Body confidence :: Do you have sex with the lights on?

If you’ve never had a problem with your body and how other people see it, this column is not for you. For the rest, Dorothy Black turns the spotlight on body confidence in the bedroom.


Lover and I did a strange and unexpected thing the other night. Something completely unusual and a little bit kinky. We had sex with the lights off. It’s been a while since I did that.

Early in my sexual explorations, my body confidence was at an astonishing low and I felt way more comfortable taking my kit off lights out. Switching on the lights during sex was like turning the spotlight on every body anxiety I’d been nursing since childhood. In the dark, there were two things I didn’t have to deal with: my embarrassment at my body and, what I imagined, would be my partner’s horror at the realisation that he was not sleeping with Kate Moss.

There’s really no accounting for the crazy thoughts that insecurity breeds.

Fortunately, my boyfriend at the time wasn’t a troll and I my desire to explore sex more fully finally outgrew my insecurity to express it – lights on or off, clothes on or off. Also, very importantly, it became patently clear that switching off the lights wasn’t exactly switching off the unwelcome voices in my head yammering on about how I *should* be ashamed about being seeing naked.

Self-hate really has the most magnificent scope

Because isn’t it true that ‘being seen’ naked is less about the seeing someone else doing, and more about how those voices in your head consistently demand you see yourself?

I always imagine these voices being made up of childhood bullies (very often parents who love body-shaming their kids) and strangers marketing pop-culture norms to us. Isn’t that what all those ‘beach body’ ‘lifestyle’ drives are about? Cellulite is not normal, it’s gross; big butts are sexy; flat tummies are better than curved; big boobs are better than small; thigh gap is a thing…

It makes for an awkward kind of group sex – you, your lover and all the voices in your head judging your every curve. Or lack of curves. Self-hate really has the most magnificent scope.

It’s a strange kind of psychological masochism, inviting these kinds of thoughts to hang out with you while you have sex instead of actively ushering them out the door. I know women who won’t try certain positions (and heavens certainly not with the lights on), because of how unattractive they think they look in it. To remedy this, I’ve heard some experts recommend that women ignore their insecurities and remember how ‘seeing’ you affects *his* pleasure. After all, ‘men are so visual, you know’.

But why not talk more about how insecurity is affecting your sex life and your pleasure?

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A young woman emailed me once to ask whether it was ok to keep her top on in cowgirl style because she didn’t want her lover to look at her breasts, which she thought were too ‘small and ugly’. Well of course it’s ok, but keeping them covered because you’ve been lead to believe they’re not good enough is only perpetuating the bullshit and keeping you from accepting yourself as you are. I reckon it might even keep you attached to mean and insecure people who like to body shame you.

I had to start trusting the people who affirmed my confidence and let go of anyone who broke it down

I suppose the question comes down to: How do you remedy the problem of damaged body confidence in a context that requires lots of it to really be fun? For me, it had to start at a decision to start valuing experience and pleasure over nursing my shame and insecurities. It meant I had to start trusting the people who affirmed my confidence and let go of anyone who broke it down, either knowingly or not. It meant I had to just put that light on.

These days, I prefer seeing my partner and having them see me. There is so much heat in the act of just that, that a new kind of sensuality has been created by the dark for me. Like using a blindfold, the sensory deprivation heightens everything else – taste, feel, smell … even the physical closeness of breath and whispers.

And that, I think, is the only reason to ever put the lights off. So that you can hear those whispers more urgently, drowning out any of the mean voices that might remain in your head.

This column was first published on Women24…