Body image plays role in sexual behavior

Sexually active male college freshmen are more likely to undertake risky sexual behavior with multiple partners when they are happy with their body image, Penn State researchers say.

A new study suggests that a positive view of one’s body image may provide an extra dose of confidence for males that can result in unprotected sex.

This behavior exemplifies the stereotypical male ideal of sexual freedom, said Eva Leftkowitz, associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of the study.

But Debra Daniels, director of the U’s Women’s Resource Center, disagrees.

The Penn State findings do not “ring true,” with Daniels’ own experience of teaching men about masculinity, she said.

“I think that there is a cultural and social norm that expects men to have unprotected sex,” Daniels said. “But I refute that it has anything to do with high self-esteem.”

In contrast, some men push themselves to have unprotected sexual activity because their self-esteem is low, Daniels said.

The researchers interviewed 434 students, ages 17 to 19, during the Fall Semester of their first year at college. Fifty-two percent of the students were female.

Leiha Kunz, a freshman in exercise and sports science, said that she agrees with the study because men tend to give their reputation and self-esteem more priority than their partners’ well-being.

“Guys who see themselves as masculine, or as having a hot body, are less likely to use protection,” Kunz said. “Not using a condom is something to be proud of in the male community.”

Allison Pawlus, a freshman in nursing, agreed with the study simply because men’s self esteem often interrupts their abilities to think about their partner.

“Guys usually care more about their reputation than their partner,” Pawlus said. “Women are more likely to focus more on their well-being.”

The study found that the opposite correlation between body image and unprotected sex was true for women.

The study said that sexually active female first-year college students who are happy with their bodies are less likely to undertake those same risks, while those unhappy with their bodies are more likely to have unprotected sex.

“If girls don’t see themselves as pretty or feel good about themselves, they will not be confident enough to ask for protection,” Kunz said.

This is leading some to believe that programs focusing on improving young women’s attitudes toward their body could help promote healthy sexuality, Lefkowitz said.

Confident women are not afraid to demand safety, Daniels agreed.

On average, first-year college students who said they were abstinent rated their body image lower than those who said they were sexually active.

Because cause and effect are unknown, Lefkowitz has developed two possible interpretations for this finding.

“One possibility is that individuals who have ?never had sexual intercourse may have refrained from doing so because they ?have negative feelings about their bodies,” Lefkowitz said. “Another possibility is that the ?experience of sexual activity helps individuals feel more positive about ?their own appearance.”

The researchers are continuing to study the same sample of students to track how alterations in sexual behavior might predict changes in body image and how modification in body image might predict changes in sexual behavior.