Social consequence

Everything you learned about sex, you learned in middle school

A new study finds that very early on, boys and girls are getting different messages about implications of having sex

Chloe Muro/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It is a long-standing paradox that girls are judged and boys are applauded for having sex, and new research reveals a striking corollary to that double standard: teenage girls actually become more popular if they engage in foreplay without having intercourse, while the same behavior has the opposite effect on boys’ social status.

A team of researchers led by Derek Kreager, an associate professor of criminology and sociology at Pennsylvania State University, used data on two cohorts of adolescents in Iowa and Pennsylvania, and found that the double standard starts as early as middle school. The study began when the students were in sixth grade, continuing until they had reached ninth grade, and included 921 students from 28 rural communities. (The data was collected in the course of a larger, ongoing study on substance abuse.) The paper was presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago.

In sixth grade, when the students began participating in the study, almost none of them had had sex; by the spring of ninth grade, about 15 to 20 percent of them had lost their virginity. The survey included questions about the students’ sexual history and social life. They were asked to list their closest friends in school, and Kreager and his team evaluated their popularity by tallying the number of times each student was named as a close friend by a classmate.

A snapshot emerged of what happens to students’ friendships and social status when they start having sex and the results, as it turned out, were almost opposite for boys and girls. When girls started having sex, they suffered a loss in social standing; for boys, on the other hand, having sex meant gaining friends and status. Kreager and his team managed to quantify their findings, too: on average, sex was associated with a 45 percent decrease in friend count for girls, while boys enjoyed an 88 percent increase in popularity the year they had sex for the first time.

“The theory behind this is that boys and girls are getting different messages about the social consequences of sex,” Kreager told Women in the World.

Girls and boys also experienced very different consequences if they made out with someone but refrained from having sex. In that case, it was girls who were rewarded and boys who were punished by their peers. Kissing without having sex was associated with a 25 percent increase in popularity for girls and a 29 percent decrease for boys.

“Girls who are popular among boys, who date and are in serious relationships, get rewarded for that,” Kreager said, while “boys are punished, especially by other boys. They’re not doing the more ‘manly’ thing of having sex.”

The double standard that arises in middle school has implications that stretch far beyond puberty: it can affect teenagers’ sexual health and development later on.

“If the younger girls, especially, are penalized for having sex, they might associate sexual behavior with guilt or shame or social stigma,” says Kreager. Even girls who aren’t actually having sex observe how sexually active girls are treated, and are likely to absorb the idea that sex is a source of shame.

The norms boys learn about sexuality can also be damaging. “The messages that boys receive about sex being associated with status can lead to unhealthy sexual behavior — pursuing sex that’s unsafe, maybe non-consensual,” Kreager warns.

Kreager observed another surprising gender difference. If boys kissed a girl but didn’t have sex, it was primarily their friendships with other boys that suffered, while girls lost both male and female friends when they had sex.

“Boys are really policing their own behavior, whereas girls are getting messages from their girlfriends and from boys,” says Kreager. Other researchers have shown that men and women are equally likely to police women’s sexual behavior; last year, for example, a study in the U.K. found that male Twitter users sent out offensive or threatening tweets containing words like “slut” and “rape” only slightly more often than women.

According to sex educator Logan Levkoff, teens growing up with these norms are also at risk of absorbing the wrong ideas about what constitutes a satisfying relationship. Kreager’s findings suggest that “judgment is based on the behavior, rather than the context or health of the relationship or interaction,” she said in an email.  “Everyone is entitled to explore and express their sexuality free from shame, guilt, and the sexual double standard.”

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