Voices

How sexual esteem affects our sexuality

An illustration of a naked woman holding her breasts by Erin M. Riley

As a counsellor, I often witness my clients going through inner turmoil at the thought of physical intimacy.

Some of these are women who have gone through surgery for breast cancer

As a counsellor, I often witness my clients going through inner turmoil at the thought of physical intimacy.

Some of these are women who have gone through surgery for breast cancer. Considering how much breasts are used to define both femininity and erotic pleasure, losing their breast/s becomes a source of great emotional stress for them. Dissatisfied with their own appearance, they use padded bras, and avoid looking at themselves naked in the mirror. They feel that they don’t deserve love or happiness.

Women with limited mobility have similar concerns. I recently met a woman who uses prosthesis because of a spinal impairment. She was very nervous about her sexuality, and couldn’t understand why someone would want to be with her, when there are so many other women who are considered ‘full’ and ‘perfect’. Fearing rejection, she thought the most intimacy she deserved was a one-night stand with an older online friend. She thought she would be ‘less embarrassed’ during sex, because she would never have to see him again. Her impairment had affected her sexual esteem.

Sexual esteem is one of the most important factors on which the expression of our sexuality depends. Defined as a ‘conviction in the worth of one’s sexuality,’ sexual esteem involves an acceptance of one’s own sexuality, and confidence in one’s capacity to experience sexuality in a way that is satisfying and enjoyable.

Many things affect our sexual esteem. An ableist gaze, for one. Many people with disabilities internalise ableism, and the societal perception of people with disabilities as being asexual and unproductive. They are then unable to visualise themselves as sexual beings. Deep-rooted social norms around gender and the media’s objectification of bodies further detracts from their sense of themselves as sexual beings. A lack of privacy, infantilisation by caregivers, dependence on others, and physical impairments also reduce sexual esteem.

I sometimes see low sexual esteem in clients with bladder and bowel incontinence, and those who may not have enough muscular strength to masturbate or orgasm. This is especially true of men, because society connects masculinity and sexual performance so strongly.

According to one study, severity of a physical disability is directly related to lower levels of sexual esteem and lowered sexual activity. [1] Damage to one’s sexual esteem can be further disabling because of complexes and depression. Negative perceptions, when combined with a strong desire to be partnered can increase a person’s vulnerability to getting into and staying in relationships that may turn abusive over time.

To break the vicious circle created by low sexual esteem, the most important task is to build up one’s own value system, independent of our surroundings. We can learn to appreciate our personal resources and uniqueness as human beings. The way we present ourselves largely depends on how we see ourselves.

We can remember that we are not only sexual beings, but also sensual beings. We can awaken the power of experiencing through our senses. They have an amazing potential to create a downpour of gratifying feelings. A soothing and sensual physical touch can be as enjoyable as a good orgasm. We can practise how to become more aware of our bodily sensations.

Our sexual emancipation doesn’t depend only on counselling or sex aids but in respecting our bodies.

The poet Mark O’Brien lost the use of his body’s muscles as a result of polio. After being able to have sex, he wrote: “Another lesson learned: sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars. I realized that it could become a part of my life if I fought against my self-hatred and pessimism.”

Remember, you’re a valuable human being, and your body is for your pleasure.

 

[1] Sexual Esteem, Sexual Satisfaction and Sexual Behaviour Among People with Physical Disabilities by Maria P Mccabe PhD I,2 and George Taleporos  B.A (Hons) G.Dip. (Ed. Psych. [Archives of Sexual Behaviour Vol 32, No 4, August 2003, pp. 259-369 (*C 2003)].

 Featured image credit: Erin M. Riley

About the author

Abha Khetarpal Maurya

Abha Khetarpal, President, Cross the Hurdles, is a counselor for persons with disabilities and a disability rights activist. She has authored handbooks, namely, ‘Tax Concessions and Exemptions for the People with Disabilities in India’, Keeping You Abreast’ and ‘Going With The Flow’ in accessible formats both in English and Hindi. Abha also runs an accessible e-magazine by the name of Cross the Hurdles E-Magazine.

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