Motives for the Sexual Double Standard: A Test of Female Control Theory
by Laurie A. Rudman, Janell C. Fetterolf, and Diana T. Sanchez (Rutgers University – New Brunswick)
Imagine a friend or a relative came to you for sexual advice. Perhaps they recently had casual sex with someone they had just met, or maybe they are considering a “friends with benefits” type of relationship. Would their gender matter to you as you pondered what to say? For most people, it does. Men are much more likely than women to receive encouraging advice when it comes to sexual relationships, including having casual sex (Morgan, Thorne, & Zurbriggen, 2010). The gender gap in sexual agency both reflects and reinforces the persistence of the sexual double standard (SDS) – whereby it is far more acceptable for men than women to have sexual agency and multiple sex partners. Women have made numerous advances in their quest for equality, but the SDS is stubborn. Why? What are the motives underlying the SDS? Do they differ for men and women? And which gender is most responsible for the SDS? These were the central questions underlying our research (Rudman, Fetterolf, & Sanchez, 2013).
In a controversial paper, Baumeister and Twenge (2002) argued that women are more responsible than men for curbing female sexuality. They called it female control theory (FCT) and they based this claim mainly on the untested theory of sexual economics, whereby women seek to protect the market value of their sexual favors by refusing offers of casual sex and deterring other women from accepting them (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). In old-fashioned parlance, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” In addition, the authors portrayed women as catty gossips who wield the weapon of social stigma to keep their peers in line. But what about men’s tendency to treat “loose women” with disrespect, gossiping about them in locker rooms and frat houses in order to boast about sexual conquests (Meston & Buss, 2007)? And what about the still prevalent notion, held especially by men, that sexually liberal women are “asking” to be raped (Rudman & Mescher, 2012)? Moreover, fathers tend to be far more discouraging about their daughters having sex than are mothers (Morgan et al., 2010), which is one reason why more mothers than fathers act as their daughters’ sexual counselor. Baumeister and Twenge dismissed these aspects of male control theory (MCT), arguing instead that men (always eager for sex!) are more likely to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for female sexuality. And moms? The fact that they counsel their daughters cautiously about sex was viewed as more evidence for FCT.
Perhaps, but some of Baumeister and Twenge’s (2002) claims for FCT stemmed from evidence that, compared with college-aged women, college-aged men are more likely to endorse casual sex among their same-sex peers. To our knowledge, no research had tested whether college-aged men might be more discouraging when advising their female friends (and relatives) about sex. If so, then men might be just as culpable for the SDS as women, or possibly even more culpable – a reversal of the earlier FCT claims.
In our study of Rutgers undergraduates (N = 503, 350 women; M age = 19.00), we found more evidence for MCT than FCT (see Figure 1). Men were indeed cheerleaders for casual sex, but only for their male friends – the only group for whom the mean was above the neutral point on the scale (5). For everyone else – female friends and especially female relatives, but even male relatives – men were discouraging in their sexual advice. In contrast, women were uniformly discouraging about casual sex. Although women encouraged male friends more so than anyone else, they actually encouraged their female friends more so than their male relatives. As a measure of SDS-enforcing advice, we subtracted advice to female friends and relatives from advice to male friends and relatives and found that men scored higher than women, (Ms = 1.74 vs. .58), t(501) = 7.15, p < .001, d = .60. Moreover, the gender gap in advice giving that perpetuates the SDS was accounted for by men’s greater endorsement of the SDS (i.e., agreeing with statements such as, “In my opinion, the sexual double standard is good and should be maintained”). In other words, one reason why men discriminate against women in the sexual advice they give is because they think the SDS should be enforced more so than women do. Thus, it appears that men are more responsible for the SDS than women because they wish to uphold it.
We also examined motives for giving sexual advice that discourages women. If FCT is correct, then women who advise other women against having casual sex should agree that it is wise to do that for sexual economics reasons (i.e., to protect the market value of their sexual favors or “don’t give away the milk for free”). We also asked whether women are discouraged from having casual sex because it can lead to social stigma (spoiling women’s reputations) or put women at risk for sexual assault. Our findings showed that both genders were far more likely to endorse the risk of rape and social stigma than sexual economics. In addition, no gender differences emerged in the correlations among these motives and sexual advice giving (see Table 1). To the extent that participants agreed that women need to be protected from sexual assault or social stigma, advice to both women and men was discouraging. In contrast, sexual economics played no role in sexual advice giving.
In summary, because we found more evidence for MCT than FCT and no evidence for sexual economics, our research contradicts earlier claims that women are more culpable than men for suppressing female sexuality. Nonetheless, both women and men are likely to be responsible for the SDS, given that both genders used rape risk and social stigma as reasons to discourage women from having casual sex. Consequently, removing these obstacles is more critical for advancing sexual equality than assigning responsibility for the SDS to either gender.
Laurie A. Rudman is a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University – New Brunswick. Her research interests focus on stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, especially with respect to how they deter gender and racial equality. She is the author of over 70 publications and four books, including, The social psychology of gender: How power and intimacy shape gender relations (co-authored with Peter Glick). She currently serves as Editor for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Janell C. Fetterolf is a graduate student at Rutgers University, working primarily with Dr. Laurie Rudman. Her research examines the persistent barriers to gender equality in both sexual behavior and domestic labor.
Diana T. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University – New Brunswick. The social psychological study of stigma, self/identity, and social issues represent the overarching themes of her research. She has pursued these topics in two separate lines of research (1) the racial and ethnic identity and categorization of atypical minorities such as those who are racially ambiguous, multiracial, or multicultural and (2) the stigmatizing nature of gender norms with a special emphasis on the consequences of stigma for women’s health and close relationships.
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Baumeister, R.F., & Vohs, K.D. (2004). Sexual economics: Sex as female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 339-363.
Meston, C. M, & Buss, D. M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 477-507.
Morgan, E. M., Thorne, A., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2010). A longitudinal study of conversations with parents about sex and dating during college. Developmental Psychology, 46, 139-150.
Rudman, L. A., Fetterolf, J. C., & Sanchez, D. T. (2013). What motivates the sexual double standard? More support for male versus female control theory. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 39, 250-263.
Rudman, L. A., & Mescher, K. (2012). Of animals and objects: Men’s implicit dehumanization of women and male sexual aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 734-746.