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I’d suggest that it is clear here that a vast majority of people do feel comfortable discussing their sex life with their doctor, despite some of the comments we received stressing that they felt judged or criticised by a medical professional with regards to their sexual activity. Is there then therefore an issue in how people are being educated about sex and how that is effecting their confidence and understanding of sex? We wanted to see if people were able to see a link between sex positivity and sex education.

Below are some interesting comments we received at the end of our survey which show us a lot about people’s sexual shaming, and their relationship with their bodies. Smell-shaming and shaming of sexual ‘performance’ were also types of shaming mentioned by respondents. With the rise of pornography there may be higher expectations of sexual performance which may alter the response of partners to the sexual performance of the acts they are engaging in. A few people noted that the only sex education they had was not via school, but the internet, be that through the media, social media or pornography.

This also extended to the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Not enough LGBTQ+ (gay really) sex education ie. STI prevention education – the situation is dire.’ This could be leading to wider confusion and stigma attached to queer sexual experiences. Openness and honesty about sex can only be positive for the majority of people as one respondent commented, ‘I’m very open and comfortable enough with my sex life that I help others that feel more nervous, by offering tips, sexual health advice and encouraging them to be sexually happy and healthy.’.

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The affects of porn as a platform for sex education and personal pleasure were reflected on in one comment we received which explores the affects of porn and its capacity for creating violent or damaging habits. The comment said:

In a time where #metoo has just happened, why are we often so accepting of porn, when most of the porn videos glorify a scenario which is so similar to stories of survivors of sexual abuse? Porn seems to affect us personally and in society in so many ways, from addiction (see https://fightthenewdrug.org/overview/) to normalisation of a negative or objectifying attitude to women.

Some further comments were made on body image and size: ‘Once had a guy have sex with me, said he didn’t like fat girls AFTERWARDS and said I should probably ‘prewarn’ people on my dating profile.’. Wider conversations are taking place about the role of size and shape in sexuality and sex, with educators who have an online platform like Kait Scalisi discussing how best to enjoy sex if you are larger, and how sexiness is not defined by your size.

On the topic of body confidence, one commenter said:

I used to really struggle with actually liking my body and feeling ashamed about sex (as a girl liking pornography, it felt like I was doing something wrong consuming it). Luckily I have an amazing partner who is very vocal about what they love about me which has given me more confidence in my body and as a person. I don’t know how I came to view sex with shame though before dating them, but I think it’s quite healthy to be openly vocal about what you love in people, whether it’s sexual or just saying “you rock that shirt I love it.” I think respectful affirmations can really help people more than you might realise.

With adequate conversations you’re able to make progress in body positivity and therefore create a culture of confidence. 

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There are however really toxic and upsetting effects to body image in relation to sex if a partner mistreats you, as one response stated, ‘I’m a mature student who has been in two abusive long-term relationships, one of which was a marriage. This has greatly affected my body image (I was “fat”, “ugly”, “no one else would want me etc) and I have put up a barrier with my sexual partner as a result. Looking back, I should have reported what I endured but I was scared of the repercussions and protecting my children. Now I regret not facing my demons as it has influenced any following relationships in a very negative way.’

Further comments were also focussing on the frequency of sexual activity or number of sexual partners. Many were focussing on a lack of interest in sex or a desire to wait for sex, and the effects that had. For example, ‘I ‘ve  felt judged for my lack of interest in sex. It’s as if some people think it’s an excuse to hide something.’

On the other end, pure assumptions about sex are having a similar psychological affect, as can be seen in this response: ‘I have been slut-shamed, but largely it has been through assumptions about my sex life that were not true.’

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There is often also a certain degree of judgement attached to ‘waiting’ to have sex be that for religious or emotional reasons, as someone has commented here: ‘Having decided I don’t want to have sex until I am married, I don’t feel like I have been worried or concerned about my body being sexually attractive. I know that actually as you get to know someone you become more and more attracted. Yes there needs to be some physical attraction but I know that is not why someone is with me or loves me which gives me confidence to love my body as I am.’

This is further reinforced by this response ‘I have also been shamed sometimes for not having enough sex! This point is often missed out by people when they talk about how outside factors influence sex and relationships- they automatically assume that (in particular) for women, they get shamed for having “too much” sex (ie with too many partners in a non committed relationship), completely forgetting that the same is true if people don’t have sex, as they also get shamed. This issue affects both men and women. Neither side is correct or fair, as sex and preferences around it are personal and different for each person.’

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So many of these comments demonstrate the lack of understanding of sexuality and sex, but also of the way abuse and trauma shapes your sexual experiences and confidence.

A comprehensive understanding of sexuality and sexual health enables people to be able to have a much more positive attitude to sex, perhaps showing that with better sexual education and more conversations about sex, people can feel more empowered and confident. 

To see the graphs associated with this investigation, please read our magazine via Issuu here. 

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I'm a Philosophy and Politics student. I write for The Edge and my own blog where I talk about music, film and theatre. News and Investigations Editor for Wessex Scene. Founder of The Hysteria Collective. An amateur performer and wine enthusiast.

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