The tiresome sexual double standard—celebrating escapades in men that are judged in women—pervades politics and pop culture, taking its toll on adults of both genders. According to a new study presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), its impact may start as early as the middle school cafeteria.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that girls who have sex lose friends, while boys gain them. The opposite is true with “lighter” sexual behavior—girls who made out saw an increase in popularity, while boys took a hit.
The study drew data from 15,000 adolescent participants in the PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER) longitudinal study, a program designed to combat adolescent substance abuse. Every spring, students from two successive sixth grade classes across 27 rural school districts in Iowa and Pennsylvania filled out confidential pencil and paper questionnaires during school hours. Of the participating students, 921 completed an additional at-home questionnaire that included self reported sexual behaviors.
On the in-school survey, students nominated up to seven best or close friends. Peer acceptance was judged based on the number of people who identified a given student as a friend. The at home survey assessed sexual behavior by asking whether, during the past 12 months, students had “sex” or “made out.”
In same-gendered friendships, girls who reported that they had begun having sex, experienced a 45 percent decline in peer acceptance—their social circles shrunk. Boys, on the other hand, experienced an 88 percent boost. So, young adolescent girls who had sex saw negative social consequences, whereas boys were able to climb the social ladder with their sexual prowess. If you’ve made it through high school, this will not come as a surprise.
But the reverse was true when researchers asked about lighter sexual activity. Girls who reported making out saw a peer acceptance increase of 25 percent, while boys’ dropped by 29 percent.
In both cases, while peer acceptance changed, there was no corresponding change in outgoing friendship. This suggests that, for teens who have sex, the social changes are rooted in how their peers view them, rather than a change in their own behaviors. In other words, the shift is not just because they’re failing to balance their friends with their new boyfriends. There’s something else at work.
Researchers also looked at the results by cross gender friendships. For boys, there was no significant change in their female friendships after sexual activity. But for girls, their male friendships changed just as their female friendships had—sex resulted in a decrease in male friends, and making out led to more.
The theory behind the peer acceptance boost is that, for girls, making out suggests that you’re desirable to the opposite sex, but also that you have self control. This combination increases peer acceptance. The disgusting but apparently accepted term for this in sexual script dogma is that women who make out but refrain from sex are successful “gatekeepers,” and benefit from maintaining power by withholding what men want (to be clear, the gate is keeping safe your vagina. It’s a vagina gate). Traditional gender roles dictate that women are in it for the romance; in real life, when girls cross that line, acknowledge their sexuality, and give up their precious and magical virginity, they experience social fallout from both male and female friends.
For men, on the other hand, the traditional gender role endgame is sex, making out but not having sex suggests that you’re not masculine enough to seal the deal and peer acceptance dips.. They’ve failed to score on the gatekeeper, so to speak. This study argues that the difference in how we judge men and women for their sexual behaviors starts in kids as young as sixth grade.
What this means is something that, again, may feel familiar. Young adolescents get stuck in an environment where girls may be pressured to repress their sexuality to preserve their social status and boys may be pressured to become sexually active before they’re personally ready. Everybody loses. This study did not address how this changes when sex becomes the norm in high school, but past research and basic observational skills suggests it doesn’t get much easier as we get older. Most of the studies on this topic are done with college students in the much maligned “hook up culture” and most of our efforts to combat it focus on teenagers and adults. This is one of the first to show us that these lectures on sexual identity and equality may be starting far too late.
There are some issues with the study, The survey questions on sexual activity did not define the terms specifically—things like oral and anal sex could fall into either category, depending on who you ask. It also did did not include questions on whether students reported sexual activity to their peers. But prior research suggests that adolescents share information about sex freely with their peers, and in small schools word inevitably gets around.
Then there’s the obvious question of generalizability. At the beginning of the study (the fall of 6th grade), sexual activity was approaching zero. By 9th grade, 17 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys in the study identified as sexually active. The majority of girls and 40 percent of boys reported making out at least once.
In contrast, national data from the 2009 CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance found that 38.1 percent of 9th grade male students and 27.4 percent of 9th grade female students reported sexual intercourse. The middle school YRBS found that 9% of 6th graders were having sex (as is the case with this study, “sex” was not defined in the survey). So, this group of students is not exactly representative of America as a whole. That said, the fact that teens nationwide were having more sex than those in the study doesn’t mean they were any more open minded about it.
Despite these flaws, this research reinforces what we already know about the sexual double standard and suggests that its effects begin long before we reach adulthood. Starting as early as sixth grade, girls’ social acceptance from both male and female peers hinged on the delicate balance of being sexually appealing, but not giving too much away. Boys benefited socially with their male peers from sex, but were penalized if they only succeeded in making out.
The fact that this double standard persists in the 21st century shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention, but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting. It’s on college campuses, where the expectations set up unrealistic standards of sexual behavior for both genders. It’s when a woman’s sexual history is considered relevant to a rape case. It is at the foundation of denying women basic reproductive rights. And, apparently, it’s starting long before most of us finish puberty.
I shudder to think what would happen if follow up studies look at what happens when preschool-aged girls loan out their blocks too readily.
Caroline Weinberg has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on twitter @ckw583.
Image via Fox Searchlight