Sexual Double Standards Create Unrealistic Expectations

Men and women play different roles in sexual scripts

Prof. Robin Milhausen

Prof. Robin Milhausen

Even as an undergrad, Robin Milhausen knew that a sexual double standard existed between men and women. That double standard was the subject of her undergraduate and master’s theses, and it’s now the focus of her research as a professor of human sexuality and family relations at U of G.

“The findings were fascinating and showed that in many ways the double standard hasn’t changed,” says Milhausen, BA ’98 and M.Sc. ’00. She co-authored a 2013 study on “sexual scripts” that was published in the Journal of Sex Research.

The  study asked a group of heterosexual male and female undergrads at U of G about their sexual attitudes and behaviours. The findings showed that “women who are single were judged negatively for engaging in sexual behaviour, and oftentimes, men were not,” says Milhausen. “It is more acceptable for women to engage sexually if they are in a relationship.” This perception poses a challenge for women, she adds, because they are often expected to refrain from sexual activity when they are single and then become sexually experienced as soon as they enter into a relationship.

“I think that the messages girls and young women receive about their sexuality early on can be the root of a lot of sexual problems,” says Milhausen, referring to low sexual desire and the inability to have an orgasm. She points to the many “no” and “danger” messages women receive throughout their lives that tell them to avoid sexual activities that may affect their reputation, or result in a sexually transmitted infection or unwanted pregnancy. “These ‘danger’ messages are internalized and can lead to negative associations with sexuality in later life.”

Milhausen adds that men also face double standards, as shown in the study. One of the most persistent misconceptions about men, she says, is that they are relatively “simple” to arouse whereas women are more “complex.” Men are thought to always be ready, willing and able to have sex, “leading to impossible standards for men to live up to as well.”

Referring to some of the comments from the study’s participants, Milhausen says they expected men to be sexually ready at all times and, if they weren’t, some believed there was something wrong with the men or their female partners.

The study showed that women were believed to have many emotional and physical requirements that need to be met before having sex. Women were thought to have a more emotional connection to sex, whereas sex was perceived as a purely physical act for men.

Part of this difference in attitudes toward sex, she explains, is due to women often being taught that sex should be accompanied by love. “I think we see that pressure for women to associate sex and love so that they can justify being sexual,” she says. “Those scripts get really ingrained: there has to be love here. We’re told that we can’t have sex without love.”

In contrast to relationships based on traditional sexual scripts, participants in the focus group also referred to newer types of relationships, such as “friends with benefits.” Milhausen finds this type of relationship particularly interesting because of its potential impact on women. “There’s this idea that women are getting used, but the research actually suggests that women have many positive experiences.” She says these relationships allow women to develop their sexual skills and learn what they want and don’t want from a sexual partner.

Starting in January, Milhausen began her sabbatical studying sexuality in women over 30, a demographic that has not been thoroughly researched. She says most research on women’s sexual behaviour tends to focus on women in their 20s and menopausal women.

Little is known about women’s sexuality between the ages of 30 and 45, she adds, aside from their sexual problems, such as low desire, difficulty achieving orgasm and body image concerns. She says these problems may stem from their earlier sexual experiences as young adults, in addition to the competing demands of work and family. “In terms of their sense of themselves as sexual beings, we don’t know much.”