Sexual behavior is associated with increased positive affect and decreased negative affect. However, contextual variables such as partner type, behavior type, and condom use may moderate these associations. The goal of the present research was to examine these contextual moderators using monthly longitudinal data from a sample of young women. Female first-year college students (N = 477) completed monthly assessments of their sexual behaviors and positive and negative affect. Participants reported more negative affect in months in which they engaged in sexual behavior compared to months in which they did not. This association was moderated by partner type, such that only sexual behavior with casual partners was associated with increased negative affect. Participants reported more positive affect during months with kissing/touching only compared to months without sexual behavior; however, this association did not differ significantly from the association between oral/vaginal sex and positive affect. Condom use did not moderate the association between vaginal sex and positive or negative affect. In this sample of young women transitioning to college, engaging in sexual behavior was generally associated with negative affect; however, changes in affect depended on partner type and sexual behaviors. Findings have implications for sexual health education.
Kissing and Touching
Kissing and touching offer emotional and physical intimacy without the risk of unintended pregnancy and with relatively low risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (Thompson, Anisimowicz, & Kulibert, 2017). The reward-to-risk ratio of kissing and touching may explain our finding that women reported more positive affect
during months when they engaged in only kissing and touching compared to months when they engaged in no sexual behaviors. Oral and vaginal sex were not associated with affect. By engaging only in kissing and touching, the emotional benefits of sexual behavior are unmitigated by worries of negative physical consequences (e.g., unplanned pregnancy, STIs). Confidence in this interpretation should be tempered, however, because the differences in the associations of kissing/touching only and oral/vaginal sex with affect were not statistically
significant. Furthermore, at least one past study using a mixed-gender sample found that engaging in only kissing was associated with fewer positive and negative emotional consequences of sexual behavior compared to engaging in oral and/or vaginal sex (Wesche et al., 2017). Additional research is needed to clarify these discrepant findings. One possible explanation is that the monthly time scale of measurement in the present study masked short-term variation in affect, instead of a true null association between oral/penetrative sex and affect.
The finding that kissing and touching but not oral and penetrative sex were associated with more positive affect than not engaging in sexual behaviors suggests prevention possibilities. Although sexual motives are complex and multidimensional, many young adults are motivated to use sexual behavior to cope with negative emotions or to feel good about themselves (Cooper, Shapiro, & Powers, 1998; Patrick, Maggs, Cooper, & Lee, 2011). If kissing and touching lead to positive affect, teaching young adults that kissing and touching offer equal or greater affective benefits as other behaviors may encourage these individuals to prioritize kissing and touching over penetrative sexual behaviors. Sexual educators may consider informing participants that the goal of feeling good can be achieved as easily by kissing and/or touching as by engaging in more physically risky sexual behaviors.