Promiscuity and the Double Sexual Standard

Two interesting stories came out this week.

First, a study by Zhana Vrangalova reveals whether promiscuous people would have more friends or not.  From the study itself:

In study after study, promiscuous people are seen as less desirable friends, spouses, or datingpartners, and are judged as less moral, likeable, intelligent, trustworthy, or psychologically healthy than sexually restricted people. One 2013 study of over 24,000 undergrads found that 70% of them would lose respect for someone who “hooks up with lots of people;” another recent studyfound that even promiscuous women themselves preferred less promiscuous women as friends. And everyone—promiscuous or not—expects to be judged harshly by others if they act in a way that suggested they were promiscuous, such as dressing “slutty” or accepting a casual sex offer from a stranger.

Because of the double sexual standard, women are punished more severely for being or looking promiscuous.  Thus, you’d probably expect promiscuous people to be more ostracized, hardly have any friends, more bullied, and more lonely than their non-promiscuous counterparts.  At least, that’s the hypothesis.  The conclusion from the study, however, tells a different story.

However, in contrast to our hypotheses, having more sexual partners was at the same time linked to:

lower loneliness,
greater likelihood of having a best friend,
more close friends
more acquaintances; and
more relatives with whom they communicated on a regular basis.

There were also no gender differences between these links.  So what’s going on?  There’s a paradox of how promiscuous people can have more social connectedness but also experience victimization.  There are a few possibilities.

Possibility one: One hypothesis is that promiscuous people tend to be more extraverted and adventurous.  Extraverted and adventurous people tend to have more friends or social connectedness.  These people love social situations and love being around people, which makes it easier for them to make friends.

Possibility two: People dislike promiscuity in the abstract, but accept it or excuse it when it comes to themselves or their close friends.

Possibility three: Because there is a stigma against promiscuous people, they must keep their reputations intact by having sexual partners away from their main social networks, or they could lie to maintain their friendships.

Some limitations on this study, however, are that the sample size came from undergrads at a single, large, elite, secular and relatively liberal university in the Northeast.  Depending on where this university was at, if the environment was more conservative, the promiscuous people could experience more victimization, in which case there may be a counterbalance them having more friends.

Possibility four: These next possibilities come from another article, but I think it relates to Vrangalova’s study.  It could be that the double sexual standard exists but only in some circumstances such as populations that hold sexist attitudes, or maybe the double sexual standard exists for particular sexual behaviors, or only when negative consequences are revealed.  For example:

If a man and a woman have casual sex but there are no negative consequences, we might judge both similarly.  However, if the sexual encounter results in a sexually transmitted infection, then the sexual double standard would come into play, where the woman would be socially rejected more than the man.

Possibility five: Or the double sexual standard is systemic rather than a position that people hold personally:

In one study, people did not show the sexual double standard when they filled out questionnaires individually, but did reveal the sexual double standard after having group discussions about the scenario, judging a man with more sexual partners as more dominant and successful, while a woman with more sexual partners was seen as less successful and less intelligent (Marks & Fraley, 2007).  This suggests that people may not endorse the sexual double standard personally, but that it might be something created socially.

Whatever the case may be, the last one is really telling.  The double sexual standard still has a social impact if we believe it exists, even if one doesn’t endorse it:

If women believe that they will be judged harshly for providing a condom in a sexual encounter, they may refrain from buying condoms — even if that belief is incorrect (Kelly & Bazzini, 2001; Caron et al., 1993; Hynie & Lydon, 1995).  If women believe that they will be derogated for their sexuality, they may lie about their sexual past, communicate less openly with their partners, or hesitate to pursue their authentic sexuality, which is likely to result in diminished sexual satisfaction for women and their partners (Greene & Faulkner, 2005; Kontula & Haavio-Mannila, 2003). Indeed, the sexual double standard is one reason that women are less likely to experience orgasm in casual sexual encounters as compared to sex within ongoing relationships (Armstrong, England, & Fogarty, 2012).

But how does this work?  How can the double sexual standard hold if individuals don’t believe in it?  It’s because of the systemtic nature of it all.  We believe that other people believe it and so we may act in ways that supports the double sexual standard, even if we don’t personally believe it.  Stearns brilliantly gives some examples:

— The mother who thinks that other people endorse the sexual double standard may caution her daughter to limit her sexual activity (or at least be very discreet about it), without passing along a similar message to her son — even if she doesn’t personally support the sexual double standard.

— The principal who believes that girls will get a bad reputation for dressing “provocatively” may create dress code policies that require girls to dress modestly, without so restricting boys’ attire — even if he personally disagrees with the sexual double standard.

— The woman who believes that others endorse the sexual double standard may feel free to publicly criticize her female friends’ sexual behaviors, while feeling more constrained about criticizing the same behavior of her male friends —  even though she personally has the same sexual standard for both men and women.

— The talk show host who thinks the audience supports the sexual double standard may create a program debating the issue, thus telling viewers that the sexual double standard still exists —even though he does not personally agree with the sexual double standard.

As long as parents and friends and school administrators and politicians and pundits all continue to believe that girls and women are judged by a more restrictive sexual standard than are men, they will be likely to continue to treat girls and women differently from boys and men.  They will feel freer to express negative judgments of women’s sexual choices.  They will continue to blame women for negative sexual outcomes.  They will urge women to constrain their sexuality so as to avoid a bad reputation.  They will create policies that restrict women’s expression of sexuality — for their own good, of course.  

In this sense, whether or not we personally support a sexual double standard is less relevant than whether we act as though it exists.  As long as we believe that the sexual double standard exists and act accordingly, we continue to create a society in which women’s sexuality will be more constrained than men’s…The double standard may or may not exist in our psychology, but it certainly exists in our society, and we are all bearing its cost.

Why does this happen?  Let’s suppose that no one, or hardly anyone believes in the double sexual standard, yet people continue to uphold it.  I think it may have to do with not only upholding sexual norms, but upholding social epistemic norms.  In both cases, people want to fit in otherwise one’s reputation will be tarnished.   If someone makes a slutty remark or a slut joke, people may laugh or join in so that we can be part of the group.  If we, instead, berate the person, we don’t fit in and that gets to us even more.  In a way, this explanation is expanding on possibility two.

But what suggestions could we have to break away from this system?  How do we break this mold?  What are some of the ways to undermine the systemic institutional structure of something when—hypothetically—hardly any individual believes it?  To that, I don’t have a clear answer.


About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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