Scientists Are Studying Sexual Self-Efficacy. Here’s What They've Found.

By Amber Kanuckel

When it comes to sex and sexual health, research and education have historically been skewed toward the negative. We can see it in things like abstinence-only sex education. So much of the research into sexual health focuses on things like preventing unwanted pregnancies, using emergency contraception, or preventing sexually transmitted infections. Less attention has been given to the positive side of sexual health: experiencing pleasure and self-efficacy in the bedroom.

This is particularly true where women are concerned. Very little research or education focuses on how to approach sexuality in a positive light or how to experience pleasure. Instead, women often find themselves shamed for engaging in “risky” sexual behavior—and that shame can mean women end up limiting themselves. And these limitations can lead to less sexual autonomy, less enjoyment, and less assertiveness in the bedroom.

Research into Sexual Self-Efficacy Among Women

A recent paper from researchers at the University of Washington sheds some light on the little-studied area of female sexual satisfaction. This research relies on the Female Sexual Subjectivity Inventory (FSSI), which was originally developed as a way to measure five factors that are associated with women’s sexual pleasure and sense of empowerment. These factors include:

  • Sexual Body Esteem: This is a measure of one’s feelings about their body. Someone with high sexual body esteem will perceive themself as attractive and desirable while the reverse is true for someone with low sexual body esteem.
  • Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure from the Self: This is a measure of how well women understand their desires and how likely they are to act upon these desires. Women with higher scores in this area are more likely to give themselves pleasure without shame.
  • Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure from a Partner: Women who score higher in this area believe that their partner should provide pleasure.
  • Self-Efficacy in Achieving Sexual Pleasure from a Partner: Those who have higher scores in this area are more likely to advocate for themselves. This means they’re more likely to ask for things they need or even show their partners what works best to achieve orgasm.
  • Sexual Self-Reflection: This factor measures how well a woman is able to reflect on her sexual experiences, which is an important factor in sexual development. Women with higher scores here are better equipped to learn from past experiences and adjust behaviors or activities in order to enhance sexual pleasure in the future.

Using the FSSI to Examine Self-Efficacy and Pleasure

The University of Washington’s research proves interesting. To develop the paper, researchers created an online survey in order to score women based on each of the five FSSI factors. Respondents must have had penetrative vaginal sex or oral sex within the last year in order to be eligible to take the survey. 

In addition to questions relating directly to the FSSI, respondents were also asked about negative sexual health outcomes, like unwanted pregnancies or STIs. The objective was to understand the relationship between negative outcomes and self-efficacy and entitlement to pleasure.

What Did Researchers Find?

One of the most problematic viewpoints on women’s sexual health is the idea that greater sexual enjoyment or being more vocal about one’s needs leads to a greater incidence of unwanted pregnancies or STIs. This is an association that has persisted throughout history and continues today, with women being labeled as "promiscuous" for having a healthy relationship with sex or being cautioned against engaging in sexual behavior because it is too risky.

So, is it true that women who rate higher on the FSSI are more likely to experience these negative outcomes? The University of Washington’s research found that no, there was no significant difference in outcomes between women with higher or lower scores.

What they did find, however, was that women who had higher FSSI scores in all categories except sexual self-reflection had more orgasms than those with lower scores. Women who scored highest in self-efficacy in achieving sexual pleasure with a partner enjoyed the highest rates in orgasm frequency. This highlights the important role of communication when it comes to pleasure: women who are more comfortable telling their partner what they want are more likely to reach climax. 

Overall, the research suggests that women with both high self-efficacy levels and high entitlement to pleasure have more orgasms than women who score lower in one or both categories, a sign that women with higher scores are more likely to advocate for themselves when it comes to pleasure.

What makes these findings important is the fact that pleasure itself is important. It proves that outdated views on promiscuity and “risky” sexual behavior are just that — outdated and likely never correct in the first place. Of course, safe sex practices are always advisable to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies, but there is no reason to shame women out of having sex entirely. Yet, for so much of our history, women have been denied pleasure because things like masturbation have been viewed as “dirty” or enjoying a healthy sexual relationship has been viewed as “promiscuous.” 

Fortunately, researchers and educators are seeking to change that — and the FSSI is a good tool to help people assess the societal and psychological constraints that prevent women from experiencing as much pleasure as possible.



When not attempting to conquer the world, Amber can usually be found at her desk, typing away. Health, wellness, and fitness number among her top areas of interest--and that includes emotional and mental wellbeing as well as physical health.