When it comes to casual, uncommitted, non-emotional sex, there is a strong gender stereotype: men are more interested in doing it (literally) than women. We have covered research examining this phenomenon—on the surface, it appears as though men are much more excited about having sex with a complete stranger, whereas women seem to be grossed out. Some researchers suggest that this is because of an innate biological difference between the sexes; men have a stronger desire for casual sex because they want to maximize reproductive success, while women are more interested in acquiring resources from a committed partner, and thus choosier about whom they mate with.
However, recent research reveals that in many cases, women are just as intrigued as men by the idea of having casual sex, but the reason women are more reluctant to engage in such activities is because they are afraid of others’ harsh judgment. Many human sexual behaviors are taboo (e.g., fetishes), but society stigmatizes some sexual behaviors more than others. For women, strong social norms enforce sexual restraint and chastity, and stigmatize promiscuity. In contrast, men’s promiscuous behavior is less stigmatized by society, which leads them to pursue casual sex more often. We call this the sexual double standard:1 “The sexual double standard is demonstrated when people endorse notions that women should express their sexuality less freely than men and when women are perceived more negatively for engaging in the same sexual behaviors as men.”2
In a recent set of studies,2 researchers gave people fictional scenarios depicting a man or woman who accepts an offer for casual sex with a stranger, identical to the scenario from a famous study involving sexual promiscuity and casual sex (described here). The male version is below (the female version was identical except the character was a woman named Lisa):
Mark is a student at [your university]. One day, a woman approached him on campus and said, ‘‘I have been noticing you around campus, and I find you to be very attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?’’ Mark was quite surprised, but he quickly replied, ‘‘Sure, where and what time?’’
Participants then rated the main character (i.e., Mark or Lisa) on a variety of characteristics. Participants who read about the woman who accepted a casual sex offer (Lisa) rated her as less intelligent, less mentally healthy, less competent, more promiscuous, and more risky than participants who read about the man who engaged in the exact same behavior (Mark). This experiment illustrates the double standard in people’s judgments of others.
In a follow-up experiment, researchers presented a variation of the same scenario—specifically, participants were told to imagine that they themselves were being approached with an offer for casual sex. They were also asked to indicate how others would view them (on dimensions like intelligence and promiscuity, similar to the study described above) if they accepted or rejected the offer. Women were less likely than men to hypothetically accept the offer for casual sex. Women also anticipated that if they accepted the offer, they would be rated as less intelligent, more promiscuous, more socially inappropriate, and more sexually desperate compared to men who imagined accepting the offer. It appears as if women’s fears about sexual stigma are justified—they accurately perceived the negative bias in others’ judgments.
In contrast, men expressed greater concern over what would happen if they rejected the casual sex offer; men anticipated being labeled as less intelligent, less mentally healthy, less attractive, more socially inappropriate, and more homosexual if they rejected the casual sex offer, compared to women who rejected the offer. Men’s concerns in this case may stem from a fear of being labeled as less masculine if they rejected an offer for casual sex.
The researchers used statistical mediation analysis to show that the reason why women were less likely to accept a casual sex offer is partially because they were concerned about the stigma (we’ve written about mediation before; check out other examples here and here). The analysis showed that women would be much more likely to accept an offer for casual sex if not for the fear of being stigmatized by others.
So to summarize, both men and women are very concerned with stigma attached to their sexual behavior, albeit for different reasons. Results support the idea that society evaluates men and women differently for the same behaviors (the sexual double standard).
What else can we conclude? First, we must question whether evolutionary or biological explanations for sex differences are accurate, being that stigma is a social variable that explains why women are more hesitant to engage in casual sex. Imagine what women’s sexual behavior would look like if the societal stigma did not exist. Though impossible to say definitely, women’s behavior would probably look a lot more similar to men’s sexual behavior, thus suggesting that men and women did not evolve different “sexual strategies,” but rather that people’s sexual behavior is largely governed by learned social roles.
Second, we should be mindful of how we perceive others based on their gender; it’s a form of prejudice that often goes overlooked, and especially hypocritical for men who would not want to be judged harshly for engaging in the same behavior. If YOU want to have lots of casual sex without being perceived negatively, you should strive to treat others the same way.
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1Crawford, M., & Popp, D. (2003). Sexual double standards: A review and methodological critique of two decades of research. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 13–26.
2Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., & Moors, A. C. (2013). Backlash From the bedroom: Stigma mediates gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(3) 392-407.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.