Promiscuous women rejected by potential same-sex friends

Men and women backs
I think it highlights that although attitudes toward sex have become more permissive over time, we're still not at the point of universally accepting sex outside of long-term, romantic relationships. Things like casual sex, group sex and sex with multiple partners still remain stigmatised by most.
Zhana Vrangalova
Cornell University research finds that young women view sexually promiscuous female peers as less suitable for friendship, regardless of their own attitudes to sex…

According to a study by psychologists at Cornell University, young women view their promiscuous female peers more negatively than they view less sexually permissive women. Even when the female participants themselves reported a high number of sexual partners or liberal views on casual sex, the preference they expressed for less permissive friends was constant.

The authors asked 751 university-aged men and women to disclose their opinions about casual sex and information about their sexual history, before they read almost identical vignettes about a female or a male peer. The only difference was the number of sexual partners the character had in their lifetime – two or 20. The subjects then rated the man or woman on a number of factors, from overall likeability to competence, morality and emotional stability.

The results, which were recently published in an early online edition of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, indicated that, although attitudes surrounding casual sex seem to have become more accepting, women still face a double standard when it comes to promiscuity.

Women uniformly rated more permissive women negatively on 9 out of 10 attributes, whereas men’s attitudes seemed to depend more on their own experience. Permissive men, for example, only favoured less sexually active men as friends when it came to 2 of the 10 measures.

Lead author Zhana Vrangalova, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, explained to how the persistence of sexual double standard could have a negative impact on permissive women, and how the origins of these attitudes may be evolutionary in nature…

What led you to carry out this study? How does it fit in with your other research interests?
The study was initiated by Rachel Bukberg, an undergraduate student working as my research assistant in the Sex and Gender Lab, who wanted to do an honour's thesis on promiscuous women and their friendships.

The study fits in perfectly with one primary research interest – promiscuity and casual sex, and how they relate to psychological and physical health. A lot of prior research has examined how promiscuous people are perceived by potential romantic/sexual partners or as people in general, but there is very little research examining this question in the context of friendships.

Why do you think the idea persists that promiscuous women are ‘slutty’, while promiscuous men are ‘studly’?
The sexual double standard has a very long and deep history in the Western world, and social norms don't change over night. It's a slow and ongoing process, and there are many people, both women and men, who actively resist it.

In the Huffington Post two weeks ago, I read a post written by a female psychologist (with a PhD) who was advising women not to have sex on the first date so that they wouldn't be seen as cheap and slutty by the same men who slept with them on that first date. Messages like that get sent to young men and women all over America every day from a variety of sources, including the media, parents, schools, churches, friends, and romantic/sexual partners. The good news is that this process toward more egalitarian attitudes has begun and will only continue.

How does this affect more sexually permissive women?
Study after study has found that sexually permissive women are discriminated against by potential romantic partners, and now also by potential same-sex friends. Given that the need to belong and form deep, long-lasting relationships with others is a fundamental human need, one would think that sexually permissive women would suffer from isolation and mental health problems due to this discrimination. Interestingly, however, studies looking at the mental health of sexually permissive women are mixed – some find that they have higher depression and lower self-esteem, while other studies find no such differences, or even find the opposite.

Yet, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the double standard really harms sexually permissive women. There is a wonderful online project/community called the Unslut Project that documents women's experiences with slut shaming, and some of those stories are gut-wrenching. I believe it takes its toll on women, especially on those who are more sensitive to social rejection, and this is definitely an area that needs more research.

What do you think are the most important points the study has highlighted around attitudes to casual sex?
I think it highlights that although attitudes toward sex have become more permissive over time, we're still not at the point of universally accepting sex outside of long-term, romantic relationships. Things like casual sex, group sex and sex with multiple partners still remain stigmatised by most.

How do you think we could begin to change the situation, or is it inevitable that societal norms will prevail?
I think there will always be a segment of the population (e.g. the religious right) where promiscuity (for one or both sexes) will remain stigmatised. But I'm confident that among more mainstream parts of the population, sexual norms will keep getting more permissive and more egalitarian with time. And each and every one of us can help with that process.

Projects like the Unslut Project, slut walks, positive media attention, conversations we have with our friends and family every day, sex-positive sex education programmes, and progressive reproductive rights laws; all of those things can change people's minds. Even laws like equal pay for women or paid maternity leave can help the process, by making women more independent and self-sufficient and thus better equipped to resist patriarchal attitudes.

Do you have further follow-up research planned?
In this same study, in addition to the experimental portion that the current paper reports on, we also asked participants about their own friendships and loneliness levels. So I'm planning on writing a follow-up paper on whether more promiscuous women and men are more isolated or lonely than their less promiscuous peers, as one might expect based on our results.

There is some prior research on mental health among promiscuous people, but very little research on their social connectedness and loneliness. In the future, I'd like to look at perceptions of promiscuous women in other groups that might be less judgmental of their promiscuity, such as gay men, or men and women in non-monogamous relationships.

I also currently have a couple of papers under review in academic journals that look at the longitudinal links between casual sex and psychological well-being, and some personality factors that might influence that link.



I did not read the whole article, so it might have already said something to this point, but I think the reason as to why women don't necessarily have girlfriends who they view as promiscuous is not because they think the girl is a slut, but because they might be afraid that she could either be the cause of a break-up, or that this girl might be more forward and get the guys that she herself is "courting" with modesty.

And some of us don't want a man who has screwed our girlfriend. ;)

I think girls calling other girls slut just shows that they are unsure about their own sexuality.

Jude - Norway
I really hate people using the word "promiscuous." I think it has such a negative connotation to it.

Karin - California, United States
Now that non-Western countries are submitting research, the theories are so adolescent and basically infantile in logic and misogynistic prejudice, it's appalling.

Commented Christina Richter on
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