Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Sexual Double Standard: Elusive and Ever-Present

Illustration by Hayley Lim via
"She just keeps going over there because she wants his attention because she likes him.  That's disgusting.  That to me, if you want to talk about slutty, that to me is whoring yourself out.  And, I mean, I hate to say that because she is one of my best friends, but good God, it's like how stupid can you be?" (female college student at a Midwestern American university from Armstrong et al., 2014, p. 108)
The sexual double standard reflects a pattern of women being judged more negatively than men for similar sexual behaviors (Jonason & Marks, 2009).  If a man engaging in causal sex is hailed as a "stud" or "player", but a women with the same sexual history is tarred as a "slut" or "whore", it reflects the sexual double standard.  In many societies, women are held to stricter sexual standards than men are, where it is more acceptable for men to engage in premarital or extramarital sex, for example, than it is for women to do the same (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002).

Is there a sexual double standard in the United States today?  Most people would probably say yes (Marks & Fraley, 2005; Milhausen & Herold, 1999, 2001).  Certainly young women worry about being stigmatized as a slut (Armstrong et al., 2014).  

Interestingly, though, research on the sexual double standard has been mixed.  This topic has been researched fairly extensively, but the results are inconsistent:  Some studies find evidence of the sexual double standard, while other studies do not find such evidence (Crawford & Popp, 2003; Fugère et al, 2008).

For example, let's look at perceptions of contraceptive use:  Is a woman judged more negatively than a man when providing a condom in a sexual encounter?  Having a condom indicates sexual readiness and possibly experience, so the sexual double standard would suggest that a woman with a condom would be seen as "slutty" while a man with a condom would be seen as "responsible."   Suppose we give people scenarios in which a woman and a man are having a casual sexual encounter, but some of the people read a scenario in which the woman provides a condom, while others read one in which the man provides a condom or a third version where no condom is used.  What would we find?
  • In Hynie and Lydon (1995), female undergraduates judged the woman's behavior more negatively and as more inappropriate when she provided a condom than when her male partner did so (or when no condom was used): evidence of the sexual double standard.  They also assumed her male partner would feel more negatively about her when she provided a condom than when he provided the condom. 
  • On the other hand, Kelly and Bazzini (2002) conducted the same study with both male and female undergraduates and found no evidence of the sexual double standard.  In fact, female participants (and to some extent, male participants) judged the woman more positively when she provided a condom than when no condom was used.  Although again, female students (but not male students) thought her male partner would feel more negatively about her when she provided the condom.  (This belief is important and I'll come back to it later on.)
  • In Young, Penhollow, and Bailey (2010), men, but not women, exhibited the sexual double standard, rating the woman more negatively when she provided a condom (compared to the same scenario when no condom was mentioned), while the man was rated more positively when he provided a condom.  Male participants rated the female character most positively when she didn't have casual sex and least positively when she had casual sex and provided the condom, but the male character was rated least positively in the "no sex" condition and most positively when he had casual sex and provided the condom -- a classic example of the sexual double standard.   
Such conflicting results may tempt us to throw up our hands in exasperation and mutter about the deficiencies of psychological science.  But wait!  There are really only three basic explanations of this kind of mixed research evidence:
  1. The effect does not exist
  2. The effect exists but is very small
  3. The effect exists but only under certain circumstances

Explanation 1:  The sexual double standard no longer exists

This explanation would argue that men and women are judged by the same sexual standard.  Some researchers have found that people judge both men and women who have had a larger number of sexual partners more negatively than those who have had fewer partners, particularly if those partners were from noncommitted, casual relationships -- in other words, those who are more sexually permissive are derogated, regardless of their gender (Marks & Fraley, 2005; O'Sullivan, 1995).

A recent large, nationwide (though not fully representative) survey of U.S. college students found that three-quarters of them agreed equally with the statement "If women hook up or have sex with lots of people, I respect them less" and the same statement about men, indicating that most students profess that they hold a single sexual standard (Allison & Risman, 2013).*  (Some lost respect for both men and women, and some did not lose respect for either.)

The sexual double standard did emerge for some students in the study, though:  Twenty-eight percent of the men and 4% of the women held the sexual double standard, losing respect for women who have sex with lots of people, but not for men who do the same (the remaining students held a reverse double standard, in which men were derogated more than women for having sex with lots of people; Allison & Risman, 2013).  Overall, the study seems to support the claim that the majority of college students no longer hold the sexual double standard, at least in terms of their explicit attitudes. 

