Correlates of genital perceptions among Canadian post-secondary students.

Author:Morrison, Todd G.


The current research summarizes three studies (Ns = 312, 584, and 176) examining genital perceptions among groups of Canadian post-secondary students. Results indicated that male participants evidenced consistently more favourable views of their genitalia in comparison to female participants. Men and women who were non-virgins (i.e., had engaged in vaginal and/or anal intercourse) also reported more favourable perceptions than their virgin counterparts. In addition, among those who were sexually experienced, the favourability of their genital perceptions correlated positively with sexual esteem, and negatively with body-image self-consciousness and sexual anxiety. Finally, item analysis suggested that, for men, the locus of genital dissatisfaction was penis size whereas for women, the loci were genital odour and pubic hair (amount and texture). Limitations of the current research and directions for future inquiry are provided.


Research suggests that perceptions of physical appearance are associated with variations in sexual functioning. For example, in a large survey of female readers of Shape magazine (N = 3,627), Ackard, Kearney-Cooke, and Peterson (2000) found that those who reported being satisfied "when they looked at their body in a mirror" (p. 424) were more likely than their dissatisfied counterparts to feel comfortable undressing in front of their partner; have sex with the lights on; and initiate new sexual activities. In addition, participants satisfied with their bodies expressed greater confidence in their ability to provide sexual pleasure to their partner, and reported having sex more often and being more likely to achieve orgasm. Wiederman and Hurst (1998) similarly identified differences in sexual activity as a function of perceived attractiveness. Female participants who had experienced cunnilingus evidenced significantly higher mean scores on a single-item measure of self-rated bodily attractiveness than those who had never experienced this form of oral sex. The authors also found that participants' sexual esteem (i.e., the tendency to view oneself positively as a sexual partner) correlated positively with self-rated bodily and facial attractiveness. Finally, Cash, Maikkula, and Yamamiya (2004) examined the association between body-image and sexual functioning in samples of male and female college students. In this study, dispositional and situational body-images were measured. The former conceptualises satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with one's physical appearance as a global trait whereas the latter focuses on body-image as it is experienced within specific contexts (e.g., during sexual intimacy). Results indicated that participants' general body satisfaction correlated negatively with their level of anxiety about exposing parts of the body during sexual activity (i.e., situational body-image). Intriguingly, multiple regression analysis revealed that situational, but not dispositional, body-image emerged as a significant predictor of sexual functioning for male and female participants. The nature of the association was negative such that greater anxiety about the body during sexual activity was associated with poorer sexual functioning. This finding suggests that perceptions of the body during sexual activity may play a more important role in sexual functioning than assessments of physical appearance that are not context specific.

Although body-image and sexual functioning have received empirical scrutiny, surprisingly little research has examined the association between individuals' genital perceptions and their sexual attitudes and behaviours. Winter (1989) reported that male participants who described themselves as possessing large genitalia evidenced more favourable genital image, body image, and beliefs about their sexual abilities, as opposed to those who described their genitalia as being average or small in size. Using a small sample of female clients seeking treatment for an unspecified sexual dysfunction, Berman and associates (2003) found that participants' genital self-image correlated negatively with levels of sexual distress and depression. A non-significant correlation was obtained between genital perceptions and scores on a measure of female sexual functioning; however, the size of this correlation (.34) suggests that its non-significance is attributable to the small number of participants used (N = 31). To the authors' knowledge, only one published study provides comparative information on men and women's genital perceptions. Reinholtz and Muehlenhard (1995) found that, as hypothesized, perceptions of male college students were more favourable than those of female college students. In addition, the favourability of participants' genital perceptions correlated positively with involvement in, and self-reported enjoyment of, specific sexual activities (e.g., oral sex). Based on the findings obtained in their study, the authors concluded that "attitudes toward the genitals are an important facet of human sexual experience" (p. 164).

The purpose of the current research was to expand understanding of the correlates of genital perceptions among non-clinical samples of men and women. Three studies were conducted (Ns = 312, 584, 176) with samples of university students attending institutions located in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan (Canada).


In this study, male and female genital perceptions were examined in relation to sexual status (virgin/non-virgin), sexual-esteem, and body satisfaction. On the basis of the preceding review of the literature, the following hypotheses were formulated:

Hypothesis 1: Non-virgins will evidence more favourable genital perceptions than will virgins.

Hypothesis 2: The favourability of genital perceptions will correlate positively with body satisfaction.

Hypothesis 3: The favourability of genital perceptions will correlate positively with sexual-esteem.

Hypothesis 4: Males will evidence more favourable genital perceptions than will females.



Participants were 312 self-identified heterosexual post-secondary students (149 males; 163 females) enrolled in a community college in Alberta, Canada. Mean ages for males and females were 23.2 (SD = 6.8, range = 17 to 56) and 20.1 (SD = 3.6, range = 17 to 40), respectively. No additional demographic data were collected.


Participants received a questionnaire that contained a variety of measures. However, only those pertinent to the current research are described. It should be noted that all measures were coded such that higher scores denote more of the construct in question. As well, information concerning reliability and validity is provided by the authors cited.

Body-image Inventory (BII; Levitan, 1983). The BII consists of 40 items and examines satisfaction with various features of the body (e.g., hands, face, and weight). In the current study, a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = very dissatisfied; 5 = very satisfied) was used, with total scale scores ranging from 40 to 200.

Female Genital Image Scale (FGIS; Morrison, Ellis, Bearden, Harriman, & Morrison, 2004). The FGIS contains 12 items and measures how women perceive various aspects of their genitals (e.g., tightness, shape, attractiveness). For each item, female respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction using a 5-point Likert-type rating scale (1 = very dissatisfied; 5 = very satisfied). Total scale scores can range from 12 to 60.

Male Genital Image Scale (MGIS; Winter...

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