It’s About Time: The New Reverse Double Standard

April 28, 2010

It is much easier to make good (wo)men wise than to make bad men good.

Henry Fielding, 1749

It has long been understood that there exists a sexual double standard. Studies have consistently shown that men strongly prefer women who are less sexually experienced than they are. In theory, women who have had many sexual partners are broadcasting their likelihood of future infidelities, and represent a poor investment for a man who wants to avoid raising another man’s child. On the other hand, women prefer men who are sought after by many other females. It reinforces the idea that he is a “good catch,” and offers superior genes for her potential offspring. Not surprisingly, research shows that handsome men have more short-term sexual partners than other men. The female competition for these men provides him with social proof:

Social value of unfamiliar people is ambiguous and requires a lot of effort to assess accurately. Given limited time and motivation, other people will often evaluate others based on how surrounding people behave towards them. For example, if a man is perceived to be in a company of attractive women, or is associated with them, then his perceived social value and attractiveness will be perceived to be greater. The implied cognition in this case would be “All those girls seem to really like him, there must be something about him that’s high value”.

If he is seen to be rejected by many women, his social value will be judged negatively. The implied cognition is then “I just saw him being rejected by many women, there is probably a good reason why they don’t like him”.

In today’s sexual marketplace, there are a concentrated number of males with the most sexual partners, and they are called players. Can social proof backfire? Are there women who experience disgust at the idea of getting with a player, who will happily and determinedly reject them even if it means being alone? Is the era of the Man Slut over?

Recent research indicates that it may be. A study at the University of Illinois by Allison and Risman surveyed 20,000 undergraduates at 20 colleges and universities. Their conclusion:

COLLEGE STUDENTS LESS LIKELY HOLD TO A SEXUAL DOUBLE STANDARD. AND SOMETIMES THE DOUBLE STANDARD GOES AGAINST MEN.

One of the striking changes in college life over the past 40 years has been the decline in the double standard about whether it is okay for women as well as men to have premarital sex. But women have long been judged more harshly than men for engaging in casual sex outside of a relationship… A surprising number of students now hold men and women to the same standard. And where a double standard still exists, it can cut in either direction.

They found that 63% of men lose respect for women who hook up frequently, hardly surprising. What’s more surprising is that 41% of men lose respect for other men who hook up frequently. This may reflect the resentment of men who feel like “have nots.” Or it may be that men who are more relationship-oriented disrespect the “pump and dump” mentality.

When it came to women, Allison and Risman found that 60% of women lose respect for other women who hook up frequently. Again, this is not surprising, and speaks to female intrasexual competition. Women who prefer to abstain from casual sex are well aware that promiscuous women are depressing the number of men willing to commit. What is very surprising is that 70% of women lose respect for men who hook up frequently.

Writing at Slate, Jessica Grose sums up the study:

One reason for the shift, they hypothesize, is the increasing power of young women to determine the sexual mores. They’re definitely rejecting the double standard against women. But rather than embrace a more relaxed standard for all, they are using this new “leverage to overwhelmingly disapprove of college men who hook up with a lot of partners.” And some men are echoing that disapproval. If things continue to change in this direction, say Allison and Risman, “this change will move society toward a more restrictive standard for all, rather than toward increasing freedom to sexual pleasure wherever one may find and desire it.”

I suspect that Ms. Grose and I would have different feelings about the benefits of a more restrictive standard, but we agree that this is a significant development. Grose goes on to point out that “this new data deepens the impression by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Millennials Rising, which pegged this generation as deeply conventional and traditional. They call the millennials a “corrective generation,” a group that reverses the “negative youth trends that boomers initiated.” To millennials, boomers “seem far too sexually obsessed and pleasure driven.”” They cite AIDS and the Clinton Lewinsky scandal as key factors. Indeed, sex researchers have been documenting the Clinton-Lewinsky Effect, which refers to the radical redefinition of what constitutes sex for the Millenial generation.

These findings confirm research done over ten years ago and published in the Journal of Sex Research. Milhausen and Herold studied 165 females at the University of Guelph in Canada. In particular, they were interested in the question of how women feel about the sexual double standard. Evolutionary theory would suggest that women will accept the double standard and have a positive view of men who have had a high number of sexual partners, due to social proof. Instead, they found that women with a high number of sexual partners accepted men with a high number. Women with a low number of partners held promiscuity against men, suggesting that a woman’s own sexual experience influences her tolerance of sexual experience in men. This conclusion supports learning theory:

[Women] were more likely to discourage a female friend from dating a highly experienced male than to discourage a male friend from dating a highly experienced female. These findings again suggest that women today may be judging highly experienced men more negatively than experienced women (a reverse double standard).

Of course, this is unlikely to have any effect on the behavior of highly experienced men. Men will continue to prefer sexual variety as long as it is available to them. “They may care less than women about being judged or gaining bad reputations. And they undoubtedly find that their male peers are supportive of sexual conquests and, consequently, they may be less concerned with how they are evaluated by women.”

If there is a new morality to be ushered in, it will happen at the hands of the women who reject social proof and prefer men with less sexual history. Learning theory wins the day, as women internalize the following data:

  • A high number of sexual partners is positively correlated to a low level of agreeableness in the personality.
  • There is a strong correlation between promiscuity and people with an avoidant attachment style, usually traced to childhood. Promiscuity serves as a regulatory emotional strategy to avoid commitment, provide emotional distance and exercise freedom.
  • The handsomest/most sexually experienced men demonstrate less honesty, attentiveness and support to their wives, even as newlyweds.
  • More intelligent men are more inclined toward monogamy (as well as liberalism and atheism). It is theorized that only intelligent men are able to shed the psychological baggage of the species and adopt new modes, or “evolutionarily novel” modes of behavior. (Kanazawa)

All of this confirms the anecdotal evidence that I have gathered as a blogger and confidant to young women. Having just written posts about STDs here and here, I am also certain that fear of disease increasing plays a role in creating a reverse double standard.

It is perhaps ironic that rather than abolishing the old sexual double standard for women, deregulation of the sexual marketplace may have actually added one for men. That sounds like equality to me.

Hat tip to Stuart, Lisette and Ysabelle for forwarding the Slate article. I appreciate you all looking out for me!