But how does this explain the studies that do find evidence of the sexual double standard?  This explanation would remind us that even when there is no real effect, sometimes we will find what appears to be evidence of one, just by random chance.  That is why it is so important to replicate the results of a study (that is, to do the study again to see if you get the same findings).

Explanation 2:  The sexual double standard exists, but it is a relatively small effect that is hard to detect

Perhaps women are judged just a little more negatively than men for their sexual behaviors.  When an effect is very small, it can be hard to see it in the data.  So perhaps some of the studies didn't have a sensitive enough scale to reveal the effect.  (Imagine trying to measure the impact of adding a feather on a bathroom scale -- it just isn't set up to detect such a tiny difference in weight.)  Or maybe there weren't enough people in the study to establish that the effect was statistically significant  -- we would say that there isn't enough statistical power in those studies, due to a small sample size.  (Remember that researchers use statistical tests to prove that any difference between the different conditions is a real difference, rather than some random fluke, and sample size is one of the factors that affects the results of those statistical tests.)  There might be so much variability in the data that the effect gets lost.  If people use a wide range of the rating scale, we could have trouble seeing a difference between the experimental conditions because of all the "statistical noise" in the data (particularly for studies that use a between-subjects design; Crawford & Popp, 2003).

So according to this explanation, the studies that find a sexual double standard are finding a real (if small) effect, and the studies that fail to find the pattern merely lack a sufficiently sensitive and powerful research design to reveal the effect.

Explanation 3:  The sexual double standard exists, but only in some circumstances

This is, in some ways, the most interesting explanation.  Here we would argue that the sexual double standard still exists, but only in some populations, only in particular contexts, or only when measured in a certain way.

Maybe the sexual double standard exists, but only in some populations. 
Perhaps we would see the sexual double standard emerge more among those who hold sexist attitudes (Zaikman & Marks, 2014). Endorsement of the sexual double standard could differ by ethnicity, social class, or gender, as well (Fugère et al, 2008).  While there has been less systematic attention to differences across ethnicity and social class, researchers have explored whether the sexual double standard is held more strongly among men or women, but studies on this question have generated mixed results (Allison & Risman, 2013; Sprecher, Treger, & Sakaluk, 2013).

Perhaps the sexual double standard only applies to particular sexual behaviors.  
It might be that, as sexual norms have changed over time, it is equally acceptable for women and men to engage in some sexual behaviors, such as sex within committed relationships, but women are still judged more negatively than men for other types of sexual behaviors, such as casual sex or threesomes (Jonason & Marks, 2009; Sprecher, Treger, & Sakaluk, 2013).

Maybe the sexual double standard is only revealed under certain circumstances. 
The sexual double standard might only be applied when the sexual behavior in question has some kind of negative outcome.  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 (Smith, Mysak, & Michael, 2008).

Or it might have to do with our own cognitive resources.  A study by Marks (2008) found that the sexual double standard only emerged when participants were distracted (they had to remember a long number while completing the questionnaire).  We are more likely to be influenced by stereotypes when our attention is divided among multiple tasks than when we can devote our full attention to evaluating the individual.  It might be that we do hold the sexual double standard (maybe even at a nonconscious level), but that when we are not distracted, we are able to consciously override our underlying sexual double standard.  If we are cognitively busy, though, we are no longer able to put aside our bias, so the sexual double standard affects our judgment.  (Of course, it is worth noting that we are usually distracted when we are in social situations and evaluating other people.)

Alternatively, it might be that the sexual double standard only emerges in social interactions.  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.
Making it Real
"I think that -- yeah, there is definitely the feeling of trying to avoid those negative labels like slut or . . . you're trying to avoid that, then sometimes it comes down to having to prove it to people." (female college student from Sakaluk et al., 2014, p. 522)
What's particularly troubling about the sexual double standard, though, is that we can make it real even if it's not.  Even if the sexual double standard doesn't exist, it still has a social impact, as long as we believe it exists.

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).
"I'd say that women are more inclined to -- uh, single women in particular -- are more inclined to shield their real sex drive for fear of being labeled as a 'slut' or anything like that." (male college student from Sakaluk et al., 2014, p. 520)
And why shouldn't women believe that the sexual double standard exists?  They see and hear evidence of it all around them.  They hear it in everyday conversations, where women label other women sluts (Armstrong et al., 2014).  They see girls criticized for their "provocative" attire by teachers who fail to hold boys similarly accountable for their sexuality (Rahimi & Liston, 2009),  They see the sexual double standard on television, where sex is more likely to be shown as having negative consequences when it is initiated by a woman than when it is male-initiated (Aubrey, 2004).  And they see the harassment that is directed at girls and women who are identified as sluts (Tanenbaum, 2000).  

