The mean number of lifetime sex partners is less than one (.89) for the full sample, with a range of 0–36. The majority of girls perceived themselves as popular both at Time 1 (85%) and Time 2 (82%). At time 1, the mean of the self-esteem measure is 23.5 (range 9–30) and the mean for the item indexing a desire for more friends is 2.59 (range 1–5). The sample has a mean of 7.33 for friends’ liberal attitudes, suggesting a trend toward more liberal peers. The mean for number of friends having sex is 2.85 (range 1–6). Respondents report a mean of 3.14 for the self identity of flirty and 3.29 for sexy (range 1–5). presents the zero-order (column 1) and multivariate (column 2) ordinary least squares models predicting the number of lifetime sex partners. The mean number of partners is 0.9 (SD=2.4). We first focus on the social deficit indicators, perceived popularity, desire for more friends, and self-esteem. The zero-order and multivariate results show that perceived popularity and desire for number of friends are not significantly related to girls’ reports about their number of lifetime sex partners. Further, results show that self-esteem is not associated with the number of lifetime sex partners. This is not consistent with the notion of high social costs, or a devalued or stigmatized identity, at least as measured by the idea of lower self-esteem.
Zero-order and Full Model Predicting Number of Lifetime Sex Partners for Adolescent Girls
The indicators associated with the social networks hypothesis are friends’ liberal sexual attitudes, sexual behavior of friends, and the sexualized identity indicator. Friends’ liberal sexual attitudes and sexual behavior of friends are significantly and positively related to the number of lifetime sex partners reported in zero-order and multivariate models. In addition, “sexy” is no longer significant in the multivariate model with the addition of friends’ liberal sexual attitudes. We find that respondent’s endorsement of the flirty identity is not significantly tied to the number of sex partners. A more detailed analysis (available on request) that uses logistic regression with a dichotomous dependent variable of four or more sex partners suggests that flirty identity is significantly related to the number of sex partners at the zero-order level, but not in the full model. These cross-sectional results are consistent with the basic tenets of social learning theory, and provide some support for conceptualizing identity in terms of its content areas, rather than solely in terms of positive/negative evaluations (i.e., the self-esteem notion).
Results of longitudinal analyses are reported in . To determine whether the number of lifetime sex partners reported at wave I is associated with a reduction in popularity at wave II, we rely on the former as a predictor of the latter. Net of perceived popularity with females as reported at wave I, the number of lifetime sex partners also reported at wave I is not significantly related to subsequent popularity, as measured at wave II. This finding suggests that within this sample of adolescents, whether we examine the issue cross-sectionally or longitudinally, the number of lifetime sex partners does not seem to be associated with self perceived lower peer regard, as would be predicted by the basic logic of the sexual double standard, and the idea of social costs levied against young women who violate such norms. In addition, the findings highlight identity and social network variations within the sample that are linked to behavioral differences across the sample.
Zero-order and Full Model Predicting Number of Time 2 Popularity Adolescent Girls
Although not a primary focus of this investigation, we also attempted to replicate Kreager and Staff’s (2009)
finding regarding the relationship between sexual behavior and number of friends reported. Supplemental analyses of the TARS data indicate that girls with a high number of sex partners at wave I are less likely to report five or more friends at wave II. However, there is not a significant relationship between number of sex partners and the likelihood of reporting having a few friends compared to reporting five or more friends. It is also interesting to note that across several dimensions of relationship quality (e.g., time spent with friends, levels of intimate self-disclosure to friends), girls who report a larger number of sexual partners do not score significantly lower on frequency of interaction with friends or intimacy of communication relative to their more sexually conservative counterparts (analyses available upon request).
