Sex Roles

, Volume 77, Issue 9–10, pp 628–638 | Cite as

Young Women’s Reflections of Viewing a Sexual Image for the First Time

  • Erin S. Lavender-Stott
  • Katherine R. Allen
Original Article


Women are surrounded by sexualized imagery as well as cultural narratives that dictate their sexual behavior. These diverse cultural narratives include: women are sexually passive, women should desire sex and be sexually empowered, and women are expected to navigate ambivalent societal messages regarding their sexuality. In our study, we explored how college-aged young women describe and understand their first exposure to a sexual image. This mixed methods study, guided by critical feminism, addresses how young women, reflecting on their experiences since girlhood, have navigated changing cultural standards for female sexuality in light of complex negotiations among varying expectations. We examined 445 young women’s written reflections on seeing a sexual image for the first time. Most of the women reported that this experience occurred when they were in elementary school, and at home with friends, family, or alone. We found four themes of reactions to seeing the image for the first time: unwanted, intrigued, ambivalent, and neutral. Implications for comprehensive sex education include the need for teachers, parents, and other trusted adults to provide accurate and age-appropriate knowledge and opportunities for discussion about sexuality. Limitations and future directions are also discussed.


College students Feminism Sexual attitudes Sexual imagery Sexuality Sexualization Young women 



The authors received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article. We thank Michelle Murray and anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on an earlier version of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human DevelopmentVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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