Sexual Double Standard: Teen Girls Become More Popular By Making Out, Boys By Having Sex

making out
Teen girls lose friends after having sex, yet their male peers become more popular; “making out” has the opposite effect with a girl gaining friends, a boy losing them. Courtney Carmody, CC by 2.0

A key battle in the notorious war between the sexes is the double standard, which encourages one code of sexual "rules" for women, another for men. A new study finds girls and boys begin to wage that battle in their early teens. Girls quickly lose friends after having sex, but in the same circumstance their male peers become more popular, researchers say. Yet "making out" has the opposite effect — a girl gains friends, while a boy loses them.

"Results thus suggest that peers enforce traditional sexual scripts for both 'heavy' and 'light' sexual behaviors during early adolescence," wrote the research team.

Dr. Derek A. Kreager, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Pennsylvania State University, led a group of colleagues in examining data from participants in the PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER) study. A large-scale effort aimed at reducing teen substance use, PROSPER followed two cohorts of sixth grade students in 28 rural communities in both Iowa and Pennsylvania. The students completed confidential questionnaires in both the fall and spring of sixth grade, and then again in the spring of seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. During each wave of the study, students nominated their best or closest friends.

Kreager’s analysis focused on a subgroup of 941 students who completed additional PROSPER surveys measuring, in part, their sexual behavior. The friendship nominations helped Kreager and his colleagues to map social networks and popularity of these teens.

In waves where they reported having sex, girls experienced a 45 percent decrease, on average, in peer acceptance while boys experienced an 88 percent increase, Kreager and his colleagues discovered. By contrast, in waves where they reported “making out” (without having sex), girls experienced a 25 percent increase, on average, in peer acceptance, while boys experienced a 29 percent decrease.

Looking at the results in finer detail, Kreager found that girls who defy the traditional gender script by having sex lose both male and female friendships, while boys who defy traditional scripts by “making out” without having sex mainly lose male friends.

“During adolescence, a widespread sexual double standard promotes gender inequality, suppresses girls’ healthy sexual desires, and motivates peers to stigmatize girls and boys perceived as gender non-conformists,” concluded the authors. It's unknown whether a participant’s erotic forays are known to their friends, the researchers say, and this is an important limitation of the study. Still, they suggest the news gets around, since “adolescents communicate openly and often” with their friends about sexual behavior and risks.

However, there’s the very real possibility that a teen's sexual activity is not known by their friends. In that case, the gain or loss of friendships which occurs after an erotic experience might result from a teen's projected self-assurance or lack of assurance. "Making out" may empower girls, while "going all the way" — with its resulting pregnancy risks/fears — may lead to insecurity.

And as any former teen knows, self-doubt is a buzz kill. It's confidence that wins the crowd.

Source: Kreager DA, Staff J, Robin G, et al. The Double Standard at Sexual Debut: Gender, Sexual Behavior and Early Adolescent Peer Acceptance. ASA Conference. 2015.

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