Sexual double standard. It’s a phrase many of us have heard probably at some point in our life. Why though? And what exactly is sexual double standard?
I can give you quotes from many different academic articles to explain what it is: “the sexual double standard (SDS) leads to a more negative assessment of women than men when they exhibit the same sexual behavior.” (Berrocal, Moyano, Sierra and Vallejo-Medina, 2019) or “sexual behaviors are judged differently depending on the gender of a sexual actor (Milhausen and Herold 2001). Boys and men are thought to receive praise and positive attributions from others for non-marital sexual contacts, while girls and women are believed to be derogated and stigmatized for similar behaviors.” (Kreager and Staff, 2009), but what it really boils down to is, well, a double standard. Meaning men and women are seen and judged and treated differently for having sex. Where men are praised, women are slut-shamed and ridiculed. While it’s okay for a man to have sex on the first date or have one night stands, it’s seen as the total opposite for a woman. A woman, in this case, will be looked down on, considered terms such as ‘slut’, or ‘whore’, or ‘hoe’, or ‘slag’, she will be considered to be ‘easy’.
What it narrows down to is the subjective perception of society’s maintenance of the sexual double standard and how this support from them and the belief passes down to the younger generations. Men are expected to partake in sexual activities before marriage, applauded for it, whereas women are meant to be ‘gatekeepers’ of their sexuality and refrain from it, but even then they are shamed for holding onto the socially constructed term of ‘virginity’. Women are seen as prudes for not having sex. Women are seen as sluts for having sex. But they’re not supposed to have sex on the first date otherwise they’re easy, however if they don’t have sex by the third date then they’re frigid.
This sexual double standard, and the gender inequality within sex, has lead to multiple researches being conducted to try and examine the reasons behind why this is the case and where it stems from. The studies (Eder, Evens and Parker, 1995; Goffman, 1963) look at the links between “psychological concepts with their socially constructed meanings, thereby helping to recognise how sexuality is viewed within social contexts and exactly who benefits or is stigmatised by these processes.” Sex in and of itself should be an activity one can take part in freely and enjoy, be able to express their sexuality without fear of being libelled and shamed.
Many times, sexual double standard has led to several sexual related issues, such as sexual victimisation (Eaton and Matamala, 2014), sexual assaults (Sierra et al., 2009; Bliss, 2014; Moyano et al., 2017), victim-blaming attitudes (Gracia et al., 2018), higher risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (Bermúdez et al., 2013; Fasula et al., 2014; Ramiro-Sánchez et al., 2018) and lower sexual satisfaction (Haavio-Mannila and Kontula, 2003; Santos-Iglesias et al., 2009). Many women in heterosexual relationships are left unsatisfied sexually by their partner, because sex is seen as something to “give” to a man, instead of being an activity to be enjoyed by both, where pleasure should be given and received to and by both individuals. Many cultures, such as the South Asian culture uphold sexual double standard—believing sex to be something a woman, above everything, must not do before marriage otherwise she ruins her family’s izzat (respect/honour) and is now damaged goods, touched, impure, and therefore, not good enough for marriage, or no longer marriage material. This notion leads to the further stigmatisation of all conversation surrounding sex, and in addition, the victim-blaming attitudes leading to survivors having to remain silent about their sexual abuse in the name of izzat, sharam (shame/embarrassment) and haya (modesty). This can also relate to Islam, where women are allowed to divorce their husbands if left sexually unsatisfied and derived of sexual pleasure. “When informed of Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr’s neglecting of his wife’s conjugal rights, the Prophet ﷺ reminded him that, ‘Your wife has a right over you.’” (Al-Bukhari). Furthermore, God states in the Qur’an to “live with them (women) in kindness.” (4:19), going to illustrate that neglecting a woman’s sexual desire is not a testament to kindness whatsoever and “Women have rights similar to those of men equitably.” (2:228) Furthermore, Musnad Abu Y’ala narrated that the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) reportedly said, “If any of you has intercourse with his wife let him be true to her. If he attains his pleasure before her, then he shouldn’t hurry her away until she also attains her pleasure.”