Our belief in the pervasiveness of the sexual double standard has the potential to affect our behavior in many ways:
-- 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 belief in the sexual double standard is likely to increase risky sexual behaviors and reduce sexual and relationship satisfaction, not to mention causing anxiety and distress for girls and women who strive to avoid being labeled as a slut . . . or struggle with the harassment that comes from being so labeled.  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.


If you've read this far, you deserve a reward!  Submit a comment on this post by Sunday April 12, and you will have the opportunity to win a copy of Jessica Valenti's book, He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know.  Jessica Valenti is the founder of the excellent feminist blog, Feministing.  In this book, she reminds us of the breadth and scope of the double standards that have been embedded within sexism, but also provides suggestions for how to fight back against the double standards. Be sure that I have your email address so that I can notify you if you are the winner. I'll do a random draw and announce the winner during the following week.

*NOTE:  One of the challenges of interpreting this literature is that studies have used different methods and measures, so we need to look carefully at the methodology of each study to interpret the results.  For example, since the item in this survey (Allison & Risman, 2013) did not specifically define the term "lots of people", it is possible that the sexual double standard influences how students interpret that statement.  That is, they might imagine that a man having sex with "lots of people" has 12 or more partners, while a woman having sex with "lots of people" has 6 or more partners.  If so, although their ratings of how much they lose respect for a man and a woman who has sex with "lots of people" may be the same, the sexual double standard would still lurk behind their interpretation of the question.  Without a more specific phrasing of the question, it is hard to know whether the participants interpreted the question in the same way for both men and women.  It is also possible that people may not support the sexual double standard in their explicit attitudes, but they might reveal the sexual double standard when evaluating individual women and men or in other contexts.


Allison, R., & Risman, B. J. (2013).  A double standard for "Hooking Up": How far have we come toward gender equality?  Social Science Research, 42, 1191-1206.  doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.04.006

Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2012).  Accounting for women's orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships.  American Sociological Review, 77, 435-462.  doi: 10.1177/0003122412445802

Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L. T., Armstrong, E. M., & Seeley, J. L.  (2014).  "Good girls":  Gender, social class, and slut discourse on campus.  Social Psychology Quarterly, 77, 100-122.  doi: 10.1177/0003122412445802

Aubrey, J. S. (2004).  Sex and punishment:  An examination of sexual consequences and the sexual double standard in teen programming.  Sex Roles, 50, 505-514.

Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2002)  Cultural suppression of female sexuality.  Review of General Psychology, 6, 166-203.  doi:  10.1037//1089-2680.6.2.166

Caron, S. L., Davis, C. M., Halteman, W. A., Stickle, M. (1993).  Predictors of condom-related behaviors among first-year college students.  The Journal of Sex Research, 30, 252-259.

Crawford, M., & Popp, D.  (2003).  Sexual double standards:  A review and methodological critique of two decades of research.  The Journal of Sex Research, 40, 13-26.  

Fugère, M. A., Escoto, C., Cousins, A. J., Riggs, M. L., & Haerich, P.  (2008).  Sexual attitudes and double standards:  A literature review focusing on participant gender and ethnic background.  Sexuality & Culture, 12, 169-182.  doi:  10.1007/s12119-008-9029-7

Greene, K., & Faulkner, S. L.  (2005).  Gender, belief in the sexual double standard, and sexual talk in heterosexual dating relationships.  Sex Roles, 53, 239-251.  doi:  10.1007/s11199-005-5682-6

Hynie, M., & Lydon, J. E.  (1995). Women’s perceptions of female contraceptive behavior: Experimental evidence of the sexual double standard. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 563-581. 

Jonason, P. K., & Marks, M. J. (2009).  Common vs. uncommon sexual acts: Evidence for the sexual double standard.  Sex Roles, 60, 357-365. doi: 10.1007/s11199-008-9542-z

Kelly, J, & Bazzini, D. G. (2001). Gender, sexual experience, and the sexual double standard: Evaluations of female contraceptive behavior. Sex Roles, 45, 785- 799.