The Meaning(s) of the Double Standard
Our analyses of the qualitative data provide a more nuanced picture of the double standard, one that generally accords with the quantitative results, but shows distinctions between girls’ knowledge and even acceptance of these broader normative prescriptions on the one hand, and the behaviors of friends and their own sexual experiences on the other. Sections of the narratives focusing on the double standard suggest that these gendered normative standards survive on many levels, and even those young women who report a relatively large number of sexual partners do not fully reject its basic tenets. Yet differences across various reference points are important to consider. Thus, while young women spoke eloquently about the general existence of two standards of sexual comportment, they reserve more harsh attributions for unknown or little known others who casually violate these standards. As discussions turned to the behavior of intimate friends, and particularly respondents’ own behavior, a more measured and complex set of meanings/explanations or ‘disclaimers’ (Scott and Lyman, 1968
) often emerged. The qualitative findings complement the quantitative findings in that young women who reported a high number of sex partners did not typically develop a narrative about being unpopular or stigmatized, a desire for more friends, feelings of loneliness or low self-worth. However, they often referenced the behavior of friends within their own networks. Thus, it is likely that adolescents focus most heavily on this immediate network as a source of reference and influence, which then serves as a form of social support and as a buffer against negative attributions associated with their own behavior.
The Double Standard as a Cultural Reality
During the in-depth interviews respondents were asked a straightforward question regarding the double standard and whether they think it still exists. Results of the qualitative data show that many adolescents in the sample do recognize the survival of the sexual double standard. However, when the girls discuss the meaning of the sexual double standard, it is often viewed as a known, taken-for-granted societal reality or social dynamic that occurs in the larger school environment. When asked about why girls get a bad reputation for sexual behavior, but boys do not, Sara, an 18-year-old with 7 lifetime sex partners, states: I mean, we’ve (girls) gotten a bad rap ever since Eve took the apple… People can break it down all the way back then. Sara believes that the sexual double standard is as old as the human race. Similarly, Emma, a 17-year-old with a more limited range of sexual experiences (1 partner), notes:
When the girl does it just to get that name for herself or just make her well known to other people then that would make a bad name for yourself but the guys do it more…I think that stereotype is true but I don’t think it is fair.
Emma notes that if girls engage in the same behavior and with the same motives as young men, they are judged more harshly, and also suggests that this norm is unjust. Others like Kayla, a 17-year-old virgin, recognize that the sexual double standard is strong at the societal level. She states:
…I think it’s because of the way that we were raised! You know, with the whole, American culture, you know? You’ll see it on TV and everything, you know guy, you know -- and like movies, “Oh, you scored last night! That’s great! But when it goes back to the girl, she’s a “whore!” She put out too early…
Across a range of different levels of sexual experience, then, most young women reflect a keen awareness of the core elements of the double standard in pointing out that women are held to different normative standards compared to men. They also reflect on social labeling processes, in that men are subject to social rewards for engaging in behavior that is likely to garner a bad reputation or even labels such as ‘whore’ when enacted by women.
When girls are asked to provide specific examples that relate to their school environment, however, these statements are often vague or abstract, not referencing particular girls—especially the respondent’s friends or their own behavior. Kimberly, a 17-year-old with 2 lifetime sex partners, says:
The girls I’ve seen now in schools, you know me being a senior and seeing the younger girls, they just put themselves out there like that just to get like attention from the boys and I don’t know maybe they’re working to get a like relationship with ‘em or they just do it just because that’s what they feel…I don’t know. I think it’s nasty.
This senior female does judge harshly the younger girls who “put themselves out there” in ways that are too overtly sexual. The narrative also suggests that she has a different orientation. Thus, it is interesting to note that Kimberly is currently dating a boy who started out as a “friends with benefits” relationship, suggesting the idea that multiple—and sometimes contradictory—meanings can be associated with the double standard concept.
This notion is also illustrated by Marie, a 17-year-old, who castigates other girls who gain a negative reputation linked to their sexual behaviors: Cause there are some girls out there that deserve it. Like, they just don’t care…And, then like, that gets put on all girls ‘cause we’re girls.” In this instance it is useful to examine the results of Marie’s structured interview, which indicate that she has had four sex partners. Thus, while castigating other girls, Marie herself scored over one standard deviation above the mean in sexual experience relative to other young women who participated in the TARS study. These two quotes show that the sexual double standard may exist on a societal or school level, but often erodes, or gains a layer of complication when the referent is one’s own behavior or that of intimate friends.
