I was in my early 20s the first time I realized dating rules were different for men and women. At the time, I was dating a man who happened to be in the military and was about 10 years older than me. The moment he asked me to dance in a crowded club—instead of simply securing his groin area to my ass without permission—I knew I was in love.
Not long after we began our romance, he was deployed to Iraq. During the year he was gone, in a moment of weakness, I cheated on him. When I found out later that he, too, had slept with someone else, I wasn't too mad. How could I be? But he was. In fact, he was furious.
"I know it's messed up," he said, "but it's just worse you cheated because you're a woman." Needless to say, we didn't last much longer after that.
Read more: People Explain Their Reasons for Cheating
Social psychologists define the belief that male promiscuity is acceptable while female promiscuity is not as the "sexual double standard." But does that double standard still exist? There's no question that both young men and women engage in promiscuous acts. And the days when a woman's virginity was the most precious gift she can give to her husband on their wedding night are mostly gone. Has gender equality permeated our sexual attitudes?
Steve Stewart-Williams, a psychology professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia, says the sexual double standard is a lot less common than it used to be, but it's still out there. "Part of the problem," he tells Broadly, "is that once we've got an idea in our heads about how the world works, we interpret everything through the lens of that idea. If we think the sexual double standard is common, we can always find evidence for that."
In a study published last month investigating how sexual history affects a person's attractiveness, Stewart-Williams and his colleagues determined that both men and women still care about the number of sexual partners a potential mate has had. "For the average woman and the average man in our sample," they write, "the ideal mate was not someone without any sexual history. Our participants were reasonably willing to get involved with such a person; however, they were more willing to get involved with someone who had some history."
The study also found that "both sexes expressed an unwillingness to get involved with someone with a high number of past sexual partners." This, despite "the common notion that male promiscuity is tolerated whereas female promiscuity is not."
To some extent, Stewart-Williams explains, it depends on what you want in a relationship. "One of our findings in the study was that people who are more at ease with casual sex aren't nearly as worried if a potential mate has had lots of sexual partners in the past. They don't care if a person isn't good marriage material, or long-term-relationship material, because they're not looking for that."
A 2013 study, which surveyed college students' attitudes about hooking up "a lot," found a small minority of participants still held the belief that it's OK for men to sleep around but not so for women. The authors analyzed the online survey responses from 24,131 students at 22 different colleges and universities in the US; they were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "If (wo)men hook up or have sex with lots of people, I respect them less."
Attitudes toward casual sex have become somewhat more liberal in recent years, and the researchers found that most people judged men and women in the same way—though 12 percent still held a traditional double standard. Interestingly, another 13 percent held a reverse double standard, in that they judged men for being promiscuous but not women. The traditional double standard was more common among men, while the reverse double standard was more common among women.
it seems this type of sexist discourse makes women, but not men, permanently accountable for past sexual decisions.
Stewart-Williams, who's familiar with the aforementioned work, says that "underlying the different double standards, there's actually just one double standard: 'It's OK for me but not for you.'"
Signs do point to society shifting toward a more sex-positive culture though, says Amanda Gesselman, a social psychologist at The Kinsey Institute, "which includes the breakdown down of the sexual double standard," she tells Broadly. In March, she published research that seemed to suggest chastity is practically frowned upon. In a survey of almost 5,000 single adults, she and her team found that "[p]articipants were generally unlikely to consider a relationship with a virgin … In particular, men, younger participants, and those who themselves were sexually inexperienced expressed less desire to have a relationship with a virgin."
Gesselman explains: "While society in previous generations stigmatized sexual behavior—and especially premarital sex—our results suggest that people are expecting their partners to come into the relationship with a sexual history, and think sexual behavior is the norm."
But, again, not too much of a history. Another study that came out last year confirms men and women have different attitudes when confronted with a partner's sordid past. Daniel Jones, a psychology professor at University of Texas at El Paso, writes: "It is possible that women are concerned over the pragmatic issue of partner stability and loyalty, whereas men have persisting concerns perhaps revolving around reputation and societal perceptions."
His research, surveying almost 400 people in two studies, determined that women were more willing to overlook a man's extensive sexual history if he showed signs of putting that life behind him; men, however, had a harder time doing so—in part because he may be uncomfortable with the idea of a woman having sexual freedom. "[F]rom a social/cultural standpoint, the sexual double-standard may be another reason why men are bothered by female sexuality: she has broken a social norm," Jones writes.
He concludes that it may be difficult for a woman to close a door on her past because of the persistence of this double standard in our culture. "In fact," he writes, "it seems this type of sexist discourse makes women, but not men, permanently accountable for past sexual decisions."