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Penn State Researchers Say Body Image

Penn State Researchers Say Body Image
Influences Sexual Risks by Men, Women

According to a recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, a positive body image plays a significant role in the sexual decisions men and women make. The study, which surveyed 434 first-year students at the university, found that men who approved of their physical appearance were more likely to have multiple sexual partners and engage in risky behavior like unprotected sex. Women who had a positive body image displayed the opposite reaction, and were less likely to engage in such risky behavior.

“These findings suggest that programs that focus on improving young women’s attitudes toward their body could also help to promote healthy sexuality,” says Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz, an associate professor of human development and family studies and an author of the study. “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, “Does Body Image Play a Role in Risky Sexual Behavior and Attitudes?” appears in the February issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Just over half of the 434 students surveyed were female, and 39 percent of the students were White. Thirty-two percent of the students were Black and 29 percent were Hispanic. Fifty-eight percent said they were sexually active. According to the study, sexual activity appears to be one key to an enhanced body image.

“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,” says Meghan Gillen, a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies and one of the authors of the study.

The study suggests that males who like how they look are more inclined to reflect stereotypically male behavior patterns, including sexual promiscuity. Their confidence in their bodies leads the men to actively pursue multiple partners. Meanwhile, women who are confident in their appearance are likely to resist the sexual advances of multiple men. And when they do engage in sexual activity, physically confident women feel more comfortable insisting on condom use.

“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,” reads the report.

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