Sexual double standards – in which women and men are judged differently for the same sexual behavior – will probably sound familiar to most people.
The classic one centers on multiple sexual partners: Men who are promiscuous are lauded as “studs,” “lotharios” or “ladies’ men,” while women who have a lot of sex get called “sluts” or “whores.” Men who cheat on their wives aren’t exactly praised, but they’ll often get a pass. Women who do the same, on the other hand, risk sullying their social reputations.
There’s a different sexual double standard, however, and it’s one that exists between two partners.
In the book When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault, author Dr. R. David Buss explores the underlying psychology of infidelity. Thanks to the way men get a pass for their promiscuity, you might assume men are more likely to rationalize their own cheating than women.
But in what Dr. Buss calls the “me-versus-thee double standard,” it turns out that each side is just as likely to play mental gymnastics when it comes to justifying their bad behavior.
Relative to women, men have a stronger desire for sexual variety, which shows up in their sex drive, the number of partners they seek out, their tendency to fantasize about different women and their patronage of prostitutes. So throughout human history, you’ll see men in power lay down parameters that give themselves more latitude for promiscuity.
Roman emperors, for example, created harems of females guarded by eunuchs, while Joseph Smith, when he founded the Mormon religion, formalized polygamy, arguing that God wouldn’t have made women so enticing if he wanted to limit a man to one woman.
However, Smith was keen to note that the same rules didn’t apply to women. In his handwritten documents, Smith relays how the Lord told him: “And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him…But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed…according to my commandment.”
Versions of this sexual double standard persist, even in the most sexually egalitarian countries on Earth, such as Norway. And recent studies of more than three dozen cultures found that it’s women, not men, who receive the brunt of the criticism for having casual sex and cheating on their partners.
The sexual double standard just outlined has to do with what’s acceptable for men versus what’s OK for women. The other has to do with what’s acceptable for oneself versus one’s partner.