The Sexual Double Standard is Universally Alive and Well

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Reader’s Question

Letter 1: I’ve met the love of my life, but there’s a problem. We have different moral standards, and she did things that I consider really bad. We are both 23 years old and we have both had our experiences, but I just cannot seem to accept the fact that other men have had her sexually. One time she met this guy in the morning and in the evening she went to bed with him. To me this is just terrible, and if a friend told me a story about a girl who behaved like that, I would label her a slut. This thing is slowly annihilating my relationship and I really have no idea how to solve it.

Letter 2: I am a 16-year-old boy who has plenty of friends, both male and female. About a year ago I started noticing that whenever my friends (mostly the girls) do something which is “slutty,” I take it very personally. Even if what they’ve done is not such a terrible thing, I start ignoring those friends. Why do I demand such things from my friends? Why does it disturb me so much?

Psychologist’s Reply

I decided to respond to these two letters together because of their shared concerns about the sexual behavior of close others (female friends and a girlfriend). Extra information I edited out of each letter indicated that these two young men reside on different continents. The similarities and differences between the two letters and their authors illustrate the virtual universality of a double standard: females are judged much more harshly than males for being sexual. Although we may be bothered by the outcome of holding such a double standard, it seems we rarely stop to notice it or question why it persists, because this attitude is so pervasive.

Typically, notions of femininity and what is “respectable” for females includes purity and restraint. So, a female who acts on her sexual desires may be considered immoral and upsetting to men and women who ascribe to the traditional double standard. Of course, there is no rational reason for the double standard. Its origins may lie in the fact that females can get pregnant, so there has always been greater concern over regulating daughters’ and wives’ sexual activity than sons’ and husbands’ sexual expression. With effective contraception, however, sexual activity for non-reproductive purposes is available to both sexes. Still, the double standard persists.

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Women in Western cultures are put in an especially cruel and ironic bind: on the one hand, they receive a lifetime of messages indicating that their value is tied to being physically attractive and sexually alluring — admired women are “hot;” on the other hand, while they’re supposed to be “sexy,” they are not supposed to be sexual outside of a loving, committed, and monogamous relationship.

My advice to all readers is to challenge our shared, ingrained assumptions about female sexuality (or the supposed lack of it). Both males and females are sexual beings and have the same capacity for sexual desire and pleasure. We pay lip service to this fact, yet our emotional reactions bear out the existence of the double standard. Why are only males allowed to claim their sexuality? Part of the challenge is to begin thinking of women as autonomous individuals with their own sexuality, apart from the sexuality of the males in their lives. For example, males often unknowingly assume a sense of ownership over the sexuality of the women they are close to (sisters, friends, and sexual partners). Men then feel offended when their ownership rights are seemingly violated by the woman engaging willingly in sexual activity with a man.

By “challenging” our assumptions, I mean consciously and repeatedly pondering the assumptions we make, and questioning their legitimacy. Ask yourself whether those assumptions seem rational and fair. My concern is that, for males in particular, it may not seem like there is much incentive to change the way we’ve been brought up to think. Men, there is! Not only would we spare ourselves the kinds of upset described in the letters above, but we would then also have the possibility of viewing women as true equals in relationships as friends and as sexual partners. Are you up for the challenge?

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