Sex Roles, Vol. 52, Nos. 3/4, February 2005 (
The Sexual Double Standard: Fact or Fiction?
Michael J. Marks
and R. Chris Fraley
In contemporary society it is widely believed that men are socially rewarded for sexual activ-
ity, whereas women are derogated for sexual activity. To determine whether a sexual double
standard exists, both undergraduate (n = 144) and Internet (n = 8,080) participants evaluated
experimental targets who were described as either male or female and as having a variable
number of sexual partners. Targets were more likely to be derogated as the number of sexual
partners increased, and this effect held for both male and female targets. These results sug-
gest that, although people do evaluate others as a function of sexual activity, people do not
necessarily hold men and women to different sexual standards.
KEY WORDS: double standard; sexuality; sex partners; attitudes toward sex; gender norms; gender
differences; sexual activity; gender equality; promiscuity.
In contemporary society it is widely believed
that women and men are held to different standards
of sexual behavior (Milhausen & Herold, 2001). As
Barash and Lipton (2001, p. 145) noted, “a man who
is successful with many women is likely to be seen as
just that—successful ... [whereas] a woman known
to have ‘success’ with many men is ... likely to be
known as a ‘slut.’ ” The view that men are socially
rewarded and women socially derogated for sexual
activity has been labeled the sexual double standard.
The sexual double standard has received a lot
of attention from contemporary critics of Western
culture (e.g., Lamb, 2002; Tanenbaum, 2000; White,
2002). Tanenbaum (2000), for example, has docu-
mented the harassment and distress experienced by
adolescent girls who have been branded as “sluts” by
their peers. Other writers have critiqued the way the
media help to create and reinforce negative stereo-
types of sexually active women (Waggett, 1989) and
how these stereotypes may contribute to violence
against women (Malamuth & Check, 1981). Given
the attention the sexual double standard has re-
ceived in contemporary discourse, one might assume
Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Urbana-
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Psychology (MC 716), 603 E. Daniel Street, Champaign, Illinois
61820; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
that behavioral scientists have documented the dou-
ble standard extensively and elucidated many of the
mechanisms that generate and sustain it. Despite
much systematic research, however, there is virtu-
ally no consistent evidence for the existence of this
allegedly pervasive phenomenon.
We have three objectives in this article. Our ﬁrst
is to review brieﬂy the empirical literature on the sex-
ual double standard. As we discuss, research ﬁndings
concerning the double standard do not strongly sup-
port its existence. Next, we discuss several method-
ological reasons why previous researchers may not
have been able to document a double standard even
if one exists. Finally, we report a study that was de-
signed to determine whether the sexual double stan-
dard exists by rectifying the methodological limita-
tions of previous studies.
Empirical Research on the Sexual Double Standard
The sexual double standard seems to be a
ubiquitous phenomenon in contemporary society;
one recent survey revealed that 85% of people
believe that a double standard exists in our culture
(Marks, 2002; see also Milhausen & Herold, 2001).
The double standard is frequently publicized by
the media. For example, MTV, a popular cable
television channel that specializes in contemporary
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.