The Meaning of the Sexual Double Standard on the Peer Level
Numerous scholars have pointed out that a key benefit of friendships during the adolescent period is the level of support they provide (Mortimer and Call, 2001
). And, as Youniss and Smollar (1985)
and others have pointed out, peers, relative to one’s parents or other adults, are less likely to be judgmental, a social dynamic that creates many opportunities for frank dialogue and exploration of issues, including issues of sexuality. When asked how she felt about girlfriends who want to participate in sexual behavior as much as boys do, Stephanie, a 17-year-old with 6 lifetime sex partners, refers to her friend as an example and says:
I: Do you think there are girls out there that are like I’d take it (sex) all day long if I could get it, too?
R: Um … And I respected that and I never talked about somebody.
I: So you respected that that’s okay that they are like that?
R: Um huh. Yeah…, and that’s my friend.
I: And that has nothin’ to do with how (you feel about her).
R: Nope. ‘Cause I’m not sleeping with her so I don’t care.
Clearly, Stephanie does not view her friend negatively because she has engaged in such behaviors. And, while we cannot clearly document all of the selection and influences processes involved, Stephanie’s own sexual experience level coordinates well with that of her friend, providing an additional motivation to avoid levying any sort of negative social sanction or disapproval of her friend’s behavior. This fits well with the quantitative results reported in . Along similar lines, Alexis, a 17-year-old with 1 lifetime sex partner, describes how her peer group does not talk about or judge their female friends for the sexual activities in which they participate:
…No I think my friends are all pretty much, we’re all pretty much alike. We just kind of I don’t think that we brown nose in other people’s business. You know we go on about our way and um our business is our business… You know if Paula’s out doing somebody it’s not my business. And I don’t take pride in you know sharing it with other people.
Alexis’ statement reflects that she does not judge her friend for the sexual behavior in which she may be involved. Even more importantly she feels the need to uphold certain rules of friendship, which do not include giving the friend a derogatory name or spreading rumors about her. Another participant, Amber, a 17-year-old with 2 lifetime sex partners, reports that her peer group, principally the soccer team, offers a safe place to discuss romantic and sexual activity:
R:…Like, personally, just on the soccer team, like, yea. Like, on the soccer team, we talk about that all the time… Oh, very open. Like girls who had…they’re, like, very curious.
I: And so people are accepting of them?
R: Oh, yea. People are very accepting
I: Okay and…they don’t get a negative reputation?
R: Nope, not at [high school name].
Amber feels she can look to her peer group as an opportunity to discuss issues around sexuality without running the risk of getting a negative reputation. Since the peer group is often a safe haven relative to the “wider circle” of peer associations, this is a place for girls to explore their own and others’ sexual feelings and experiences in ways that to an extent suspends or “bracket off” double standard concerns. This idea is consistent with the quantitative findings demonstrating concordance between adolescent respondents’ own behaviors and those of their friends, and results that do not dovetail with the “social costs/deficits” hypothesis.
Maintaining a Positive Self Image in Response to the Sexual Double Standard
Most girls could describe the negative sexual double standard in some fashion, but a subset of girls we interviewed has actually engaged in behaviors that could potentially garner a negative reputation. As suggested above, one way in which such negative attributions are avoided is by affiliating with other young women who share similar attitudes, and often a similar behavioral profile. However, in addition to carving out compatible peer affiliations, the relationship and sexual history narratives provide some indications of ways in which girls construct positive meanings about their own identities, including their sexual self-images. Jade, an 18-year-old with 2 lifetime sex partners, states: I guess they don’t want to seem like a slut, you know? No one wants to be thought of like that…I mean, if I hear something about a girl that she had sex with three different guys, you know, on the same night, I’m gonna label her as a slut. This respondent recognizes there are certain behaviors that can cause a female to be called a ‘slut,’ but mentions an extremely liberal reference point (having sex with three different partners on the same night) that ensures that her own behavior can be seen in a more positive, conservative light.
Aside from this type of bar-setting as a way of distancing from negative attributions, several girls focused on the inappropriate, hurtful actions of boyfriends as a catalyst for their own behaviors. For example, several female respondents state that they have had sex with two young men at the same time because their boyfriends cheated first or were not around. Rachel a 17-year-old with 7 lifetime sex partners explains how she started cheating on her partner:
I: So who started kind of cheating on who first?
