Lose your virginity -- and your self-esteem

Having sex hurts women's body image, but it boosts men's. We explain why

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published March 28, 2011 8:52PM (EDT)
Young woman folding skin on her hips - close-up fragment (Valua Vitaly)
Young woman folding skin on her hips - close-up fragment (Valua Vitaly)

Losing your virginity is a joyous occasion deserving of high-fives and pats on the back -- that is, assuming you're a dude. Otherwise, it's more likely to make you feel worse about yourself, according to new research.

A Pennsylvania State University study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescence, relied on a longitudinal survey of students who entered college as virgins and found that "male students were more satisfied with their appearance after first intercourse, whereas female students became slightly less satisfied with their appearance." Put another way: The first time around, sex is more likely to boost men's body image and damage women's. Before having sex, women actually feel increasingly better about their bodies; it's only when sex enters the picture that bodily self-confidence falls backward.

This is just the latest research to find that men feel better than women after losing their virginity. A 1995 study found that "women were significantly more likely to report that their first sexual experience left them feeling less pleasure, satisfaction, and excitement than men, and more sadness, guilt, nervousness, tension, embarrassment, and fear." The major culprit is that familiar foe, the sexual double standard in which men are crowned as studs and women are branded as sluts when it comes to sex.

The body image findings in this latest research might also have something to do with what Masters & Johnson dubbed sexual "spectatoring," which is when you see yourself "from a third person perspective during sexual activity, rather than focusing on [your own] sensations and/or sexual partner." Translation: You think, "Do my breasts look OK from this angle" instead of, "Wow, this position feels fantastic." The researchers suggest that women may be especially prone to this -- in part because, duh, they are much more commonly sexually objectified in the culture at large. So, when it comes to actually getting busy, they are more likely to critically evaluate their bodies in terms of the worshiped feminine ideal.

But it's not like college-age men's sexual coming of age is one big kegger, though. Right on up until they experience that first-sex self-esteem boost, men's body image is in a downward slide. They feel worse and worse about themselves as their sexless time in college wears on. The researchers say a possible explanation "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 is a component of masculinity." When they finally do have sex, "they may have felt their masculinity was validated and subsequently felt more positive about their appearance."

When it comes down to it, the sexual double standard is more like a double-edged sword: Culturally speaking, men and women are both rewarded and punished for their sexual status -- it's just that the sexes are following opposite sets of rules. Way to engineer conflict, society/evolution/et cetera.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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