Body image relates to sexual risks taken by men and women differently

In a recent Penn State study, sexually active male first-year college students who had a positive view of their appearance had a higher likelihood of having multiple sexual partners and engaging in unprotected sex.

However, sexually active female first-year college students who were happy with their looks were less likely to undertake those same risks.

Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz, associate professor of human development and family studies and second author of a recently published paper on the study, says, "These findings suggest that programs that focus on improving young women's attitudes toward their body could also help to promote healthy sexuality. However, programs designed to promote positive body image among young men should also include content to help them develop healthy sexual attitudes and respect for women."

The study is detailed in a paper, "Does Body Image Play a Role in Risky Sexual Behavior and Attitudes?," published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in the current On Line First issue. The authors are Meghan M. Gillen, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies, Lefkowitz, and Cindy L. Shearer, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies.

The researchers interviewed 434 students, ages 17 to 19, during the fall of their first year at college. Fifty two percent of the students were female. Thirty nine percent were European American, 32 percent African American, and 29 percent Latino American. Nearly all (97 percent) of the students identified themselves as heterosexual.

Most said they were Protestant (40 percent) or Catholic (38 percent). A little more than half (254) of the students indicated that they were or had been sexually active.

Meghan Gillen, who conducted the study as part of her master's degree thesis, says, "Both men and women who were sexually active evaluated their appearance in a more positive way, were less dissatisfied with their bodies, and were more oriented toward their appearance than sexually abstinent individuals."

In their paper, the authors note that a positive view of one's body may provide an extra dose of confidence for males and, as a result, these men may be confident enough to seek multiple sexual partners and engage in unprotected sex – behaviors that exemplify the stereotypical male role of sexual freedom.

Among sexually active young women, the confidence that comes from a positive body image may work in the opposite way to empower them to resist multiple partners and insist that a condom be used when they do engage in sex.

The researchers write, "Although the present study does not allow us to argue that changing body image can cause a reduction in risky sexual behavior, it does suggest body image as a possible area of intervention."

They add, "Although it is widely believed that a positive view of one's body is beneficial, our results suggest this may not necessarily be the case for males. We are not suggesting that positive body image is harmful to males, but rather that program administrators should be cautious when designing programs for males that address body image, as being quite positive in body evaluation may actually lead to riskier behaviors. One option would be to encourage positive views of the body in males within a comprehensive program that focuses on other issues, such as healthy sexuality and respecting women."

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The study was supported by a grant to Lefkowitz from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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