Promiscuity and the double standard it's associated with
Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
Dear readers,I haven't received any questions recently, so I thought I'd write about something that came up in my Human Sexuality class. Students took their second midterm last week and one of the words on the exam was "promiscuity." During the exam, there were many students who came up to ask me what the word meant. Honestly, I was quite surprised. Maybe it's because of my background and area of specialization, but I just assumed that most students would be familiar with that word. So I went to everyone's favorite source of information, Wikipedia, and here's what it said:
"In human sexual behavior, promiscuity refers to the practice of having many sexual partners in the absence of any commitment, and 'promiscuous' is a term applied to a person who has had sex with relatively many partners."
When defining it for my students, I also say it includes specific experiences like one-night stands and friends with benefits. Obviously, an individual who participates in one-night stands and has sex with friends is more likely to have sex with more partners than an individual who only has sex within the context of a relationship.
I think it's interesting that Wikipedia uses the phrase, "relatively many partners." The notion of relatively many sexual partners can truly be relative. What it means to have "many sexual partners" can vary from culture to culture. Even in the same culture, like the United States for example, what it means to have many sexual partners definitely varies over time.
In the 1950s, "relatively many sexual partners" over the course of a lifetime would have been anything over three. Today, three isn't even average, much less "relatively many."
Additionally, what it means to have "relatively many sexual partners" can vary from one sex to the next. In the United States, what is "relatively many" for men is going to be a larger number than what is "relatively many" for women. This is the result of what is called the sexual double standard - one standard of behavior for men and a different standard of behavior for women. This standard provides men with more freedoms and women with more restrictions.
Basically, the double standard encourages men to be the sexual initiators, be very interested in sex, desire lots of varied sexual experiences and have lots of sexual partners. The standard for women discourages them from doing all of those things.
It's also important to know that it can be difficult to determine the actual numbers of sexual partners people really have, as they have a tendency to give what is called the "socially desirable" answer.
When research participants are being asked about the numbers of sexual partners they have had, they want to give an answer that they think is socially desirable. As a result, it very well could be that when asked how many sexual partners a person has had, men may be inflating their numbers while women may be deflating their numbers to fit the expected standard.
What also goes along with the double standard is the notion that when a man has lots of sexual partners, he is labeled a "stud" or a "player," yet when a woman has the same number of sexual partners, she is labeled a "slut" or a "whore." Thus, what would be labeled "promiscuous" for a woman would be considered "normal" for a man.
One of the things Wikipedia didn't mention is this negative connotation associated with the word, particularly when it is used to describe a woman. Unfortunately, that negative connotation is usually wrapped up in some level of moral judgment. Now, I don't know about you, but I was always taught to do my best not to judge others.
For those who freely participate in "promiscuous" sexual activities, the only downside is that it puts them at higher risk for STDs/STIs. It is, however, a fallacy that having "meaningless" sex will hurt a person psychologically and interfere with their ability to form meaningful relationships.
A significant percentage of people, although not the majority, are comfortable with this kind of sexual relationship. Research shows that 25 percent of college students have had six or more sexual partners. In my class, I ask students if they could have a sexual relationship without being in love and about 45 percent of them (60 percent of men and 40 percent of women) say they could.
Uh oh, it looks like we have a significant number of promiscuous students here at OSU.
Kathy Greaves, Ph.D. is an instructor in Oregon State University's department of human development and family sciences. The opinions expressed in her columns do not necessarily represent those of the Daily Barometer staff. Greaves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.