March 31, 2011

How Sex Affects Women's Body Image

(The Huffington Post/Glamour)
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 less satisfied with their appearance. 

As Tracy Clark-Flory wrote this week in her article commenting on this study, the body image findings in this latest research might 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."

As Clark-Flory also points out, "it's not like college-age men's sexual coming of age is one big kegger." Up until they experience that first-sex self-esteem boost, men's body image is in a downward slide. 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." 

However, women's vulnerability when it comes to first sexual encounters doesn't end with the body image issue. As demographer for National Center for Health Statistics Joyce C. Abma reported in her study of young women's first intercourse published in 1998, while significant numbers of young women’s first experience of sexual intercourse is reported as voluntary and not forced, it is also reported as not always being wanted. Abma found that about a quarter of women nationwide between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, who said they had consented to their first intercourse, maintained that they had not entirely wanted it to happen. 

Another survey of American male and female college students by professor of anthropology John Marshall Townsend, published in 1995, found that even when women felt they did not want to become emotionally involved with a person, sexual intercourse typically made women feel vulnerable and concerned about whether or not their sexual partner really cares about her. When women did like their partners, parental-investment thoughts could cross their minds even in their first sexual encounters; “What would our kids look like, what would our wedding be like, where would we go on our honeymoon?”

There's a lot going on here. There's the inflated romantic principle of "love for life" that is being milked by Hollywood, which makes premarital sex problematic for women in particular. For as one of my former students in my "Love, Sex, and Family" college film course said in response to the more sexually pro-active girls featured in Scandinavian films:

"In American films, girls are not portrayed as caring so much about sex; that is the stereotypical guy’s role. In American films, the girls like the guys, but they don’t talk about sex nearly as non-romantically. The girls see sex as a very romantic and intimate thing, and the guy she has sex with is the most important part. Sex for its own sake is not typically something that girls in American films desire. They are not portrayed as being horny; guys, however, are."

The American Pie films are a case in point. In the first installment, American Pie (1999, directed by Paul Weitz), a group of friends—guys in their senior year in high school—make a pact to have sex before or at prom. Despite a very horny girl (portrayed as a freaky geek) and another who does appear comfortable with her sexuality (but then of course she’s a single loner; no match for her) the girls are not an easy catch, despite the guys’ eager efforts. The girlfriend of the main character is adamant he tells her “he loves her” before they “do it.” And after a second Pie film, American Wedding (2003, directed by Jesse Dylan) was released, celebrating eternal love and marriage. 

Rock artist Christina Aguilera sums it up in her song “Can’t Hold Us Down” on her album Stripped (2002): 

If you look back in history it’s a common double standard of society. 
The guy gets all the glory the more he can score, 
while the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore. 
I don’t understand why it’s OK.The guy can get away with it the girl gets named.

To me it goes back to the point of Gina Ogden, sex therapist and author of numerous sex-related books, who points out that there is a curious paradox in our culture about women’s sexuality: “While there is increasing encouragement for women to say ‘No’ to abuse and violence, there is still virtually no broad-based encouragement to say ‘Yes’ to pleasure” (Women Who Love Sex). If we don't want young women to have sex so that men will like them even when they themselves are not in the mood, or worry about how their breasts look from specific angles when they have sex (but instead delight in how a certain position feels good) then encouraging women to say yes to pleasure might be a good place to start.


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