You might have heard someone comment before, when, say, a person is being outwardly sexually expressive or has multiple sexual partners, that it's a sign of low self-esteem. It's a dark ages BS statement and a generalization — but a sentiment, especially for women and gender non-binary folks — that persists despite forward momentum in sexual discourse. With that being said, there is, or can be, a real relationship between a person's self-esteem and sense of sexual empowerment. There can be a connection between how someone feels about themselves, and how they do or do not express themselves sexually. It's just typically not particularly straight-forward, and it varies from person to person.
While your personal sexual expression can't be defined by outside sources, feeling good in your sexuality for you can be a tricky thing to figure out. There can be a lot of questions and plenty of trial and error when it comes to knowing who you are, what you like, and how you feel in yourself and in relation to other people's desires.
On a basic level, finding sexual empowerment is about asking yourself: am I engaging in sex acts that feel like a choice or something decided for me? Do my experiences feel like my version of good? Do I know what my version of good is?
"Since the so called 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s people [particularly people who identify as women] have been told that to seem empowered, they need to be 'sexually free,'" Ellen Friedrichs, a health educator who works with teens and college students, and the author of an upcoming book on dismantling hostile sexual climates, Good Sexual Citizenship, tells Bustle. "Rather, too often it just means being seen as sexually desirable to men, or rather, to a limited idea of what [society assumes] cis-hetero men find appealing."
In this very limited, very heteronormative narrative, women or femmes who say no to certain forms of sex or with certain partners are uptight and old-fashioned. Friedrichs says that expressing yourself sexually in your own way is what it's all about, be that posting bikini shots online every day or deciding not to be sexually active for a period of time.
But it's also true that sexual expression — be it how you present yourself, how you talk about sex, how you act in sexual encounter — may not always be authentic. Sexual expression can often be based on the perceived desires of others, or standards from outside sources, Friedrichs says.
"It can be really hard to distill an individual's real wants, interests, and desires from the larger message people are getting about what is sexy and sexually appealing," Friedrichs says.
So many of those messages simply don't center on, in particular, women or non-binary individual's pleasure or sense of self. And indeed, these influences are socially pervasive, from what is seen in porn to web content that claims to be informative or empowering, to Instagram posts, to the many — often misguided — interpretations of "sex positivity."
"We are bombarded with mixed messages in the media constantly that can confuse us as to what actual empowerment looks like," Jamie LeClaire, a sexologist and sex and relationship educator in Philadelphia, tells Bustle. "As a society, we often conflate sexual liberation with sexual availability, which is a potentially dangerous narrative. Don't get me wrong, sexual empowerment can absolutely mean having a lot of sex, but it doesn't have to. You can also be having tons of sex and not be sexually empowered. What it boils down to is power and autonomy."
Someone can be considered sexually empowered if that person has power over their decisions and over their body, LeClaire says. Someone's access to power and autonomy over their body, sexuality, pleasure, and choices is unfortunately complicated by their "social desirability," aka their proximity to whiteness, thinness, and wealth.
"With this in mind, it's important to be self-aware and to check in with yourself when making decisions about sex and your body," LeClaire says. "Ask yourself some questions, and self-assess before sending off that 'what r u up to?' text to your ex. These questions can help you determine the motives behind your actions and help you find out if your sexual choices are being influenced by the power of outside sources."
For example, LeClaire adds, along with asking what you are wanting to get out of the interaction or expression, ask "would I respond differently if I was in a better state of mind?"
"Maybe it's been a really emotionally rough week, maybe you're feeling super anxious about an upcoming deadline. It's always a good idea to check in with yourself and make sure you aren't using sex as an unhealthy coping skill or as a way to avoid responsibilities or difficult emotions," LeClaire says.
So, in a basic, practical way, how can a person even begin to discern their own sense of sexual empowerment?
"There are some key characteristics when feeling sexually empowered," sex therapist Janet Brito, who practices in Hawaii, tells Bustle. "Things like feeling free to express your own sexual interests, feeling comfortable in your own body, feeling confident saying yes, and no, and prioritizing your safety over the need to please others [can mean feeling sexually empowered]."
And the list goes on. Brito also says that giving yourself permission to have sex that is pleasurable, and to stop and communicate openly if it is not, is another big part of connecting to yourself as a sexually expressive being. As is deciding if being sexual is in line with your values and boundaries while practicing self-acceptance of your sexual identity, orientation, and gender.
"[It's important] to express your sexuality while being honest, and respectful, and without being exploitative of self or others," Brito says.
Also key is being aware of your own impulses and your boundaries around consent. Brito says that making time for self-pleasure and self-exploration can be a really effective and important way to help you practice your sexuality.
New York-based sex and relationship expert Cara Kovacs tells Bustle that being self-empowered and seeking validation can sometimes be accomplished at the same time. It can feel really scary to put yourself out there (say, by wearing that revealing dress or asking someone on a date), and receiving validation for these moves can be incredibly affirming, and not necessarily an indication of low self-esteem.
"That being said, doing things exclusively for validation — i.e. 'the revealing dress was only worth wearing if I got a certain number of likes on the photo I posted of it' is a very different energy," Kovacs says. "It can be really helpful to pull the lens back a bit on your own motivation. Will you feel personally offended or sad if you don't receive validation? If so, this is a great space to start cultivating some awareness and self compassion. Are you doing this thing with an expectation of a certain outcome?"
If, alternatively, you are doing something to make yourself feel good and the validation or affirmation you receive is the cherry on top, then soak that up, Kovacs says.
It really comes down to how you feel, what you want, and what you and your potential partners' boundaries are. The most important thing is that these things are decided by you.
But remember, tips or no tips, knowledge or no knowledge, coming into yourself as a sexual or asexual being, is not without its difficulties. It's often also not without bad, gross, or even dangerous experiences, emotional ups and downs, and probably more than one awkward encounter. But know that sexuality is indeed a journey, and it's yours.