Psychologists reveal biggest misperception about women and gender
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the Roaring Twenties – which occurred in the wake of the 1918 influenza pandemic – “the most expensive orgy in history. “
Now, because more and more Americans are getting vaccinated, some say all the sexual energy accumulated over the past year will be released, with Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis predicting a summer marked by a flare-up in “sexual debauchery”.
Women, however, could face negative reactions for exploring their post-vaccination sexuality. In a new study, we found that women – but not men – continue to be viewed negatively for having casual sex.
This stereotype persists even though casual sex has become more and more normalized and gender equality has increased in the United States and much of the western world.
Specifically, both men and women assume that a woman who has casual sex must have low self-esteem.
But this perception is not based on reality. So what could be behind this unfounded stereotype?
A belief that transcends religious and political divides
While the idea that women’s sexual behavior is linked to their self-esteem is a common trope in movies, television, and even some relationship advice sites, we documented how ingrained this stereotype is through six experiences published in Psychological Sciences.
In one experiment, we asked Americans to estimate the correlation between people’s sexual behavior and their self-esteem.
- We have described these people as being male, female, or just “a person”, without providing any information about their gender.
- We then described this man, woman, or person as having a lot of casual sex, described them as serial monogamous, or provided no information about their sexual behavior.
We found that Americans tended to associate monogamy with high self-esteem, especially among women. Most strikingly, they associated casual sex with low self-esteem, but only for women.
This belief was surprisingly widespread, and through our studies we found that both men and women share it.
We asked ourselves: Was this stereotype the product of sexist beliefs? Could this be due to the political ideology of the participants or to their religion?
But time and time again, we’ve seen that this stereotype transcended a number of markers, including the extent to which a person held sexist beliefs, political views, and religiosity.
What if a woman says she wants casual sex?
However, people might think that women don’t want casual sex in the first place. For example, people might assume that women have casual sex only because they are trying and failing to attract a long term relationship. In fact, such beliefs seem to influence the stereotype about women’s self-esteem.
Specifically, the more Americans thought women didn’t want casual sex, the more these Americans tended to associate women’s casual sex with low self-esteem.
This discovery inspired another experiment. We wondered what would happen if we told participants that a woman was in fact perfectly satisfied with her laid-back sex lifestyle. Could it change their beliefs?
But even this factor didn’t seem to stop the stereotypes. Participants still viewed these women as having low self-esteem. And they even perceived a woman described as having monogamous sex – but who was deeply dissatisfied with her monogamous sex life – as having greater self-esteem.
Here’s the kicker: Among our participants – the same ones who showed this stereotype – we found virtually no association between their self-esteem and their own sexual behavior.
These results are similar to those of psychologist David Schmitt, who conducted an investigation of over 16,000 participants from around the world, and also found little association between self-esteem and casual sex.
And in our study, it was actually the men who reported having more casual sex who also tended to have slightly lower self-esteem.
Do our Stone Age brains play a role?
So why do people have this negative assumption about women who have casual sex, especially if it doesn’t hold up? The short answer is, we don’t currently know, and the associations between sex and self-esteem in the real world are complex.
Some people might wonder if the media is to blame. It is true that women who have casual sex are sometimes portrayed as somehow deficient. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Even though the popular media perpetuates this stereotype, it still doesn’t explain why people would feel pressured to portray women this way in the first place.
Another possible explanation is that the stereotype extends from reproductive biology, in which males have historically had more to gain from casual sex than women, who, since they are at risk of becoming pregnant, often have to bear higher costs, on average, than men.
Yet today new technologies – like birth control and legal and safe abortion – allow women to have casual sex without having to bear some of these unwanted costs. Maybe, then, our Stone Age brains just haven’t caught up yet.
Whatever the origin of this stereotype, today it risks fostering prejudice and discrimination. For example, people perceived to have low self-esteem are less likely to be asked for dates or elected to political office.
This stereotype may also have led to seemingly well-meaning – but ultimately misguided – advice to girls and women about their sexual behavior.
There is a cottage industry built around tell women what kind of sex not to have. (Searching for books on “friendship advice” on Amazon gives less than 40 results, but the search for “dating advice” was returned more than 2,000.)
In Western society, women are rarely criticized for breaking glass ceilings to become leaders, professors, CEOs and astronauts.
So why do they continue to be disparaged when they become more and more open and ready to sleep with others as they please, of their own accord?