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Death, Derogation, and Double Standards: What’s a Sexy Woman to Do?

You do not need to look hard for evidence that North Americans are uncomfortable with female sexuality. Women, for example, are derogated for engaging in less common sexual behaviors, like threesomes.1 Male sexuality, alternatively, is often viewed positively or—at worst—ambivalently. This ‘sexual double standard’, when society evaluates women more negatively than men for comparable sexual behaviors, is an extensively researched phenomenon. Most people believe that this sexual double standard exists,2 and there is quite a bit of supporting empirical evidence. Some interesting linguistic research, for example, has found that there is an abundance of English words used to describe sexual women, and the majority of these terms have negative connotations (e.g., "slut," "whore").3 Terms to describe sexual men, alternatively, are fewer in number, and typically less negative (e.g., "player," "stud").

Perplexingly, some of the research on the double standard has indicated that men are the most likely to endorse it.2 Why would a man derogate a sexual woman, when it would seem to be more in his interest to encourage female promiscuity? Research conducted by Dr. Mark Landau and colleagues4 provides an interesting explanation for this phenomenon. According to these researchers, men degrade sexual women because these women make them feel lusty, and thereby remind men of their ‘natural creaturely origins’. If this argument seems far-fetched, bear with me. Let me explain...

According to terror management theory,4 being reminded that you are a creature with a physical body that does bodily things (e.g., bleeding, sweating, urinating), and has physical needs (e.g., a sex drive) simultaneously reminds us that, like all physical creatures, we will inevitably die. The thought that we will be certainly and utterly annihilated from existence at some unknown moment causes an understandable amount of anxiety. Once beset by this existential anxiety, we are extremely motivated to dispel it.

Landau and colleagues suggest that men who are turned on by sexy women try to dispel this anxiety by derogating the source of their discomfort—the sexy women.4 The researchers conducted multiple studies and found that reminding men of their own inevitable death (i.e., increasing their mortality salience) had a variety of interesting effects on men’s perceptions of sexual women. Men, for example, reported being less attracted to a seductive woman who was wearing a sexy outfit. This decrease in attraction, however, was absent when the female target appeared “wholesome” by wearing a long sleeve shirt and jeans. Men also reported being less flirtatious and seductive when interacting with a sexy woman. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, after thinking about a time when a woman aroused a strong animal-like lust in them, men were more tolerant of verbal and physical attacks against women.

None of these findings paints a particularly flattering picture of men, when sexy women are around. So what’s a sexy  woman to do? Well, the good news is that not all men will react this way to sexual women; people with high self-esteem (people who feel good about themselves generally) tend to not be as vulnerable to the effects of mortality salience,5 meaning that activating thoughts of death may not produce the same effects in men with high feelings of self-worth. So the next time you observe some men perpetuating sexual double standards, take some satisfaction—or pity—knowing that deep down those men are probably just feeling badly about themselves.

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1Jonason, P. K., & Marks, M. J. (2009). Common vs. uncommon sexual acts: Evidence for the sexual double standard. Sex Roles, 60, 357-365.

2Millhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (2001). Reconceptualizing the sexual double standard. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 13, 63-83.

3Crawford, M., & Popp, D. (2003). Sexual double standards: A review and methodological critique of two decades of research. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 13-26.

4Landau, M. J., Goldenberg, J. L., Greenberg, J., Gillath, O., Solomon, S., Cox, C., Martens, A., & Pyszczynski, T. (2006). The siren’s call: Terror management and the threat of men’s sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 129-146.

5Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 435-468.

John Sakaluk - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

John is interested in experimental existential psychology, sexual health, cultural scripts, double standards, and other sexual attitudes. He relies on theories such as attachment, terror management, and conceptual metaphor, while researching topics such as condom use and sexual strategies.

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Reader Comments (3)

I have an issue with your presentation of the facts. The view of the gender differences you highlight are not just held by these discriminating neanderthals known as men, but by their sexy counterparts, women too. It's very easy to present a convincing argument with a filtered data set displayed as a random sample (by only looking at the attitudes of men). A quick reflection on social attitudes are that women share the views of men as to whether someone is a slut or not, and also that "studs" are highly valued, such is the nature of women (and men, as per article).

One of the biological reasons behind the survival of our species, being that men have the overwhelming desire to have sex, and women have a similar desire to have children. It is rare for the male partner of a relationship to be the one wanting offspring. While the 2 acts are, in a natural state, inextricably linked, the diversification of sexual activities and also contraception that has come with the feminist rights movements has allowed the two to be separated. Thus men's natural instinct is to sleep around (and thus having what someone else wants = valued) and the female natural instinct will want children.

I assume that these discriminating men are the same ones that offer their seats to women on the train, buy them drinks in bars, pay for dinner, and walk them home. I'm sure in some parallel universe being nice to sexy women gets you into bed with them, but not on this planet. Chivalry died when women stopped rewarding it.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBob

This is the worst kind of pop science

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Harrison

Landau's hypothesis seems overly complex and perhaps incompatible with the general observation (which I believe to be true) that young men think and act as if they are immortal.

As a young man I was suspicious of sexy women but it had nothing to do with terror management theory and worries about mortality. It had to do with whether I could trust this person, with whether she would be more likely to carry disease, with whether she was simply after a higher status male or a meal ticket, with wondering why she hadn't landed a committed male. A woman doesn't increase her status by sleeping around. Why not? Follow that thread and I think you'll be onto something.

Whatever happened to the theory that men evolved to want assurance of their own paternity, and that this has persisted into the birth-control era? It would be reasonable under this hypothesis to place a higher value on women who didn't sleep around.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArgentcedar
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