Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Playing the Field? Does Actual or Perceived Relationship Status of Another Influence Ratings of Physical Attractiveness among Young Adults?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Playing the Field? Does Actual or Perceived Relationship Status of Another Influence Ratings of Physical Attractiveness among Young Adults?

Article excerpt

There have been dramatic shifts in relationship structures and processes among young adults recently that reflect greater acceptance of casual sexual encounters and concurrent relationships. Yet social norms prohibiting attraction to and sexual connection with others outside an exclusive relationship appear to remain. The current study assessed whether relationship status of both evaluators and targets influenced perceptions of targets' attractiveness and desirability as potential short or long term partners. Young adults (n = 195; 61% female) judged photographs of opposite sex individuals varying in relationship status, which was either known or not known to participants. Men rated women believed to be single as more desirable but equally attractive as attached women, whereas women rated men believed to be attached as more attractive but equally desirable as single men. Only female participants appeared sensitive to social norms prohibiting attraction to attached targets. Participants in relationships devalued all targets in terms of attractiveness and desirability, regardless of the quality of their own relationship. If norms are shifting to reflect greater "fluidity" in structures, then relationship status should have little or no impact on judgments. However, this was not found to be the case. Findings are discussed in terms of implications for research on attraction and relationship longevity.

Keywords: relationship status, attractiveness, desirability, romantic, sexual, partnerships

The heterosexual relationships of young adults in the 1950s through 1970s were generally characterised by a fairly traditional dating script. This dating script involved increasing levels of familiarity and closeness acquired through exchanges in private settings, which culminated in the onset of progressively more intense sexual interactions then marriage (Bailey, 1988; Cate & Lloyd, 1992). In the 1980s and 1990s, young people spent less time alone on dates and tended to pair off romantically and sexually from informal groups of peers (Mongeau, Jacobsen & Donnerstein, 2007; O'Sullivan & Meyer-Bahlburg, 2003). Courtship was no longer the long-term outcome of dating. Although dating contexts changed notably, the script for sexual interactions tended to remain fairly constant over time: Sexual interactions advanced steadily and fairly predictably from low levels of intimacy, such as holding hands and kissing, to higher levels of intimacy, such as oral-genital sex and intercourse (O'Sullivan, Harris, Cheng, & Brooks-Gunn, 2007). Both dating and sexual scripts intensified in line with partners' level of interest and commitment to the relationship (Bailey, 1988; Whyte, 1990). When asked about what was typical or usual for themselves or their peers, young people tended to report a fairly consistent and predictable pattern that conformed to these scripts (Laner & Ventrone, 2000; Morr, Serewicz, & Gale, 2008; Rose & Frieze, 1993), thus supporting the general validity of these scripts for characterising the evolution of many actual heterosexual relationships.

Of particular interest to researchers studying relationships among young adults have been the fairly radical changes noted recently in relationship structures, development, and indeed young people's understanding of what constitutes a typical or expected intimate relationship, and the rules or norms governing behaviours within relationships. Whereas most relationships in past years involved romantic exchanges and demonstrations of commitment before engaging in more advanced sexual interactions, such as intercourse (Clark, Shaver, & Abrahams, 1999), researchers have begun to document trends in heterosexual relationships whereby romantic expression and more formal or explicit commitment to a relationship is built at times upon a foundation of early and often highly intimate sexual exchange (Bogle, 2007; Manning, Long, & Giordano, 2005).

Others have documented a relatively high prevalence of sexual relationships without any expectations, or ultimately experiences of romantic connection (Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006; Knox, Sturdivant & Zusman, 2001). …

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