Real Quick: Duke survey says fat ladies can’t get no satisfaction (…no no no!)

By | April 29, 2011

Vintage sepia-toned photograph, in which a nude woman kneels on a pillow-strewn bed, and holds a mirror over her head, while smiling. By Jean Agélou (1878-1921).

Hey hey hey!* There’s new research out about fatties and sex! A pack of scientists from Duke University wanted to find out how fat folks feel about their sex lives, using an established questionnaire that “assesses and scores sexual functioning broadly across nine domains — interest, desire, arousal, orgasm, satisfaction, behavior, relationship, masturbation, and problems.” They’ve published their findings in the May/June issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, and the study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. I guess we’re counting sex parts as digestive organs here. Y’know, for the money.

Tina! Bring me the blockquote!

The researchers analyzed questionnaires completed by 91 men and 134 women before they enrolled in a weight-loss study. They found scores were significantly lower for women than men on all subscales.

“We found that there was lower sexual satisfaction and lower sexual quality of life among women than men, and overall sexual quality of life was low among both groups,” said Truls Ostbye, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Community & Family Medicine at Duke.


“Our findings contribute to a growing body of research that indicates obesity is associated with reduced sexual functioning and sexual quality of life among both men and women,” Ostbye said.

Hmm. Here I shall stroke my imaginary beard and idly wonder why.

The study further compared the questionnaire scores of the fatties with those of the general population, and with those belonging to a group of cancer survivors. Give it up for the obese ladies, as their scores were the lowest, meaning fat chicks feel more crappy about their sex lives than people who have survived cancer. Fat dudes, for their part, were slightly more satisfied than the cancer group, but less than the general population.

The sample size in this study was pretty small, only two hundred and twenty-five people. That itself may be an issue that the more statistically-inclined may want to address. However, I want to focus on the fact that everyone included in the sample was on the verge of enrolling in a weight-loss study, which would seem to indicate that these are all people interested in losing weight. Usually, if one is interested in losing weight, it is because they are either a) suffering some illness or disability they believe weight loss will “fix” or b) they are dissatisfied with their body in an aesthetic way. Or both. It is extremely unlikely that anyone who did not want to lose weight would volunteer for such a study.

The problem is, there is no control here for fat people who are not actively having problems with their bodies. The study purports to represent the experiences of all fat people based on a small group of fat people with a demonstrated interest in changing their bodies, if not a demonstrated dislike of their bodies as they are.

Liking our bodies and being comfortable in our bodies are two critical requirements for healthy sexual function. Let’s look at how a general discomfort with one’s body, one that is supported by cultural fat hatred, might affect some of the domains in the questionnaire. Interest: sexual interest may understandably decline if you believe your body to be unattractive; I’d wager for most folks, the best sex is the sex where we feel most SEXAY. Desire: likewise, feelings of physical inadequacy or low self-esteem can make you feel you are unworthy of sexual pleasure, which is a major boner-killer. Arousal and orgasm: You know what’s poison to both of these? Anxiety. Discomfort. Self-loathing. I’m not suggesting everyone invested in weight loss feels this way, but if you dislike your body enough to want to change it, then these are likely to be factors. And so on.

Of course, there are individual exceptions to all of the above. But I argue that it’s only natural that a culture that consistently condemns fat people as disgusting, unclean, selfish monsters is going to extend its effects into the bedroom. Remember Maura Kelly’s well-publicized disgust at the sight of fat people making out? Or even just individual fat people doing anything in public at all? Kelly is hardly a lone ranger on this subject, and her faux pas was not feeling something lots and lots of people frequently feel when confronted with affectionate fat couples. She crossed the line by publicly broadcasting her disgust as though the fat people she was referencing weren’t actually people at all, like their feelings didn’t matter in the least.

Lots of fat people are accustomed to being treated as though we’re invisible, as though our lives contribute nothing to the world, but are instead merely a drag on resources. Of course this is going to have a chilling effect on how many fat people perceive their bodies, sexually and in every other respect. If fat people are less satisfied with their sex lives, it is likely because they are less satisfied with themselves, with their bodies and with the person they believe their body says they are.

This study seems to be careful not to draw medical or biological connections between body fat and sexual problems, and rightly so, as there’s little to demonstrate any such correlation. A recent study found that obese men actually last longer in bed—7.3 minutes to the average dude’s diminutive 1.8 minutes—and it guessed that different levels of hormones were the cause. A much larger study of sexual behavior amongst 7000 women found that body weight had little effect on whether a woman was having hetero sex, and that obese women were in fact more likely to be sexually active.

Of course, simply having lots of sex doesn’t ensure that sex is enjoyable and satisfying, but my point here is that these issues are a far more complicated suitcase of issues for a tiny study of 225 people to easily unpack. If a fat woman has lots of sex and yet feels an overall lack of satisfaction, that may be because she is not comfortable enough with herself as deserving of sexual pleasure to instruct her partner on what gets her motor running. Weight loss is unlikely to fix this, as a thinner body does not magically come pre-packed with a new, confident personality. Fact is, you deserve sexual pleasure no matter your size, whether you’re giving it to yourself or getting it from someone else. And no diet will ever convince you of that.

Because there is no study that controls for levels of body acceptance, we can’t really know what proportion of all fat people are unhappy with their sex lives. Anecdotally, the ones I know are all pretty stoked with theirs. It’s also worth noting that it is perfectly okay to be uninterested in sex overall, so long as you are comfortable with it. So often, our conversations on these subject carry a pressure to have a “normal” sex drive, when in reality sex drives are as diverse as everything else about humanity: some of them roar, some purr, and some are permanently parked in the back yard rusting their way back to nature. Feeling comfortable with a lack of sex is also an expression of satisfaction: nobody can tell you when or if you should or shouldn’t want sex.

Sexual functioning is an area not often discussed between health care providers and patients in general — and obese patients in particular — according to Ostbye. Providers should keep in mind the possibility of reduced sexual quality of life among their obese patients, and invite them to discuss this issue, he said.


“Because so many obese individuals experience discrimination and prejudice, they appreciate providers who create a warm, supportive environment in which to discuss these sensitive issues.”

Well, at least we agree on something.

* That’s what I saaaay.


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