NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young men who feel good about their looks are more likely than their peers with a less positive body image to engage in risky sexual behavior, a new study of college students shows.
The men who were most satisfied with their appearance, and the most appearance-oriented -- meaning they were highly invested in their looks and considered appearance to be important -- were also the most likely to have sex without condoms and to have sex with multiple partners, Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz of Pennsylvania State University in University Park and colleagues report.
"There's kind of a general belief that a positive view of your body is a good thing," Lefkowitz said in an interview with Reuters Health. "We're not saying that's not true, but we do think in the case of young men there could be potential negative ramifications of a positive view of one's body."
Among young women, in contrast, those with a more positive body image were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, Lefkowitz and her team found.
The researchers interviewed 434 students, ranging in age from 17 to 19, during their first year of college. Fifty-nine percent reported being sexually active. Just over two-thirds of sexually active students said they didn't use condoms every time they had sex, while a little over half said they used alcohol while having sex at least some of the time.
While sexually active students reported less dissatisfaction with their looks and a more positive body image on average, "it's important to point out that we don't know which comes first," Lefkowitz said. People who feel better about their looks may be more likely to have sex, or being sexually active may confer a better body image, she explained.
As the researchers hypothesized, men with better body images had more lifetime sex partners and were less likely to use condoms during sex, while women who felt more positively about their looks had fewer partners and used condoms more frequently.
The findings show, Lefkowitz and her team conclude, that high self-esteem in terms of appearance may not be protective for young men, but instead may put them in danger of taking risks sexually.
Parents sending sons off to college may want to consider "really emphasizing not just go forth and feel good about yourself, but also within those messages emphasizing the importance of protecting yourself and respect for women," Lefkowitz advised.
SOURCE: Journal of Youth and Adolescence On Line First.