Many researchers who try to understand sexual development from a public health perspective have two choices for framing their research agenda: prevention of risk behaviors or promotion of positive behaviors. I’m interested in combining the two. I aim to understand how young people both prevent pregnancy, STIs, sexual assault, and teen dating violence as well as promote positive body image, pleasurable and satisfying relationships, and sexual agency to make the sexual choices they want to make on their own terms. More than half of all individuals are sexually active by age 18 (1), which suggests we should be more focused on sexual behavior as normative and therefore in need of understanding, instead of in need of preventing. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence (2).
Thus, I’m interested in how people develop sexual health from a psychological perspective. One of the ways in which people do this, is by developing a sense of their sexual self, or what is known as sexual esteem (3). This is likely not a very conscious decision process and one that we are rarely given permission to even consider in our culture. It may be obvious to most that men and women act or are expected to act differently when it comes to sexual attitudes and behaviors and thus, we may hypothesize that men and women would think differently about appraising their sexual self. However, when we tested gender differences in sexual esteem we didn’t find any. We did find differences in the associations between sexual behaviors and sexual esteem between genders though.
We surveyed college students on a wide range of measures related to students’ demographic, behavioral, and relationship characteristics across 7 semesters of college. The survey we used to measure sexual esteem contained 10 items such as “I am a good sexual partner” and “I sometimes have doubts about my sexual competence.”
Overall, participants reported a moderate level of sexual esteem (mean, 2.5 on a scale of 0–4). They reported in the previous 12 weeks on average, they had kissed a partner on the lips 24 times, engaged in oral sex 4 times and engaged in penetrative sex (vaginal or anal) eight times. On average they had 1.4 kissing partners, but fewer partners for oral or penetrative sex. Between the first and fifth semesters, students had spent an average of 1.5 semesters in a romantic relationship.
Contraceptive use was common: Eighty-five percent of those who had penetrative sex in the past 12 weeks had used a method at least some of the time. Although sexual esteem was unrelated to gender, introducing gender interaction terms revealed that the number of penetrative sex partners in the last 12 weeks was significant only for men; the average level of sexual esteem rose from about 2.5 among those reporting no such partners to nearly 3.5 for those reporting approximately two.
Most notably, contraceptive use was associated with sexual esteem in different ways for women and men. Sexual esteem was lower among women who reported no contraceptive use during penetrative sex in the last 12 weeks than among those who reported use. Whereas, sexual esteem was higher among men reporting no contraception use than among those reporting any contraception use. Through the lens of hegemonic masculinity, men are more privileged sexually and therefore can insist on experiencing pleasure and passion over responsibility, whereas women bear the responsibilities of unwanted pregnancy and negative sexual stereotyping, making their sexual choices more burdensome (4, 5). We need to study this construct long term to see which develops first for men: no contraception use or higher sexual esteem in order to align prevention efforts to either ‘reel the boys sexual esteem in’ to promote safer behaviors, or to reconstruct what it means to be a sexual person for a young man.
We believe sexual esteem is an integral part of the development of physical, emotional, and social sexual health competencies. If we further explore which aspects of positive sexuality are associated with more sexual health behaviors and fewer sexual risk-taking behaviors, we could potentially transform approaches to prevention of sexual risk taking.
This study was published in the Journal of Sex Research:
Megan K. Maas & Eva S. Lefkowitz (2014): Sexual esteem in emerging adulthood: Associations with sexual behavior, contraception use, and romantic relationships, The Journal of Sex Research.
About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, and media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I hope this resource produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.