Our Shifting Standards of Sexual Behavior

You might think it would be easy to define a term like sex—unfortunately, however, it’s not. Different people have different definitions, and they have all kinds of interesting criteria for what “counts.” For example, some people think intercourse only constitutes sex when they have an orgasm. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that who participates in a given behavior influences what counts, too. We hold ourselves to different standards than others.

Which behaviors “count” as having sex? It depends who is engaging in the activity.

Source: 123RF/Feng Yu

Several studies have found that people are more likely to label a given behavior as sex to the extent that a significant other does it as opposed to themselves. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, 839 college students (96% of whom were heterosexual) were asked whether oral contact with another person’s genitals counted as sex. Just 36% of female participants and 39% of male participants said it did when they imagined themselves doing it. By contrast, when asked to imagine their partner doing the same thing with someone else, the numbers increased dramatically: 62% of women and 63% of men viewed it as sex in this case!

Given these results, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that people have different standards when it comes to judgments of infidelity. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Relationships Research, we’re more likely to label a given behavior as cheating when a partner does it compared to when we do the exact same thing.

The overall pattern in the literature is that we tend to be more permissive when evaluating our own behaviors. What’s the deal with that? It’s due to something social psychologists refer to as the actor-observer effect. This is a cognitive bias that involves giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt in order to maintain a positive self-image, while failing to extend the same courtesy to others.

In order to maintain a positive view of ourselves, we rationalize behaviors—sexual and non-sexual—that could potentially hurt our self-image. One way we do this is by attributing our own behaviors to situations (e.g., “I was drunk, so it didn’t really mean anything” or “It was a one-time thing, so it doesn’t count”). For instance, someone might attribute a recent hookup that only involved oral sex to alcohol in order to avoid being labeled as a “slut” or “promiscuous.”

When someone else engages in the same behavior, however, we don’t make an effort to rationalize it—instead, we assume it’s revealing of that individual’s personal traits and characteristics. For example, let’s say you’re in a monogamous relationship and you discover that your partner is sexting somebody else. You’d be inclined to label that behavior as infidelity and view it as a sign that your partner isn’t a good person. If we did the same thing, though, we’d be more likely to search for an excuse for our behavior, and maybe we wouldn’t even think of it as sexting.

These shifting standards of sexual behavior are important for researchers and healthcare professionals to attend to because they indicate that we need to be very clear and specific when asking people about their sexual practices and histories.

The implications extend well beyond this, though. The fact that people tend to evaluate their own sexual behaviors differently from those of others suggests that people who perpetrate sexual harassment and sexual assault might fail to categorize their own behaviors as such. To the extent that perpetrators recognize when others commit sex crimes but not when they themselves do (because they don’t want to label themselves as harassers or abusers), this could make the task of stopping sex crimes all the more difficult.  

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