Sex and self-esteem

Having low self-esteem can have a strong effect upon your personal relationships, especially when it comes to sex. The good news is, you can get over it.

sad looking girl

How you feel about sex, and how you feel about yourself can sometimes mismatch.

Have you ever:

  • Had sex with someone because you thought they’d accuse you of being frigid or scared if you didn’t?
  • Thought that having sex with someone would mean they’d like you more?
  • Had sex so you’d appear more popular, desirable, or cooler to your friends?
  • Stayed in a relationship with someone who didn’t treat you right, because you thought you couldn’t do any better, or were scared of being alone?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, you might be suffering from low self-esteem. Perhaps you don’t have the confidence to say exactly what you feel, because you’re scared of how it will come across.

What is self-esteem?

To put it simply, it means liking yourself. This doesn’t mean you have be ultra-confident and cocky, but if you have a good opinion of yourself, you won’t need reassurance from others. Youth and Relate counsellor Paula Hall says: “The key to good self-esteem is positive affirmation – telling yourself things that make you feel good about yourself, like ‘I’m attractive’ or ‘I’m in charge of my life’.”

So, how is self-esteem linked to sex?

Low self-esteem can be caused by many different factors. You might be lonely, or feeling unattractive or maybe you’re being bullied. And if you don’t feel confident, you might find it harder to say no to something you’re not comfortable with. Not feeling good about yourself could lead to poor decisions, like having sex when you don’t really want to. You want to be liked, but that’s not the main reason to have sex!

If other people know you have low self-esteem, you are also more prone to being pushed into doing things you don’t want to do (drugs, sex, smoking) or being bullied. In extreme cases, having low self-esteem could make you more vulnerable to people taking advantage of you, or less able to spot the signs of emotional or physical relationship abuse. It’s important to stand up for yourself, call things out, and assert your views and opinions, for example, if he won’t wear a condom, “no condom, means no sex!” Having sex with no condom without consent, is rape. Read more about enthusiastic consent here.

Building your self-confidence

First of all, think about why you don’t feel good. If you’re conscious of your appearance, the key is to stop comparing yourself to the models in magazines or the prettiest girl/best-looking guy at school. Everyone is unique.

If you’re feeling lonely, it’s time to build on the friendships you have – being more open about how you feel may bring you closer, and you might even find that you’re not alone in the way you feel. If you feel like your friendships may be the problem, then it may be worth trying to find some new friendships. Having a strong family or friends network can truly do wonders for your well being. We all need a support network of people who value us.

You can always speak to your GP about how you’re feeling. They can point you in the right direction for further support, and may suggest seeing a counsellor. Brook and Relate are also great sources of support for those struggling with sex and relationships.

Saying ‘no’ to sex

When it comes to sex, you have to look out for number one. As Paula Hall says: ‘Put your self-interest first. If someone is putting pressure on you to do something you’re uncomfortable with, then try to get out of that situation immediately. For example, say you feel ill, or that you need to get home, or just say you’re not ready. Once you’re away from that scenario, you can think about what you want for yourself in this relationship. And if your boyfriend or girlfriend won’t listen to and respect your feelings, then it’s time to say goodbye. Remember, you’re a valuable human being and your body is for your pleasure.’

So next time you’re in a difficult situation, take a step back and tell yourself you deserve better and that no-one has the right to tell you what to do, especially with something as personal as sex. You should never feel pressured to do anything you aren’t certain of. And remember, if you have experienced any kind of relationship abuse, or been in a toxic relationship, it’s not your fault.

Next Steps

  • You can talk to Childline about anything. Call them for free on 0800 1111 or visit their website.
  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • Relate is an affordable relationship and sex counselling service. 0300 100 1234
  • Do you want to understand your relationship better? Love Smart helps you work it all out.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Meera Dattani

Updated on 29-Sep-2015