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How Our Sexual Self-Image Influences Attachments

New research looks at relationship patterns and sexual identity.

What is "sexual self-concept"?

Sexual self-concept refers to the totality of oneself as a sexual being, including positive and negative concepts and feelings. According to theorists, sexual self-concept is described well along three dimensions (Snell & Papini, 1989): sexual self-esteem, sexual depression, and sexual preoccupation.

Because attachment style moderates one's sense-of-self in general and one's expectations about and strategies for approaching relationships, sexual self-concept may be a good indicator of what kinds of relationships we tend to get into, and how we tend to behave within relationships, with an emphasis on sexual satisfaction.

In their recent research paper, "Sexual self-concept, sexual satisfaction, and attachment among single and coupled individuals," authors Anticevic and colleagues (2017) examine the less-well studied intersection of partnering status, attachment style, and sexual self-concept (Pujols, Meston & Seal, 2010).

The authors look at a sample of single and coupled adults averaging 35 years of age, ranging from 25 to 45 years of age. They surveyed 630 men and women, an equal number of each. Interestingly, the level of education in this sample was higher than in the general population, limiting the results in some ways, but making them possibly more specific for more highly educated people. Study subjects completed the following measures:

  • Demographics
  • Sexuality Scale, a 30-item scale with 10 items in each area of sexual self-esteem, sexual depression, and sexual preoccupation, to measure sexual self-concept
  • New Sexual Satisfaction Scale, to measure sexual satisfaction
  • Modified Inventory of Close Relationships, a version of the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale, a measure of attachment. The terms they use for attachment style included: secure, avoidant, anxious, and fearful. People with fearful attachment both yearn for closeness and are also afraid of intimacy; anxiously attached people tend to want intimacy but be anxious about being rejected; avoidantly attached people tend to shy away from intimacy without feeling as strong a need for closeness.

Study findings

Overall, the researchers found that single people had lower sexual self-esteem, lower sexual satisfaction, and higher sexual depression. These findings are in keeping with earlier data on the overall satisfaction of the "average" single person, though there are, of course, both exceptions as well as important cultural attitudes regarding being partnered or single that may contribute to lower self-esteem for singles as a result of stigma. On average, couples enjoyed greater sexual satisfaction and better sexual self-concept.

For single participants, sexual self-esteem predicted sexual satisfaction for all attachment styles except anxious attachment. Sexual depression predicted lower sexual satisfaction in anxiously attached singles. Sexual preoccupation, for avoidantly attached individuals only, predicted sexual satisfaction, presumably because higher preoccupation pushed them toward more sex than their avoidantly attached peers who didn't overcome their tendency to distance themselves from intimacy. Single participants, overall, were more likely to have an avoidant attachment style.

For coupled and single participants, higher sexual self-esteem and lower sexual depression were associated with higher sexual satisfaction. Among coupled participants, anxiety and avoidant attachment both predicted higher sexual depression and lower sexual self-esteem. Coupled participants, on average, had a more positive sexual self-concept and higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

For coupled participants, sexual self-esteem predicted higher sexual satisfaction, except for those with fearful attachment. Couples with higher levels of sexual depression had lower sexual satisfaction.

For couples, sexual preoccupation was not associated with sexual satisfaction, perhaps because of the availability of a partner as well as the unavailability (short of infidelity) of alternatives. Table 3, which shows all the positive and negative correlations with measures as a function of couples' status and attachment style, is included at the end of this post for interested readers.

Further considerations

This is an interesting study which requires further investigation but provides insight regarding sexual self-concept and sexual satisfaction for singles and couples with different attachment styles.

For people who remain single and wish to have greater sexual satisfaction, these results suggest looking at one's attachment style and understanding how that may affect engagement with sexual partners as well as sexual self-esteem. Maintaining sexual self-esteem in the absence of long-term partnering presents different challenges. This is very different for those who are single as a lifestyle choice as compared with those who are single but wish to find long-term partners.

For couples with less sexual satisfaction than they desire, looking to individual attachment style, and how that plays out in the relationship, may shed light on ways to address issues and achieve greater satisfaction. For example, if one partner is avoidant and the other anxious, there may be a vicious cycle in which one partner attends to his or her own needs, driving the other's anxiety even higher. Sitting down together and talking through such issues and coming up with constructive ways to approach intimacy could be helpful.

If both partners are avoidant, the challenges will be greater, but there may not be a pressing need to address sexual intimacy unless they are sexually dissatisfied and/or suffering from low sexual self-concept. Other combinations of attachment styles would tend to play out in different ways.

In general, the concept of sexual self-concept is a useful and intuitively satisfying perspective to add to self-understanding, highlighting the importance of individual sexuality as a component of overall personality. Just as with relationships, where relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction are related but distinct, sexual self-concept and overall self-concept, and therefore, satisfaction with oneself, are likely to be connected but different from one another.

Sexual self-concept and attachment-based perspectives are also likely to be useful for those who find non-traditional relationship patterns to be most suitable. Additional research is required to explore sexual self-concept in relation to other important areas of self-relatedness and relationships with others.

Anticevic et al., 2017
Source: Anticevic et al., 2017


Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M., & Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body image in
women. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 905–916.

Snell, W. E., Jr., & Papini, D. R. (1989). The Sexuality Scale: An instrument to measure sexual-esteem,
sexual-depression, and sexual-preoccupation. Journal of Sex Research, 26, 256–263.

Anticevic, V., Jokic-Begic, N., Britvic, D., (2017) Sexual self-concept, sexual satisfaction, and attachment among single and coupled individuals. Personal Relationships, 24, 858-858.

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