CORE Review Finds Close Association Between Economic and Sexual Wellbeing

A new analysis led by CORE Director Jenny A. Higgins, Madison Lands, Mfonobong Ufot, and Sara McClelland reviewed 47 studies from over 22 countries, and found nearly universal associations between socioeconomic constraints and poorer sexual wellbeing.

Public health organizations such as the American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization emphasize that sexual health involves positive and pleasurable sexual experiences, not only the prevention of negative sexual outcomes. However, surprisingly little research has paid specific attention to sexual pleasure and its relationship with poverty. To address this gap, CORE researchers systematically drew from nearly studies to document relationships between socioeconomic conditions (such as financial stressors, income, and education level) with indicators of sexual wellbeing (such as sexual satisfaction, functioning, and orgasm).

The authors proposed a variety of pathways through which socioeconomic conditions may shape sexual wellbeing and flourishing. Such pathways include, but aren’t limited to:

  • financial-associated stress, which can undermine positive aspects of sexuality;
  • the psychosocial effects of having comparatively less social and political clout, which can undermine all aspects of health, including sexual health;
  • expectations for enjoyable sexual experiences, which can be undermined by poverty; 
  • inadequate housing and access to private space, which can also erode pleasurable sexual experiences.

The authors argue that true “erotic equity” can only come about after sweeping changes to educational and employment opportunities as well as access to health and social services. 

While these changes will take time, sexual health as a human right depends on them. Sexual pleasure and positive sexual experiences are a critical part of reproductive autonomy and reproductive justice.

In 94% of studies the authors reviewed, poorer socioeconomic conditions were significantly associated with poorer sexual wellbeing and flourishing. People with comparatively low levels of income reported much lower levels of sexual satisfaction compared to those living on higher incomes. The relationship between socioeconomic conditions and sexual flourishing were consistent across geographic location and gender.

The authors identified many limitations with the existing research on this topic, including narrow and one-dimensional approaches to poverty – a very complex concept and experience. The articles included in the review were primarily focused on cisgender women, and studies from the United States and Europe contained overwhelmingly white samples. Future research in this area must attend to both gender and racial diversity.

Without broader structural improvements to socioeconomic opportunities for all, poverty will continue to undermine sexual wellbeing, which is a fundamental human right.

Read the open-access article in The Journal of Sex Research here.