Family Matters

Sex and Self-Esteem: A Big Boost for Men, Not So Much for Women

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Losing your virginity can summon up all sorts of emotions. It can also be an exercise in self-esteem or self-doubt, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman, according to researchers from Penn State University who analyzed the debut sexual encounters of college-age males and females.

It’s probably not too surprising that young men report a boost in how they view themselves after first having sex, while young women end up slightly less pleased, according to the study, which was published in April’s Journal of Adolescence.

(More on TIME.com: “Sex and Politics: Are Powerful Men Really More Likely to Cheat?”)

Researchers started with a group of 434 freshmen, ages 17 to 19, and continued to track them for four years. Four times over that period, students were asked to complete a questionnaire assessing their satisfaction with their appearance. Within that time span, 100 students lost their virginity; those were the students on whom the researchers focused.

Judging from the questionnaire results, that first sexual experience had different emotional ramifications for men versus women: researchers found that women’s happiness with how they looked decreased a bit after having sex for the first time, while men’s satisfaction rose.

(More on TIME.com: “Could a New ‘Viagra Condom’ Encourage Safer Sex?”)

“For women, it’s not an overwhelmingly positive experience,” says lead author Sara Vasilenko, a graduate student in human development and family studies at Penn State. “It may be because of sexual double standards, which suggest society might view sex more positively for men and more negatively for women. Premarital sex isn’t necessarily seen as acceptable for women.”

On the other hand, men’s self-image may soar in part due to cultural messages about masculinity. “Men who have sex may feel more attractive because they’re living up to these expectations of what is considered manly,” says Vasilenko.

(More on TIME.com: “He Wants Sex, She Doesn’t. Are Beads the Answer?”)

Sex-ed programs could be tailored to address the link between sex and women’s diminished opinions of their attractiveness. “Promoting better body image could help them feel better about themselves when they do become sexually active,” says Vasilenko.

In general, research revealed that women became more content with their appearance over the course of their time in college, while men grew more dissatisfied. But the flip-flop after an initial sexual encounter is more than merely interesting. It could have negative consequences for the men: in a larger sample that included people who had sex prior to college, researchers found that positive body image can lead to risky sexual behavior for male college students.

(More on TIME.com: “U.S. Study Says Teens Are Having Less Sex”)

“Because the results are so positive, it has the potential to reinforce risky behavior like no condoms and multiple partners,” says Vasilenko.

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