Double Standard on the Wane

Study finds college students increasingly apply the same judgments (or no judgment at all) to males and females who enjoy sexual hook-ups.

August 17, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown, who died this week, would probably have appreciated one of the findings in research being released today at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Brown's Sex and the Single Girl encouraged women to enjoy sex without marriage. And while that idea has been embraced for decades now on many campuses, double standards have remained widespread. Women returning to their rooms on Sunday morning in their Saturday night clothes have been mocked for their "walk of shame," while men doing the same thing joke about the "stride of pride."

But the new research suggests that many more male and female college students are applying the same standards to men and women who have many hook-ups. Brown would probably applaud that. What she might not like is that more students are judging male and and female students with many hook-ups negatively.

Rachel Allison, co-author of the study and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that there is increasingly a "level playing field" in how students are judged. The study was based on surveys of 19,000 students at 22 residential, four-year colleges.

The students were asked to respond to the statement: "If (wo)men hook up or have sex with lots of people, I respect them less."

Allison and her co-author -- Barbara Risman, a professor of sociology at Illinois-Chicago -- found four patterns in responses:

  • 48 percent of all students were "egalitarian conservatives" in that they judged male and students similarly and negatively for lots of hook-ups.
  • 27 percent were "egalitarian libertarians" who lost no respect for women or men who have lots of hook-ups.
  • 12 percent held "traditional double standard" views (judging women negatively but men positively).
  • 13 percent held "reverse double standard" views (judging men negatively but women positively).

While these findings point to an erosion in the traditional double standard about college students and sex, that view is hardly dead. While only 6 percent of women agree with the traditional double standard, 25 percent of men do. And among subsets of men, higher percentages say that they have less respect for women who have many hook-ups. Among male athletes, 38 percent hold that view. Among men in Greek systems, 38 percent do.

Among other findings:

  • Buddhist, Jewish and non-religious students were less likely than Roman Catholic students to lose respect for women who have many hook-ups.
  • Students in the West were the least judgmental about hook-ups. Students in the Midwest were most judgmental.
  • A majority of gay and lesbian students -- unlike their heterosexual counterparts -- hold libertarian views on students who have many hook-ups.

The authors conclude their paper by writing that they present a "complicated picture" with regard to students' attitudes. "While the sexual double standard is present among some men, it is not present among a majority of men and is not present among women." But they note that the equity in attitudes is based on a negative judgment of both men and women.

"While we may be moving towards a less gendered sexual future, our findings suggest that we may also be moving toward a more sexually conservative one," they write. "We cannot know if more women will become sexual libertarians, or more men sexual conservatives, or if the gender gap will remain. Perhaps sexual attitudes will remain diverse, with egalitarian sexual conservatives co-existing with egalitarian sexual libertarians. If so, let’s hope the students of the future find some effective way to be sure they attend the right parties."


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