Associations between sexual behavior and self-esteem among college attending emerging adults

Open Access
Walsh, Kelsie Reilly
Area of Honors:
Human Development and Family Studies
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Eva Sharon Lefkowitz, Thesis Supervisor
  • Kathryn Bancroft Hynes, Honors Advisor
  • Jennifer Lianne Maggs, Faculty Reader
  • sexual behavior
  • self-esteem
  • emerging adults
  • college students
The majority of individuals are or become sexually active during emerging adulthood. Most past research on sexual behavior focuses on the risky aspects of sex and focuses predominantly on adolescents. Though understanding the negative outcomes and associations of sexual behavior in emerging adults is important, sexual behavior may not be solely a negative event. The present study attempts to explore associations between sexual behaviors and self-esteem in a college student sample (N=744). The average age of participants was 18.4 years. The sample consisted of 50.8% female participants. Regarding ethnicity, 25.1% of participants identified as Hispanic/Latino. With regard to race, 15.7% of non-Hispanic/Latinos identified as African American, 23.3% as Asian or Pacific Islander, 27.4% as European American, and 8.5% multiracial. The sexual behaviors assessed were ever having penetrative sex in the past 12 weeks, frequency of sex in the past 12 weeks, number of sexual partners in the past 12 weeks, and condom use in the past 12 weeks. Linear regressions were performed to examine associations between sexual behavior and self-esteem, which included interaction with gender and relationship status to examine potential moderating effects. Results revealed that having penetrative sex in the past 12 weeks was associated with higher self-esteem for male but not female students. In addition, having sex more frequently was associated with higher self-esteem for individuals in serious relationships, and with lower self-esteem for individuals who were not in serious relationships. It is possible that societal views on sexual behavior based on gender may influence emerging adults’ self-esteem. Further, the type of relationship moderated the association between sexual behavior and self-esteem, suggesting that today’s hook-up culture may not be healthy for emerging adults’ wellbeing.