Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 02, 2018

Gendered Beliefs May Make People Assume Sexual Consent

Image of a man and a woman sitting on a bench together in front of a sunset

The sexual double standard (SDS) is a belief that access to sexuality varies by gender. According to SDS, women are expected to be passive “gatekeepers” of sexual activity; men the “initiators.” Women are socially punished for having sex; men are rewarded. In a set of two experiments, Dr. Yuliana Zaikman examined how these gendered stereotypes might influence the way people think about sexual consent.

To do this, Zaikman first wrote a story about a sexual experience between two characters—Lisa and Kevin. These fictional characters are college students that are working on a project together. They begin chatting about random things on a couch, and one of the topics that comes up is each character’s sexual history. After talking about their sexual history, the characters kiss and eventually have sex. Dr. Zaikman created four different versions of the story: (1) both Lisa and Kevin only had one previous sexual partner, (2) Lisa had one and Kevin had twelve, (3) Lisa had twelve and Kevin had one, and (4) both had twelve. All versions of the story were written to be unclear regarding sexual consent.

Zaikman then asked 592 people to read these stories and rate whether they thought the sex was consensual. She found that people who endorsed SDS were more likely to say that Lisa had given explicit consent if both characters had a lot of sexual partners. Seeing that these gendered beliefs were influencing people’s thoughts about consent, Zaikman designed an educational intervention hoping that she could reduce the effects of SDS.

The intervention she designed teaches people about the effects of SDS and that gender roles regarding sexuality can be problematic. 244 people participated in her second study; half of them were presented with this intervention. Then all of them read the same story that was used in the first study. Zaikman found that if people who endorsed SDS received the education, they were less likely to think that the ambiguous sexual encounter between Lisa and Kevin was consensual.

From these findings, Zaikman suggests that believing in SDS may make people more willing to identify a situation as consensual—even in the absence of evidence that consent has been given. And importantly, she was able to show that educating people about the problems with gendered stereotypes may make them more hesitant to identify an unclear situation as consensual. Zaikman encourages future researchers and health professionals to address expectations regarding gender roles in consent education.

Written By: Malachi Willis, M.A.

Presentation: "The Influence of the Sexual Double Standard on Perceptions of Sexual Consent," Part of Poster Session C on March 2, 2018

Speaker: Dr. Yuliana Zaikman, Texas A&M University


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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