When seeking casual encounters, women judge promiscuous men more harshly than men judge promiscuous women, according to new research from Norway. The findings, published in Evolutionary Psychology, provide evidence for a “reversed double standard” favoring women in short-term mating contexts. But the study failed to find a similar double standard (against women or against men) in long-term mating contexts.
Sexual double standards refer to the different ways in which society judges men and women for their sexual behavior. Research using the Sexual Double Standard Scale has repeatedly found evidence of sexual double standards at the societal level, with people generally holding the belief that women are evaluated more negatively than men for sexually active behavior.
The authors behind the new study, however, were interested in examining whether beliefs in a societal double standard were associated with personal acceptance of such standards. They also sought to explore differences in mating judgements between men and women depending on whether they were in a short-term or long-term mating context.
“Informed by Sexual Strategies Theory, one should expect differences both between the sexes and also across different mating contexts,” said study author Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “It just was not likely that men should not prefer signals of sexual availability in a short-term context, while culturally it would seem that sexual double standards generally are framed implicitly solely within a long-term context.”
The researchers generated a list of 12 sexual behaviors based on previous psychology research and student-generated ideas. Participants were then asked to imagine a male and female friend of theirs meeting a potential partner who exhibited different levels of these sexual behaviors. The participants were asked to evaluate how each of these behaviors would affect their appraisals of the potential partner.
This evaluation was done separately for both male and female targets. After evaluating the targets, the participants were asked to report on their own likelihood of having sex or entering into a relationship with someone who exhibited these behaviors. The final sample size included 923 Norwegian students, consisting of 587 women and 336 men between the ages of 19 and 30 who were mostly single.
The 12 behaviors were then analyzed using principal component analysis, which suggested three factors: promiscuity, self-stimulation (e.g. masturbation and pornography use), and cheating and controlling behavior.
The researchers found that female targets were generally evaluated more favorably than male targets. Additionally, the appraisals of different target behaviors were markedly different, with cheating and controlling behavior being evaluated very negatively, while promiscuous and self-stimulating behavior received more neutral appraisals.
Regarding the sexual double standards, the researchers found that a woman’s promiscuous behavior was appraised less negatively than similar behavior by a man. In other words, people generally judged women with an active sexual history as more attractive partners compared to men with an active sexual history.
However, this only applied to short-term relationships, when people are looking for casual sex partners. When seeking long-term relationships, participants judged both men and women negatively for engaging in promiscuous behavior. In this context, there was no double standard — promiscuous women were not evaluated more negatively than promiscuous men or vice versa, regardless of whether the participants were considering their own perspective or that of a friend.
“It might come as surprise, but our data supports a general finding in the literature that people believe in a traditional sexual double standard in their society of women being negatively socially sanctioned for sexual activity and men’s status increasing due to the same behavior,” Kennair told PsyPost. “However, when one asks people what they believe personally they do not confirm this. We find that in a short-term sexual context there is a reversed double standard, and there is no double standard in a long-term relational context.”
Similarly, both male and female participants judged women who watched porn, masturbated, or owned sex toys as slightly more suitable partners for a male friend in short-term relationships. These aspects of their sexual behavior had little influence on their perceived suitability as a long-term partner. In contrast, men who engaged in these self-stimulating behaviors were judged more negatively, especially by women and particularly in long-term relationships.
Kennair and his colleagues have previously found that women who use flirtatious behaviors that signal availability — such as showing off their bodies and dressing provocatively — are seen as more successful in attracting a male partner for a short-term relationship. But these behaviors were seen as ineffective for men seeking women. The new findings are in line with these results.
“Our previous research on flirtation and self-promotion suggests that sexual availability is a very efficient tactic for women in short-term sexual contexts. Why would men in general not find sexually available women attractive in a short-term sexual context?” Kennair remarked.
Furthermore, the researchers found that individual differences in sociosexuality, religiosity, and disgust influenced appraisals of target behaviors. Participants who were more unrestricted in their sociosexuality (a measure of how open someone is to casual sex) tended to appraise promiscuity, self-stimulation, and cheating and controlling behavior more positively, while those with higher levels of disgust and religiosity tended to appraise these behaviors more negatively.
But the findings, like all research, include some caveats.
“These findings are from one, highly egalitarian, sexually liberal, secularized culture,” Kennair said. “It is possible that in cultures that differ in one or several of these aspects that the findings might be somewhat different. Nevertheless, in many Western countries, one is not able to measure the expected personally held sexual double standard. One question that therefore needs to be answered is why people are so certain that the traditional double standard exists at a societal level, and why this ‘myth’ is being perpetuated.”
The study, “Examining the Sexual Double Standards and Hypocrisy in Partner Suitability Appraisals Within a Norwegian Sample“, was authored by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Andrew G. Thomas, David M. Buss, and Mons Bendixen.