Self-Confidence, Empathy May Make for Better Sex

Study of young American adults suggests a healthy psychological outlook boosts satisfaction

By Maureen Salamon
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, June 10 (HealthDay News) -- Could a healthy psychological outlook be tied to better sex?

That's the finding from a new study comparing the psychological profiles of young adults against their reports of satisfaction in the bedroom.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, studied data from more than 3,200 men and women ages 18 to 26, analyzing the association between self-esteem, autonomy and empathy and three measures of sexual pleasure among those in established heterosexual relationships of longer than three months.

The three measures of sexual enjoyment evaluated included orgasm regularity and the enjoyment of receiving and giving oral sex.

Empathy -- defined as the ability to "take [the] other's perspective" -- was tied to sexual pleasure for both young men and women.

For women, empathy, autonomy ("having the strength to follow personal convictions") and self-esteem all seemed to contribute to pleasure.

"I think the most important point is the association between empathy and sexual enjoyment and that it was consistent across the board between men and women," said study co-author Adena Galinsky, a doctoral student at Bloomberg School's Center for Adolescent Health.

Men and women differed in their level of sexual enjoyment. Young men reported the highest level of all three types of sexual enjoyment, with nearly nine of 10 saying they achieved orgasm most or all of the time, compared to fewer than half of young women.

Galinsky said she wasn't surprised by that result, but did find it interesting that young men were more likely than young women to say they enjoyed giving oral sex to their partners, which breaks the stereotype that males are more concerned with their own sexual pleasure.

Due to a computer programming error, the researchers didn't have access to full data on the enjoyment of vaginal sex.

The authors write that empathy may be key to sexual enjoyment because "it may increase motivation to give sexual (and other kinds of) pleasure to the partner." A person who is empathic with his or her partner can enjoy the other's pleasure "vicariously," as well, they reasoned.

While men seemed to require empathy alone to boost sexual satisfaction, women may need self-esteem and autonomy as well because of social norms related to sexuality, Galinsky said.

"Research shows higher barriers for women in knowing and saying what they want," she explained. "It may be more important for them to overcome those barriers, where for men those impediments weren't there."

Sexual pleasure was not associated with age, race or ethnicity or social/economic status, the researchers found.

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, was the first to use a representative sample of heterosexuals to find a relationship between key developmental assets and sexual pleasure, the study authors said. The data were extracted from the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Charles and Amy Miron, married sex educators and certified sex therapists in Baltimore, said they were pleased to see a study address sexual pleasure in a young population, noting that the subject is generally ignored.

"I think the emphasis shifting to sexual pleasure . . . and moving away from the 'thou shalt not' model of thinking is a very positive move," said Charles Miron, who co-authored How to Talk with Teens About Love, Relationships & S-E-X with his wife.

Amy Miron agreed that the study reinforces "that especially for a woman to be sexually active in our society, she needs to be autonomous. She needs to have a good sense of self."

More information

There's more on young adult sexuality at the Kaiser Family Foundation .

SOURCES: Adena Galinsky, Ph.D., doctoral student, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School's Center for Adolescent Health, and post-doctoral fellow, University of Chicago; Amy G. Miron, M.S., and Charles D. Miron, Ph.D., sexual educators and therapists, Baltimore, Md.; June 2011 The Journal of Adolescent Health.

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