Having a sexual double standard can cause severe mental harm, as it not only puts pressure on men to have sex and are mocked if they don’t; it puts an undeniable bubble of shame, slut-shaming and abuse around women. They are ostracised for the very same acts committed by men, bearing the brunt of this completely natural act. The continuance of sexual double standard in today’s society subjects women to awful derogatory terms and name-calling, even when it is consensual. An example of this is in OnlyFans, a platform many people use to post nude pictures with paying subscribers. The same (mostly) men who pay for these contents are the same ones shaming and abusing the women whose content they are consuming. The same can be said by the Muslim men sending death threats and abuse to Mia Khalifa, a former porn star—Muslim men are the majority watching pornography, yet they are the same ones slut-shaming and demonising women for being the ones providing them with exactly what they want. Where women are subjected to endless abuse for providing men with their desires, men are getting away with everything, leaving women to be the scapegoats, standing in the thunderstorm of shame, fear, disrespect and their character being pulled to questioning.
There are age-old beliefs when it comes to sex—men can have sex without any affection being involved, whereas women are expected only to have sex when they are in love. Never for their own pleasure, never for their own satisfaction. Otherwise, they’re “sluts and whores and slags”. One anonymous woman said she was told she had “slag-ish qualities” by a sexual partner, for having had sex with him on their first date. It is disparaging to use and throw such words around, especially when it is a woman you pursed and engaged in sexual activities with. If that woman has “slag-ish qualities”, then newsflash: so do you. It is not a one-way road where merely the woman has to hold the name of SLUT for engaging in sex. That very same energy needs to be kept for men. It can’t only be the woman being looked down on and demeaned.
Men and women are looked at differently for exemplifying identical sexual behaviour: men’s sexual permissiveness are expected, even praised, whereas a woman’s sexual liberalism results in ‘ruined’ and damaged character and reputation, and being subject to name-calling, whether it is to her face or behind her back (Goffman, 1963). Of course, this gendered norms and values have not only existed in contemporary society, but have for centuries where woman were outcast for expressing any sexual behaviours or infidelity, such examples even exist in literature (see: The Scarlett Letter). Having such viewpoints can often lower the desirability of a person, due to their past sexual history, particularly with a woman, where a man may feel as if he “wifed a slut” and due to this stigma and double standard, does not continue the relationship or pursue it, or if he does—it impacts the woman mentally, where she experiences anxiety around such words, her sexual history and questions her own worth. Things like this, as stated earlier, lead to severe mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Coleman (1961) found that (though the study was regarding adolescent girls, it still can be generalised to women) it was “crucial for her status personally and for the maintenance of the system itself for her to be selective and dispense favors with extreme care. If not, the culture is threatened by her philanthropy, and punishes her by ruining her reputation and taking away her status.” For boys, however, “sexual exploits are conquests, and thus actions that gain [them] status rather than lose it” (pg. 122). Further study conducted by Michael Marks (2017) on The Sexual Double Standard in the Real World showed that women were seen less favourably as their perceived number of sexual partners increased. Results revealed a pattern, where women were “increasingly derogated as the number of sexual partners increased,” and men were not. This remained the case, regardless of whether the judge was male or female. Women were judged very harshly, even if the participants of this study were unsure on whether the number was true or false.
Sexual double standard is something that needs to end, as it can result in detrimental damage to one’s mental health and the impact caused by social attitudes. Men and women should, if anything, be judged and treated equally, instead of women being coined derogatory terms, seen as outlandish for revealing their sexual partners or promiscuity which goes against social norms since women are meant to be “shy and modest” virginal creatures. The double standard is one that leads to a number of issues, from depression to victim-blaming to condoning assault, and allowing men the power and audacity to take what they want, with no repercussions in place. It further stigmatises the belief that men are superior to women, and allowed to engage in sexual activity with whomever whenever, whereas women are not. Women should not be expected to be a particular way, nor held to such standards, when men aren’t. Most people have desires, most people have sex. Nobody should be judging anybody for what they do, and definitely should not be calling someone a slut, a whore, a hoe, a slag. Especially when it has no affect on anyone else’s life. Sex is someone’s choice. Their body, their choice.