Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Misperceived Social Norms about Taboo Sexual Behaviors

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Misperceived Social Norms about Taboo Sexual Behaviors

Article excerpt


There is often a striking divergence between our own behavior and our perception of other people's behavior. Despite the mathematical impossibility, almost everyone believes they are below average when it comes to risky or taboo behaviors. (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Lee, et al., 2007; Martens et al., 2006; Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986; Perkins, 2007; Perkins et al., 1999; Prentice & Miller, 1993; and Sussman et al., 1988). These self-other norm discrepancies can cause pressure to engage in those behaviors more frequently, in an attempt to conform to the perceived norm. Regarding sexual behavior, norms are less likely to be socially observed. Some research into sexual behavior suggests that people also tend to place themselves in the below average range, believing they have fewer sexual partners and engage in less risky sexual behavior than their peers (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Martens et al., 2006; Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, & Holck, 2005; and Seal & Agostinelli, 1996). However, little is known about how sexual social norms affect our private behavior. Having a more in-depth understanding about perceived norm gaps for taboo sexual behavior would offer critical insights about if and how social perceptions affect private behaviors.

Social norms are the "prevailing codes of conduct that either prescribe or proscribe behaviors that members of a group can enact" (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005, p. 129). However, interpretations of norms are subjective, so people may act on them in different ways. Pluralistic ignorance is the concept often used to explain misperceived norms, and it refers to a social comparison occurrence whereby people who hold a majority opinion actually think they are in the minority. O'Gorman explains the concept as: "an erroneous cognitive belief shared by two or more people regarding the ideas, sentiments, and actions of other individuals" (O'Gorman, 1975). Pluralistic ignorance is sometimes a tenet of social norms theory (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986), which states that "our behavior is influenced by incorrect perceptions [pluralistic ignorance] of how other members of our social groups think and act," (Berkowitz, 2004). Prentice and Miller explained that people privately reject certain beliefs and practices, yet believe that everyone else privately accepts them (Prentice & Miller, 1996). They pointed out that group identification is a key component of pluralistic ignorance and that norms are often prescribed within groups.

Studies about social norms and pluralistic ignorance usually investigate the misperceptions about the attitudes and behaviors of people belonging to the same group, such as those of the same gender and age.

Pluralistic ignorance has been demonstrated many times in studies dealing with drinking behaviors. Prentice and Miller's 1993 study showed that college students viewed their friends, as well as the average person at their college, to have more lenient attitudes about drinking than themselves. They found that over time male students slowly shifted their behavior to adhere to the perceived norm, although female students did not. Baer, (1994) found that students entering their first year of college had a perception of high levels of acceptable drinking behaviors, but found that this diminished somewhat a year later, suggesting that direct experience with behaviors may mitigate norm perceptions. Martens, et al. (2006) conducted a survey comparing reported behaviors and perceived behaviors and found that participants overestimated not only the amount of drinking by their peers but other risky behavior as well, such as drug use (including cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine).

Social norms can be communicated either directly, by interpersonal communication and direct observation, or indirectly, wherein people infer norms without observation. Sexual norms are unique from drinking and drug use norms in that they are probably inferred indirectly rather than directly. …

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