The Sexual Double Standard

Sexuality and Shame

I'm undergoing a certification process in sex therapy, and at the beginning of these classes, we discuss different experiences we've had around our sexuality. What are our connotations with specific body parts? What does your culture tell you about sexuality?

We were recently asked to share our most embarrassing sexual experiences. For about twenty minutes, the room was a walking Buzzfeed article about awkward sexual encounters--strange people that we slept with, the embarrassment of being walked in on.

Thankfully, nothing as embarrassing as these.

Fortunately, we laughed our way through most of our stories. For many, embarrassing sexual experiences are laden with shame and humiliation and adversely affect future sexual experiences.

A naked picture that you may or may not have given consent to circulating its way around Snapchat.

An involuntary physiological response or intense amount of pain during intercourse.

Your private sexual experience going public, complete with messages of judgment and condemnation from friends, parents, or other trusted people.

Unfortunately, women are far more likely to be on the receiving end of embarrassment and shame than men. After all, men gain social status for their sexual exploits. Women are more likely to be emblazoned with a capital A (or, in 2016, a capital S, for slut) for theirs.

The sexual double standard affects the way that young men and women talk about sexuality. Men typically overstate their sexual behaviors, while women typically understate theirs. As a result, young women must engage in what one researcher called "impression management"--a balancing act between maintaining one's sense of sexuality without being deemed a slut. The sexual double standard often reinforces traditional sexual roles, where the male partner is expected to be dominant and the female partner is expected to place her partner's needs over her own.

Hooking Up

Heather Hensman Kettrey, a researcher at Vanderbilt, recently assessed university students (over 11,000) about their views on hooking up. While the act of hooking up has been seen by some to foster a rewriting of sexual scripts by young people, in Kettrey's study, 45% of men judged women more harshly than other men for participating in hookups. 55% of the surveyed women reported feeling disrespected and judged by other people for hooking up, while only 22% of menfelt the same.

(Kettrey determined other useful statistics about hooking up. Alcohol use plays a significant role in hookups, as 66% of participants reported drinking before and/or during the sexual encounter. Hooking up doesn't necessarily mean intercourse; 40% of the university students reported penetrative sex as part of their hookup experiences. Over half of the participants said that hooking up was initiated by both members, as opposed to one partner (generally the male) initiating. These are statistics for another blog post though.)

Sex Therapy

The sexual double standard, as well as other social messages we receive around sexuality, follows women and men into long-term committed relationships. Consider these interactions:

  • A relationship where the male partner initiates sex over 90% of the time.
  • A lack of discussion about sexual needs due (in part) to assumptions about the sexual roles of women and men.
  • Low sexual desire and/or vulvar pain in the female partner.
  • Premature ejaculation in the male partner.

Obviously, there are many factors that create sexual issues--biological, psychological, relational. We cannot discount the messages about sexuality that we received from the larger society, including the sexual double standard, and the ways that we carry these messages about our bodies and gendered roles into the bedroom.

While Stephen Duclos and Paula Leech are our certified sex therapists (and see sex therapy cases through our sister organization, South Shore Sexual Health Center), all of our couples therapists will discuss basic features of sexuality, including the impact of societal messages that you received about sexuality on your current sexual relationship. Exploring and disempowering the sexual double standard may be what's needed to help you have the fun, stress-free sexual relationship you want to have.

To set up an appointment, click Book Now at the top of the page, or call us at 617-750-0183.