College-aged women judge promiscuous female peers -- defined by bedding 20 sexual partners by their early 20s -- more negatively than more chaste women and view them as unsuitable for friendship, finds a study by Cornell University developmental psychologists.
Notably, participants' preference for less sexually active women as friends remained even when they personally reported liberal attitudes about casual sex or a high number of lifetime lovers.
Men's views, on the other hand, were less uniform -- favoring the sexually permissive potential friend, the non-permissive one or showing no preference for either when asked to rate them on 10 different friendship attributes. Men's perceptions were also more dependent on their own promiscuity: Promiscuous men favored less sexually experienced men in just one measure -- when they viewed other promiscuous men as a potential threat to steal their own girlfriend.
The findings suggest that though cultural and societal attitudes about casual sex have loosened in recent decades, women still face a double standard that shames "slutty" women and celebrates "studly" men, said lead author Zhana Vrangalova, a Cornell graduate student in the field of human development. The study, titled "Birds of a Feather? Not When it Comes to Sexual Permissiveness" and published in the early online edition of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, reports that such social isolation may place promiscuous women at greater risk for poor psychological and physical health outcomes.
"For sexually permissive women, they are ostracized for being 'easy,' whereas men with a high number of sexual partners are viewed with a sense of accomplishment," Vrangalova said. "What surprised us in this study is how unaccepting promiscuous women were of other promiscuous women when it came to friendships -- these are the very people one would think they could turn to for support."
She added that prior research shows that men often view promiscuous women as unsuitable for long-term romantic relationships, leaving these women outside of many social circles.
"The effect is that these women are really isolated," Vrangalova said. She suggested future research to determine whom they could befriend -- perhaps straight or gay men who would be accepting of their behaviors.
For the study, 751 college students provided information about their past sexual experience and their views on casual sex. They read a near-identical vignette about a male or female peer, with the only difference being the character's number of lifetime sexual partners (two or 20). Researchers asked them to rate the person on a range of friendship factors, including warmth, competence, morality, emotional stability and overall likability.
Across all female participants, women -- regardless of their own promiscuity -- viewed sexually permissive women more negatively on nine of ten friendship attributes, judging them more favorably only on their outgoingness. Permissive men only identified two measures, mate guarding and dislike of sexuality, where they favored less sexually active men as friends, showing no preference or favoring the more promiscuous men on the eight other variables; even more sexually modest men preferred the non-permissive potential friend in only half of all variables.
The authors posit that evolutionary concerns may be leading men and women to disapprove of their bed-hopping peers as friends. They may actually be seeking to guard their mates from a threat to their relationship, Vrangalova said.
In the case of promiscuous women rejecting other women with a high number of sexual partners, Vrangalova suggested that they may be seeking to distance themselves from any stigma that is attached to being friends with such women.
The authors report that the findings could aid parents, teachers, counselors, doctors and others who work with young people who may face social isolation due to their sexual activity.
The study is co-authored by Cornell grad student Rachel E. Bukberg and Gerulf Rieger, postdoctoral associate. It was funded in part by an award from the Human Ecology Alumni Association.
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