Identity, Peer Relationships, and Adolescent Girls' Sexual Behavior: An Exploration of the Contemporary Double Standard
Lyons, Heidi, Giordano, Peggy C., Manning, Wendy D., Longmore, Moniea A., The Journal of Sex Research
The double standard is a well-recognized cultural phenomenon. However, some researchers have suggested that gendered sexual standards of behavior may be undergoing change and increasing in complexity (Marks & Fraley, 2006; Milhausen & Herold, 2001; Moore & Rosenthal, 1994; Risman & Schwartz, 2002; Tolman, 1996). The classic definition of the sexual double standard focuses on the ways in which young men are socialized to value sexual experience and young women learn to emphasize committed relationships (Reiss, 1960). It is believed that, in general, this inhibits young women's sexual behavior, particularly "promiscuous" behavior, by making it socially costly. Accordingly, women who do not fit the conservative ideal are subjected to negative social sanctions or censures. Some research has suggested that this classic pattern may be eroding (Crawford, 2003; Gentry, 1998; Marks & Fraley, 2005, 2006), but more research is needed that investigates not simply whether the sexual double standard exists, but also the social and identity implications of departing from its basic tenets.
In this study, we focused on young women who report a higher number of sexual partners relative to their similarly aged counterparts. We relied on quantitative (n = 600) and qualitative (n = 46) data from the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study (TARS), and investigated two related research questions regarding the social and identity statuses of young women who represented a range of sexual experiences. First, consistent with the idea of social censure stemming from the traditional double standard, do young women who report a high number of sexual partners report lower popularity or other peer deficits as a result of the double standard? Further, and consistent with this idea of negative "reflected appraisals" from others, do these young women report lower self-esteem than their more sexually conservative counterparts? We tested these associations both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. The cross-sectional assessment documents whether there is a significant association between number of sex partners and perceived popularity with peers, dissatisfaction with number of friends, and level of self-esteem. A longitudinal analysis adds to the portrait by investigating whether the number of sex partners is associated with lower peer popularity as reported one year later.
We also focused the analysis on the attitudes and behaviors of the adolescent's more immediate circle of friends. This social network emphasis suggests that young women who report a higher number of sexual partners may not experience the kinds of social costs or deficits described earlier (perceptions of being unpopular or low self-esteem) in large part because they receive support and reinforcement from their friends, whose attitudes about sexuality are similar to their own. This notion is more consistent with the tenets of symbolic interaction, which emphasizes the localized or "situated" nature of action (Mead, 1934), and more general social learning theories (Sutherland, 1934), which stress the role of intimate others in fostering particular patterns of behavior--even those that may be considered "deviant" by the wider society. These approaches emphasize the diversity of normative climates that exist within the larger peer system and the key role of friends as sources of reference, as well as support. Thus, it is possible that such friends provide a buffer against negative attributions from the wider peer group, as well as actively fostering and reinforcing these behaviors. We examined the association between adolescents' reports about the liberal or conservative attitudes and sexual behaviors of their friends and their own sexual behaviors (number of partners). We explored these issues further through an analysis of in-depth "relationship history narratives" elicited from a subset of the respondents. These qualitative data allowed us to suggest implications of the quantitative results taken as a whole--specifically, how the general idea of the double standard and the potential for negative social costs coexists with more localized understandings and perspectives about the behaviors of one's immediate circle of friends, as well as one's own sexual experiences. …