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Social Psychology

Female — but not male — friends are increasingly derogated as the number of their sexual partners increases

New research indicates people tend to view their female friends more negatively the more sexual partners they’ve had. But the same is not true for male friends. The findings were recently published in the journal Social Psychology.

“All throughout high school, I noticed the different ways people treated men and women based on their sexual reputation. I too felt the pressure to come across as sexually experienced,” said study author Michael J. Marks of New Mexico State University.

“Even after high school, I noticed many instances where sexual double standards seem to be active. When I discovered the field of social psychology, I thought it would be interesting to conduct experiments on how people perceived sexually active others.”

Previous research has found that a sexual double standard exists. However, much of that research asked participants to evaluate hypothetical people.

In the new study, which included 4,455 participants aged 18-35 years from the United States, participants were asked to think about a male or female friend of whom they had some knowledge about their sexual history. The participants then completed a survey about their friend’s values, likeability, success, and intelligence.

The researchers found that male targets who had more sexual partners were evaluated more favorably than female friends with more partners. The evaluations of female friends tended to become increasingly worse as the number of their sexual partners increased, but the same did not hold true for male friends.

“Try to be aware of when you judge people based on their sexual behavior and reputation, and when others appear to be doing the same thing. This is especially important in today’s times, with the increased visibility of things like sexual harassment and assault,” Marks told PsyPost.

However, the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The effect in the study was small, and many participants were not aware of the exact number of partners their friends and acquaintances may have had. We don’t yet know how other aspects of a relationship may impact judgments of sexually active friends and acquaintances. Relationships are complicated things, so it will take a lot more research to flesh out the basic findings in this research,” Marks explained.

“One thing I think was cool about this study is we had a large sample, so we did not conduct null hypothesis significance testing, and as such, did not evaluate our research based on p-values. I also like how this study featured evaluations of real people — not just hypothetical target persons,” Marks added.

The study, “The Sexual Double Standard in the Real World: Evaluations of Sexually Active Friends and Acquaintances“, was authored by Michael J. Marks , Tara M. Young, and Yuliana Zaikman.