Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
By the time teens reach ninth grade, about 30 percent of them have started experimenting with sexual activities, whether that means sexual intercourse or "hooking up." These teens may feel ready to explore their desires, but they may not be aware of the sexual scripts that they're about to take on. Extensive research on the topic suggests that there are specific parts each gender must play in order to fit in: Men are supposed to innately want sex, not romance, while women must value romance over sex and act as "gatekeepers," the ones who hold power by withholding sex.
This social construct presents a double standard in which men are encouraged to have as much sex as they want, but women have to suppress their sexuality to avoid judgement. This is problematic -- especially for teens, who are still discovering who they are and trying to be accepted by their peers as they experience those first (perfectly normal) jolts of sexual desire. So how does this sexual script play out in the actual hallways of today's middle schools and high schools? A new study from Pennsylvania State University provides some insight into how nuanced that double standard can be.
The researchers used survey data from the PROSPER longitudinal study, which followed two groups of sixth grade students in Iowa and Pennsylvania until they reached ninth grade. Each fall and spring for those four years, the 921 students would complete the study questionnaire during school hours. They were asked about their friend circles and could nominate up to seven "best or close friends." Each time the students were surveyed, the researchers would gauge peer acceptance by seeing how many new friends they listed.
The students also reported their sexual behavior in those questionnaires. They were asked how many times they had sex in the last 12 months, as well as how many times they'd engaged in a "lighter" sexual behavior, making out.
As expected, the researchers findings were in line with the sexual script theory. Adolescent girls who had sex lost friends, but adolescent boys who had sex gained friends. Sex, therefore, elicited a negative peer response for girls and a positive one for boys. Seventeen percent of girls in the sample had lost their virginity, while only 12 percent of the boys had.
When the researchers looked at those who were making out, they uncovered a new, more nuanced double standard: Girls who reported making out gained friends, but boys who did the same lost friends. According to the researchers, this pattern is in line with the sexual script, because "'lighter' sexual behaviors may serve as markers of sexual desirability and maturity for girls, but may signify dependence and submission for boys."
The researchers never asked students about their peers, so they had no way of knowing if other people actually knew about a particular student's sexual escapades. But research from Mississippi State University suggests that teens like to share this kind of stuff with friends.
This two-pronged double standard allowed the researchers to put forth an interesting theory about adolescent sexual dynamics: "[G]irls will continue to receive social rewards prior to sex, but peer pressure and anticipated rewards contribute to boys' attempts to move relationships toward sex." In this view, these teenage girls hold power as "gatekeepers."
But here's the thing: Girls have sexual desires, too. If they suffer social consequences for exploring them, while their males classmates get high-fives for doing the same, young women may feel ashamed of their natural sexual proclivities (and young men may develop a pretty skewed view of sex). Unfortunately, it seems that these dynamics continue on into adulthood.
If we want to flip the script on women's sexuality, this study suggests that we're going to have to start early, when young girls and boys are just beginning to form their sexual identities if we want to change these societal norms at all. Sure, making out can be fun, but young women should be able to explore all of their sexual desires without judgement.
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