A new study at Cornell University finds that college women judge promiscuous women peers harshly, and prefer friendships with less sexually active women. Surprisingly, this opinion is held even by fellow promiscuous women!
Up until now, research has focused on the fact that many women express liberal attitudes towards promiscuity in others, and generally decline to judge other women for having casual sex. However, in this study, participants of both sexes were asked to rank both a promiscuous target (20 sexual partners) and a non-promiscuous target (2 partners) on 32 different personality attributes as being desirable for same-sex friendship.
(Note: “Two was chosen for the typical target as it is slightly below the median number of lifetime partners for men and women in this age group in the U.S. Twenty was chosen for the highly permissive target based on data that 7% of women and 16% of men in this age group report 15 or more lifetime partners.”)
The study begins by summarizing previous research on the undesirability of sexual permissiveness in both sexes:
Sexual permissiveness can be defined as attitudes or behaviors that are more liberal or extensive than what is normative in a social group. It can include actual or desired frequent, premarital, casual, group, or extradyadic sex, sex with many partners, early sexual debut, or even nonverbal cues signalizing availability (e.g., provocative clothing).
There are evolutionary and sociocultural reasons for the undesirability of permissiveness across interpersonal contexts, including same-sex friendships. Permissive people are more likely to be sexually unfaithful to a mate (Bailey, Kirk, Zhu, Dunne, & Martin, 2000) and to poach someone else’s mate (Schmitt, 2004). This is costly for both sexes: It threatens paternity certainty for men, and continued provision of partner resources for women (Buss & Schmitt, 1993)
This renders permissive individuals undesirable as partners as well as close same-sex friends, and distancing oneself from permissive friends could be an effective mate guarding strategy (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001).
Sexual promiscuity among the 758 subjects was measured using the SOI – R, the standard sociosexuality inventory. On a 9 point scale, the male mean was 4.26 and the female mean was 3.16.
Both unrestricted and restricted women rated unrestricted women negatively, though the nonpermissive women judged them more harshly than the permissive women. However, even extremely promiscuous women (2 SDs above the mean), rated the permissive targets as undesirable for friendship. Among men, restricted men strongly preferred friendship with fellow restricted men, while unrestricted men had no preference, except on the question of mate guarding. The authors write:
No moderation of participant permissiveness was detected regarding mate guarding, with the heightened need to mate guard from permissive compared to nonpermissive targets equally pronounced in all participants. [This confirms] evolutionary expectations that mate poaching is considered universally undesirable, even by those who are most likely to attempt it themselves, and that permissive friends pose the same level of risk for everyone.
Here’s a summary of friendship preferences among subjects:
Unrestricted men have no preference
Extraversion* Unrestricted Unrestricted
*The authors note that subjects may prefer extroverted individuals as entertaining acquaintances rather than close friends.
Significantly, in open-ended statements, 81% of females and 65% of males referred to lower levels of sexual involvement as positive. In contrast, 56% of all subjects made statements judging the target’s sexuality as being among their least likable attributes. Of these, 96% of males and 98% of females referred to high levels of sexual involvement as a negative.
The study’s authors bemoan this new evidence of a sexual double standard and worry about the loss of social support systems for promiscuous women. I welcome it as a positive development that builds on previous research in this area. In fact, what has been happening is the emergence of a single standard, just not the one feminists hoped for. Increasingly, both sexes are judging their peers harshly for promiscuous behavior
It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this preference has on the behavior of sexually promiscuous women. If they are ostracized by other women, will they voluntarily restrain their sexual activity in order to gain acceptance and friendship? Or will they value the temporary male validation that they derive from casual encounters above female friendship, and operate as loners, bypassing other women altogether?
To the extent that promiscuous women do forge friendships with one another, this must be a case of “keep your enemies close, but your friends closer” as mate guarding becomes a real concern. Or perhaps few of these women are in relationships, and therefore may join forces as potential poachers of the mates of more restricted women.
In any case, there is a clear trend toward harsher judgment by women towards other women who indulge in casual sex. And it’s not just in college. Writing in HuffPo, Susan Rosenzweig, who’s twice that age, writes Please Stop Hooking Up With My Future Husband.
But, what about the long-term damage that hookups could be doing to the dating world? What if this hookup culture is inadvertently changing the dynamics between men and women? And, not for the better?
I asked Holly, thinking out loud, “What if the fact the you’re sleeping with some guy is squashing his motivation and desire to go out and find the true love of his life, because his immediate sexual needs are being met. And meanwhile, some other girl is doing the same with the guy you’re supposed to be with?”
If there is truly a lid for every pot, then there’s a good man for every woman out there who wants one. I just don’t want to waste time with your lid and I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop distracting mine…why not consider “paying it forward” sexually? If we’re truly all connected, and what you do with the guy you don’t really like could be numbing him to go after his true love, why not set him free? Make room for the right guy to come in. And believe that in return, perhaps you’ll empower someone else to do the same.
The ostracization of promiscuous women is a sensible female response to market conditions. When the sex ratio favors men, and the culture favors delaying or avoiding commitment, female instrasexual competition increases. Women are finally waking up to the fact that there’s something they can do about rogue female operators in the SMP.