This study used longitudinal data to explore whether previously abstinent college students’ satisfaction with appearance changes after engaging in first intercourse. We did not find an overall trend in changes in satisfaction with appearance, but instead found differing patterns for male and female students. On average, the male students in our sample became less satisfied with their appearance over time, and transitioning to first intercourse was associated with a more positive view of their appearance. A possible explanation for this finding is that male students who are abstinent at the start of college, and thus are late in timing of first intercourse, may feel less positive about their appearance over time because they have not engaged in behavior that that is a component of masculinity (Marsiglio, 1998
). When these male students engaged in intercourse, they may have felt their masculinity was validated and subsequently felt more positive about their appearance. For male students, self-concept, which includes how they feel about their appearance, may be tied to their sexual behavior and feelings of sexual competence (Marsiglio, 1998
; Wiederman, 2005
). These findings suggest that associations between sexual behavior and male students’ body image observed in cross-sectional studies (Gillen et al., 2006
; Trapnell et al., 1997
) may be due in part to increases in satisfaction with appearance after first intercourse.
On average, female students who were abstinent at the start of college became more satisfied with their appearance over time, and transitioning to first intercourse had only a small negative impact on their body image. Adolescent girls are generally more dissatisfied with their adult body after puberty than boys, likely due to cultural expectations of thinness that are more typical of prepubescent girls than adult women (Stice, 2003
). Thus, the overall increase in satisfaction with appearance for female students may reflect increased comfort with their appearance as they have become more accustomed to viewing themselves as mature adults. Becoming sexually active, however, may not have been associated with the increase in satisfaction with appearance experienced by male students, as women are more sexually objectified, and being physically attractive is seen as more important for women than men. Subsequently, female students may engage in more spectatoring or body monitoring, and thus may feel more self-conscious when engaging in sexual activity with a partner (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997
; Masters & Johnson, 1970
). In addition, girls and women generally report less positive feelings about first intercourse than boys and men (Darling et al., 1992
; Smiler et al., 2005
; Sprecher et al., 1995
), possibly due to sexual double standards that encourage sexual behavior for men but restrict women’s sexual behavior (Crawford & Popp, 2003
). Because women may feel less satisfied by and more guilty about their experience with first intercourse, they may feel less positive about themselves after engaging in first intercourse than their male peers, and subsequently may not experience an increase in satisfaction with appearance after first intercourse. Our finding for female students differs somewhat from cross-sectional research (Gillen et al., 2006
; Trapnell et al., 1997
) which suggests that both male and female students who are sexually active are more satisfied with their appearance than their abstinent peers. These results suggest that, for women, such cross-sectional associations may be due to other factors, such as more positive body image predicting engaging in sexual behavior (Lammers et al., 2000
) or a third variable, such as greater physical attractiveness predicting both body image and likelihood of sexual behavior.
It is important to note that our finding represent average
trajectories for men and women, and some women may feel more satisfied with their appearance after engaging in first intercourse. Thus, it is important to examine factors that may contribute to differences in individuals’ responses to first intercourse. Research on affective outcomes of first intercourse has found that many girls do experience positive feelings about this event (O’Sullivan & Hearn, 2008
; Thompson, 1990
), and sex in the context of a longer term relationship leads to a smaller gender difference in reaction to first intercourse (Sprecher et al., 1995
). Future research should examine factors, such as the relationship with first sexual partner, that may be associated with more positive outcomes for girls and women after first intercourse.
These results contribute to the study of normative and healthy sexual development in several ways. First, this study examined associations between sexual behavior and satisfaction with appearance, which are important aspects of healthy sexual development (Brooks-Gunn & Paikoff, 1994). Our findings suggest that for women, engaging in sexual intercourse may linked to self-consciousness, and subsequently may not be associated with increased satisfaction with appearance. Thus, sexuality education programs could promote healthy sexual development by promoting body image in girls or young women. In addition, this study examined potential change in body image after first intercourse in individuals who were relatively late in their timing of first intercourse. Much of the research on psychological outcomes of first intercourse has reported negative correlates of engaging in first sex earlier than peers (e.g. Bingham & Crockett, 1996
; Hallfors, Waller, Ford, Halpern, Brodish, & Iritani, 2004
; Meier, 2007
). However little is known about this transition in later adolescence or emerging adulthood. Our research suggests that the transition to first intercourse can have a positive impact on well-being for male adolescents and emerging adults, for whom sexual behavior may be seen as an important part of their masculine identity (Marsigllio, 1998). Future studies like this can contribute to a better understanding of sexual development by examining positive and negative psychological consequences of sex at different times in adolescence and emerging adulthood, in order to determine what factors lead to a more positive transition to first intercourse.
Although our results suggest that becoming sexually active can have a positive impact on some individuals’ well-being, it is important to consider how positive consequences of sex, such as the greater satisfaction with appearance, may relate to future sexual risk behaviors. The consequences of engaging in sexual behavior could influence future sexual risk behavior (Brady & Halpern-Felsher, 2007
; Toates, 2009
). Men with more positive body image engage in more risky sexual behaviors, and engaging in these behaviors may be a way of enhancing their masculinity and positive feelings about themselves (Gillen et al., 2006
). Taken together with our finding that men feel more positively about their appearance after engaging in first intercourse, it is possible that men may engage in sexual behavior and possibly risky behaviors like sex with multiple partners, in order to experience more positive feelings about themselves. Thus, future research should address how experiencing positive consequences of sex, such as more positive body image or self-esteem, may influence future motivations for sex and sexual behavior.
There are several limitations to this study that future research could address. This sample consisted of college students who were abstinent at the start of the study. Thus it is not known whether these results would be replicated in samples of individuals who do not attend college, or with adolescents who engage in first intercourse at an earlier age. Longer-term longitudinal studies could examine how consequences of first intercourse may differ for individuals in different stages of adolescence and emerging adulthood. An additional limitation of this study is the amount of time between when individuals engaged in first intercourse and when they completed the surveys. We may not have been able to pick up on short term changes in satisfaction with appearance that occurred immediately after first intercourse. Future research could include surveys at monthly or weekly intervals in order to better detect shorter term changes in body image or other attitudes as a result of first intercourse. Finally, this study examined only penetrative sex, and future work should examine outcomes of other behaviors. Receiving oral sex appears to be particularly salient for body image in college women (Weiderman & Hurst, 1998), and research on younger adolescents suggests that transitions to earlier, non-coital behaviors may be more strongly associated with changes in sexual cognitions than intercourse (O’Sullivan & Brooks-Gunn, 2007). Including non-coital behaviors in future studies would give a fuller picture of adolescents’ sexual experience, including the experiences of lesbian adolescents.
Despite these limitations, this study makes several important contributions. First, it uses a longitudinal design to assess associations between body image and engaging in first sexual intercourse. These analyses suggest that, for male college students in particular, associations between body image and sexual behavior may be due at least partially to increased satisfaction with appearance after engaging in first intercourse. Second, this study examined the initiation of first intercourse in late adolescence, a topic that has received relatively little attention. In addition, this study adds to the knowledge of normative sexual development. Instead of using a risk perspective, we viewed sexual intercourse as a normative transition and explored a potentially positive outcome of transitioning to first intercourse. We found that first sexual intercourse can be associated with changes in psychological outcomes, even for individuals who experience this transition late relative to their peers. These findings underscore the importance of studying how sexual behavior is associated with psychological well-being.