Kontula, O., & Haavio-Mannila, E. (2003). Single and double sexual standards in Finland, Estonia, and St. Petersburg. The Journal of Sex Research, 40, 36-49.

Marks, M. J. (2008). Evaluations of sexually active men and women under divided attention: A social cognitive approach to the sexual double standard. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30, 84-91. doi: 10.1080/01973530701866664

Marks, M. J., & Fraley, R. C. (2005).  The sexual double standard:  Fact or fiction?  Sex Roles, 52, 175-186. doi: 10.1007/s11199-005-1293-5

Marks, M. J., & Fraley, R. C. (2007).  The impact of social interaction on the sexual double standard.  Social Influence, 2, 29-54.  doi:  10.1080/15534510601154413

Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S.  (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of University women. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, 361-368.

Milhausen, R.R., & Herold, E. S. (2001).  Reconceptualizing the sexual double standard.  Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 13, 63-83.

O'Sullivan, L. F. (1995).  Less is more:  The effects of sexual experience on judgments of men's and women's personality characteristics and relationship desirability.  Sex Roles, 33, 159-181.

Rahimi, R. & Liston, D. D. (2009). What does she expect when she dresses like that?  Teacher interpretation of emerging adolescent female sexuality.  Educational Studies, 45, 512-533.  doi: 10.1080/00131940903311362

Sakaluk, J. K,., Todd, L. M., Milhausen, R., Lachowsky, N. J., & Undergraduate Research Group in Sexuality (URGiS). (2014).  Dominant heterosexual scripts in emerging adulthood:  Conceptualization and measurement.  Journal of Sex Research, 51, 516-531. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.745473

Smith, G., Mysak, K., & Michael, S. (2008). Sexual double standards and sexually transmitted illnesses: Social rejection and stigmatization of women. Sex Roles, 58, 391-401. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9339-5

Sprecher, S., Treger, S., & Sakaluk, J. K. (2013).  Premarital sexual standards and sociosexuality:  Gender, ethnicity, and cohort differences.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1395-1405. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0145-6

Tanenbaum, L.  (2000).  Slut!:  Growing up female with a bad reputation.  New York, NY:  Perennial.

Young, M., Penhollow, T. M., & Bailey, W. C..  (2010). Hooking- up and condom provision: Is there a double standard? American Journal of Health Studies, 25, 156-164.

Zaikman, Y., & Marks, M. J. (2014).  Ambivalent sexism and the sexual double standard.  Sex Roles, 71, 333-344. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0417-1


  1. Okay - so I think the double standard is real, or was real 10+ years ago, anyway, but this has given me so much to ponder. Is it all still in play? Is it as simple as failure to define "a lot"? Or is there more here?

    I generally reject the concepts that we create reality or that perception is reality. I could write both a memoir on my personal experience and a treatise on the larger issue of how these attitude support oppression and the status-quo, as well as how they covertly victimize the accused (and yet, I usually hold my tongue, because - saying anything against the popular paradigm is usually like talking to rocks). But, but - what if that's the case?

    What if the only thing we need to do to take this crap down is stop supporting it? What if it mostly is a dead issue but a person thinks everyone still believes it, so teaches it to the girls in their lives, perpetuating it?

    So much to ponder here.

    1. It is a complicated issue. I agree that one needs to be mindful of objective reality as well as perceptual reality, for exactly the reasons you mention. But, at the same time, we do create social reality through our words and actions. The research is very clear that the sexual double standard is part of the social discourse among adolescents and adults, whether or not those individuals actually endorse it personally. And I do wonder, just as you note, about whether we think everyone believes it, but we are just perpetuating a largely dead issue. Regardless, I think it is a good idea to begin interrupting the discourse of the sexual double standard. If we regularly stop the discourse, we create a less sexist social context, and we may help change attitudes, as well, for those who still personally endorse the sexual double standard.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

  2. Erg, that was supposed to say "covertly victimize the abused" NOT the accused.

  3. What an interesting and well-written piece! I especially appreciated the "there are three things that could be going on" breakdown of the possible reasons behind mixed study results. I was also struck by the range of possible negative results of the sexual double standard, and a little disappointed in myself that I hadn't given this more thought before.

    Thanks for this good work!

    1. Thanks for the nice compliment! That means a lot to me. Part of my motivation for this piece was to unpack the idea of "mixed results" in research. I think we often just read that as confusing and unintelligible, or even as a reason to reject scientific data altogether. I want people to know that there is a way to systematically approach mixed results and understand what they mean.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!