Critical Consciousness and Sexual Pleasure: Evidence for a Sexual Empowerment Process for Heterosexual and Sexual Minority Women
It has long been argued that gender-based inequalities within patriarchy create barriers to women’s sexual well-being, in particular to sexual pleasure. This study integrated Empowerment Theory with research on women’s sexuality to examine multiple factors related to women’s sexual pleasure and satisfaction. An empowerment process is one social psychological mechanism through which less powerful individuals gain influence and power that results in increased opportunities to control decisions that affect their lives. In the present study, 271 heterosexual and 159 sexual minority undergraduate women completed a questionnaire assessing dimensions of sexual empowerment processes, including critical consciousness about gender and sexuality (e.g., feminist identity, conformity to feminine norms), sexual subjectivity (e.g., entitlement to pleasure, self-efficacy, body image self-consciousness), actions (e.g., sexual assertiveness), and sexual pleasure (e.g., sexual satisfaction and orgasm experience). Data were analyzed with structural equation modeling and support was found for sexual empowerment processes in which critical consciousness about gender was indirectly related to sexual pleasure through relationships with two mediators, sexual subjectivity and sexual assertiveness, in line with the hypotheses. While sexual empowerment processes were largely similar for sexual minority and heterosexual women, the groups differed in baseline levels of critical consciousness, some aspects of sexual subjectivity, and sexual assertiveness. Implications for sexual education, clinical practice, and future research are discussed.