Youth, Risk, and the Sexual Double Standard Discourse: Attitudinal and Behavioral Outcomes
Dana S. Levin, MA, MSW, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and L. Monique Ward, PhD, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Purpose: Youth are inundated with communication about sexuality from many sources, with girls and boys often receiving different messages. Some gender-specific communications reflect a sexual double standard, in which men may show sexual desire and initiate sex, but women should not (Kalmuss, 2004; Steinberg, 1996; Tolman, 2002). These messages may increase power differentials between young women and men, and contribute to negative outcomes including reduced condom efficacy, and sexual coercion (Crawford & Popp, 2003; Hynie & Lydon, 1995; Walker, 1997). Social work has been concerned with these issues, including youth sexual risk and sexual violence prevention. While many studies explore amounts of sexual communication received, few examine message content, multiple information sources, or experiences beyond virginity loss. This study adds to current knowledge by conceptualizing sexual experience more ecologically, examining content, sources, and outcomes. Possible consequences of exposure to the sexual double standard discourse from parents, friends, and schools were explored. Links were examined between these messages and sexual self-efficacy, assertiveness, rape myth endorsement, and sexual coercion. We hypothesized that youth receiving stronger double standard messages would feel less efficacious or assertive in sexual situations, more likely to endorse rape myths, and more likely to find themselves in coercive sexual situations. Method: Participants were 335 undergraduates (57% female; MAge=19 years; 73.4% White/Caucasian, 15.5% Asian/Pacific Islander, 4.2% Latina/o, and 3.9% Black/African-American) attending a large Midwestern university. Participants completed a confidential, hour-long survey about sexual discourses and experiences. Using a 0-3 scale, participants indicated the extent to which parents, friends, and schools had communicated each of 60 sexual values. Whereas the study examined multiple discourses, this paper reports only on double standard messages. Through factor analysis, a sexual double standard subscale was developed (14 items; parent alpha=.92; friend alpha=.89; school alpha=.89). Dimensions of sexual attitudes and experience were assessed using the Precautions subscale of the Sexual Self-Efficacy Scale, the Hurlbert Index of Sexual Assertiveness, the Sexual Abuse Exposure Questionnaire—Short Form, a modified version of the Sexual Experiences Survey, and the Rape Myths Acceptance Scale. Results: Partial correlations controlling for sex, ethnic group memberships, religiosity, and parental marital status indicated that while double standard messages were not linked with efficacy or assertiveness, they were associated with greater levels of both perpetration of sexual coercion (parent r=.28, p<.001; friend r=.21, p<.001; school r=.20, p<.01) and victimization (parent r=.16, p<.05; school r=.14, p<.05), more coercive experiences after age 14 (parent r=.21, p<.01), and stronger endorsement of rape myths (parent r=.20, p<.01; school r=.23, p<.001). Implications: Sexual double standard messages, which youth receive from multiple sources, may be related to stronger rape myth endorsement and more experiences of sexual coercion. Results suggest a need for social work practitioners to engage youth in more comprehensive sexual health programming and more egalitarian communication about sexuality, and to counterbalance harmful sexual messages youth may receive. Additionally, greater vigilance is needed in sexual violence prevention and intervention efforts, and advocacy for policy changes with regard to school curricula. In light of current national policy, local community-based programs are imperative.