Negative feelings about sex are no joke. 

Most women grow up with some pretty negative messages about their bodies and sexuality, and even though many of us are able to shake off a lot of that shame and stigma as we get older and move through the world, those early messages we got have some lasting effects that follow us through adulthood.

Lingering shame around experiencing pleasure is likely at the heart of women’s ongoing struggles with having orgasms and struggles with lagging libido. And body shame more broadly can take a lifetime to overcome, and it’s been linked with riskier sexual behavior, sexual dysfunction, and less satisfying sex, not to mention poor confidence and all the mental health struggles that come with feeling bad about your body. 

OK, so what actually combats all the underlying negative feelings women have around sex? 

That was the big question at the center of a new study published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education. The team of researchers—including behavioral scientist Angela Cooke-Jackson, Ph.D., MPH; interpersonal communication researcher Valerie Rubinsky, Ph.D.; and health researcher Jacqueline N. Gunning—surveyed nearly 200 women about the types of messages they received about their bodies and their sexuality growing up. The vast majority of them grew up with negative messages about sex: that they shouldn’t have sex until they’re married, that they’ve got something “pure” they’ll “lose” when they start having sex, and that people will judge them if they do. 

But when asked what helped them develop healthy, positive feelings about their sex lives, there were four main factors that stood out: 

1. Hearing more open conversations about sex

Open dialogue with friends and family about sex, in addition to growing societal conversations about sexuality, was the “main catalyst” for women’s shift to a more positive view of their sexuality. Indeed, past research has shown that open conversations between kids and their parents about sex tend to make kids wait longer to have their first sexual experience and practice safer sex when they do. Other research has shown talking to friends about sex increases women’s sexual self-esteem and ability to ask for what they want in bed. 

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2. Getting more and better sex ed

Literally just getting more information about sex—from friends, the internet, books, or really anywhere—made women feel more positively about it. “Many participants cited further education on the topics of sex, reproductive health, fertility, and menstruation as the catalyst for their improved perceptions of body, self, and health,” the researchers write. “This education was often initiated by the individual and included conducting independent research, asking questions of friends, family, and medical practitioners, and reading further into topics on websites, blogs, and in books.”

3. Getting comfortable with your body

How you feel about your body is deeply tied to how stressed out or how comfortable you feel about sex. Fortunately, the researchers observed that as people developed more bodily acceptance and autonomy, they started to have more positive feelings about it. When you know your body well and feel like you’re in tune with it, you start to love it more. “This paradigm shift towards empowerment often stemmed from participants educating themselves about their bodily functions,” the researchers write, adding, “Emerging from this theme were many notes of menstrual symptom management as a catalyst for improved views of reproductive health. Once women learned to manage symptoms of their reproductive health and menstruation, they felt a sense of control over and ownership of their bodies.”

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4. Ditching gender stereotypes

Past studies have shown women have better sex when they have more feminist beliefs, and a similar trend appeared in this research: As women evolved their definitions of womanhood and femininity and ditched traditional gender roles, they felt more positively about their bodies, sexual health, and sexuality in general. “[There’s] a direct correlation between sexual knowledge and sexual agency, with the development of feminist ideologies contributing to young women seeking sexual knowledge and subsequent sexual assertiveness,” the researchers explain. “It is evident that young women place value on informative, accepting or positive messages, body literacy, and sexual autonomy in their transition to adulthood.”

If you’re looking to develop a healthier relationship with your sexuality—and start having better sex—these are four solid places to start.

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