A Dutch study explored how teens’ endorsement of sexual double standards is influenced by their peers, parents, and the media. The findings, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, revealed that teens who perceived more traditional sexual double standards in the media and among their peers endorsed more traditional sexual double standards themselves.
A sexual double standard (SDS) is when different sexual behaviors are deemed appropriate for men and women. For example, while men are typically expected to be sexually dominant and active, women are expected to be sexually submissive and reactive. These stereotypes can lead to harmful scenarios, such as women being disparaged for sexual behaviors that are applauded in men.
Study author Joyce J. Endendijk and her colleagues point out that there are individual differences in the extent that people endorse these double standards. The researchers sought to explore factors that might influence the development of sexual behavior norms, particularly during adolescence. Since peers, parents, and the media are main sources of socialization for teens, the researchers investigated how the portrayal of sexual double standards by each of these sources might influence teens’ expectations of male and female sexual behavior.
“My interest in the topic of sexual double standards emerged during the #MeToo movement in 2017,” explained Endendijk, an assistant professor at Utrecht University. “This movement highlighted clear gender differences in sexual violence perpetration and victimization. I became interested in studying factors that might explain why men are more often perpetrators of sexual transgression while women are more often the victims. The sexual double standard is one of such factors and refers to a social norm that prescribes different sexual behaviors to men and women, i.e., men being sexually active, dominant, and the initiator of sexual activity, and women being sexually reactive, submissive, and passive.”
The researchers recruited a sample of 566 youth between the ages of 16 and 20 from 24 Dutch schools. The students completed online questionnaires that asked them about their perceptions of the social norms concerning men’s and women’s sexual behavior as portrayed by the media, their peers, and their parents. An example of the item structure was, “[According to the media/My friends think/My parents think] a boy should be more knowledgeable about sex than a girl.”
The surveys also questioned the students’ perceptions of the sexual behavior of their peers and assessed their exposure to sexualization on social media, reality tv, music videos, and online porn. Finally, the surveys questioned students’ own expectations about the sexual behavior of men and women.
The results suggested that peers and the media were important influences on adolescents’ expectations of male and female sexual behavior. Teens who perceived more traditional sexual double standards conveyed by the media and conveyed by peers endorsed more traditional SDS norms themselves. Notably, students’ perceptions of parental norms about men’s and women’s sexual behavior were not associated with their own endorsement of SDS norms.
Adolescents with greater exposure to sexualized music videos by female artists also endorsed more traditional SDS norms. Being exposed to sexualization through social media, reality tv, online porn, or music videos by male artists was not associated with teens’ endorsement of SDS norms.
“Parents appear to be less important socializers of the SDS in adolescents,” Endendijk told PsyPost. “More specifically, when adolescents perceived their female peers to be highly sexually active this was associated with less adherence to SDS norms in adolescents, probably because this peer context was incongruent with the social norm. In addition, when peers and the media convey messages that high sexual activity and sexual dominance is approved more for boys than for girls, this was associated with more adherence to SDS norms in adolescents. Finally, for boys specifically, exposure to social media and music videos with sexualized females were associated with more traditional SDS-norms.”
Interestingly, having fewer sexually active girls in one’s peer group was associated with the endorsement of more traditional SDS norms, while the sexual activity of boys in one’s peer group was unrelated to the endorsement of SDS norms. These findings suggest that the sexual behavior of female peers might be more influential for SDS norms than that of male peers.
As far as implications, the study authors suggest that educating young people about the nuances in men’s and women’s sexual behavior may help dispel the unrealistic expectations portrayed by the media. They also suggest introducing topics like slut-shaming, sexual coercion, and sexual pressure. “The finding that the adolescents in our sample on average adhered to the SDS norm signals the importance of incorporating the SDS as a topic in sex education,” Endendijk said. “According to our study these programs should focus on how peers and the media transmit SDS norms and on fostering adolescents to be resilient to the pressure to conform to their peers and the media.”
But the study, like all research, include some caveats.
“Because this research was conducted at one point in time, we cannot draw firm conclusions about cause and effect, i.e., whether adolescents with traditional SDS-norms choose to hang out with peers with similar normative beliefs or choose to watch media with sexual content, or whether adolescents internalize similar SDS-norms as their peers or engage in similar sexual behaviors as models in the media,” Endendijk said. “Longitudinal studies following adolescents for longer periods of time are necessary to answers such questions. Follow-up research in larger groups of non-heterosexual adolescents is necessary as well to examine whether and how they learn about the heterosexual SDS norm.”
The study, “Sexual Double Standards: Contributions of Sexual Socialization by Parents, Peers, and the Media”, was authored by Joyce J. Endendijk, Maja Deković, Helen Vossen, Anneloes L. van Baar, and Ellen Reitz.