R: Well as far as sex I believe he did.
I: But how about emotional?
R: …Oh he did.
I: Okay. And so then did you start going out with other guys after he spent time with other girls?
R: Yeah towards the end of our relationship, yes.
Marissa, a 17-year-old with 13 lifetime sex partners, explains why she was having sex with two different individuals at the same time for a period of time: We were supposed to be going together but that’s why I kind of started messing with someone else, because he was never around. When he did come around, it was just sex. So I was like why should I go with him if I can just get that anyway. Marissa thus focuses on her boyfriend’s bad or uncaring actions as a justification for her own behavior.
While Marissa and Rachel focus on ways in which their boyfriends fall short as a justification for their activities, some young women within the sample focus on their own sexual desires in a generally positive way (see especially Tolman, 1996
). Several of the teenage girls indicated that they have had sex because they were interested to see what sex was like or emphasized that they are still young. Alexis, a 17-year-old with 1 lifetime sex partner, explains: I don’t know what I mean I don’t [know why] I slept with Joe. Maybe it was curiosity.”
Amber, a 17-year-old with 2 lifetime sex partners, describes her sexual relationship with her boyfriend: “It was to where two or three times a day…Yea, seriously like my sex drive is like a guy.
This quote and the rest of her narrative comments make clear that Amber was generally unapologetic about enjoying her sexuality; yet vestiges of the double standard are apparent in her reference to her sex drive as being “like a guy.” This is somewhat reminiscent of quotes from male respondents described in a previous analysis, where these young men did not believe that their strong feelings for girls were experienced by other males-- thus they made numerous references to being ‘like a girl in the relationship,’ or ‘on their monthly cycle’ when talking about their breakups (Author et al., 2006
Another ‘disclaimer’ that appears in the narratives relates to the presence of alcohol in sexual situations. Amber, for example, recalled having sex with a particular boy because they were drunk:…So it wasn’t, like, fun. If I wouldn’t of had beer, I would have been pissed…I would have been like, Oh, you suck. This is terrible…Like he didn’t know what he was doing. This narrative account is of interest, however, because Amber did not reference moral issues, but merely that her partner was sexually incompetent.
Other girls view sex from an instrumental point of view—a dynamic that reflects both non-traditional and traditional elements. For example, some young women indicated that having sex with a particular partner might increase the young man’s interest, or extinguish his interest in another girl. Julia, a 17-year-old with 10 lifetime sex partners, says: I figured I don’t know it was a kind of bad decision on my saying like “Well, if if I actually do get physical with him that he will like me more than her.” Julia thinks sex is one of the strategies she could use to make sure the young man likes her over her friend who also likes him. Along similar lines, some girls state that they use sex as a way of trying to get back or maintain a romantic relationship they already have. When asked why she initiated sex with an ex-boyfriend, Marissa, a 17-year-old with 13 lifetime sex partners, states that even though she knew they were not committed to each other they had sex anyway. She says: I wanted it but I felt maybe we were back together. Thus, such behaviors could be constructed by outsiders as “non-relationship sex,” but in these instances girls held more traditional beliefs about cementing or rekindling a romantic attachment.
Another related non-traditional situation that retains traditional elements involved young women who had multiple sex partners, but claimed to have strong feelings for all of them. Nicole, an 18-year-old with 8 lifetime sex partners, was dating three different partners at the same time and was sexually intimate with two of them. When asked about why she found herself in this situation she said:
I really thought I liked all these people. You know what I mean? Like, I really thought you know it wasn’t like, I’m with you and I just want to mess around with and I don’t really have any feelings for (the other two guys)…the reason I messed around was because I really liked like, Mike, and I really liked Timmy, and I really Sam, but it was like, I didn’t want to let any of them go, ‘cause I really liked all of them and I didn’t want to hurt any of them feeling, feelings. It wasn’t like I was just doing it, ‘cause you know, I didn’t care… that was the problem, I cared for them all too much and shouldn’t have.
Because Nicole really liked and cared for all of these young men that she was dating, she did not consider this to be a case of “messing around” - behavior that would place her on more tenuous footing with respect to her own self-image.