A disconnect between sexual attitudes and sexual activity may lower women’s well-being

College women tend to report having a worse sex life when there’s a dissonance between their sexual attitudes and their recent sexual activity, according to new research in the Journal of American College Health.

The researchers surveyed 471 heterosexual college women (aged 18–22) regarding their sexual activity over the past 6 months, sexual agency, attitudes on sexual permissiveness, sexual desire, and sexual well-being.

Participants who reported having sex in an exclusive relationship tended to have higher sexual well-being scores than women having casual sex. In other words, women who reported recently having sex in a committed relationship were more likely to agree with statements like “I feel my sexual experiences have given me a more positive view of myself.”

However, sexual well-being was also increased among participants with more permissive attitudes regarding casual sex. This was true of both women who reported recently engaging in casual sex, as well as those reported having sex in an exclusive relationship.

Sexual well-being also tended to be higher among women who reported higher levels of sexual desire and more control over their sexual behaviors.

Women who reported having no recent sexual activity, on the other hand, tended to report lower than average sexual well-being. This was especially true among women with more permissive attitudes towards casual sex.

“Thus, having no recent sex while holding neutral sexual attitudes was associated with fairly low sexual well-being, while — in a similar pattern of dissonance — having casual sex while holding non-permissive sexual attitudes was also associated with low sexual well-being. However, those with the lowest well-being scores were the women who held permissive sexual attitudes but had not engaged in recent sex,” the researchers explained in their study.

The study — like all research — has some limitations. The participants were all recruited from psychology and human development classes at a large, public university and were overwhelmingly Caucasian. The study also employed a cross-sectional design, preventing the researchers from drawing conclusions about the direction of causality.

“In sum, our results suggest that being in a committed relationship, having exclusive sex, having less dissonance between attitudes and activity, having greater sexual agency, and having stronger sexual desire are tied to higher sexual well-being for heterosexual college women today,” the authors of the study concluded.

“Such women may develop healthier sexuality when their attitudes toward sex are more open, when they feel in control of their own bodies, and when they are able to explore their sexuality within the security of a committed partnership.”

The study, “Implications of no recent sexual activity, casual sex, or exclusive sex for college women’s sexual well-being depend on sexual attitudes“, was authored by Christine E. Kaestle and Larissa M. Evans.