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“Double standards” in teens’ sexual attitudes and behaviors

Rima Himelstein, M.D. discusses the double standards around teens' sexual attitudes and behaviors. What can parents do?

Life is full of double standards. And it starts early. Some of it is harmless. For instance, from day one of life, the name cards on newborns' cribs are pink for girls and blue for boys.

Research shows how double standards may influence human behavior. In one experimental study looking at this issue, a group of male babies were dressed in pink, and then handed to adults who were told they were girls. The adults described the boys in pink as "adorable, cuddly, sweet and cute." Female babies dressed in blue were called "slugger, tough, strong and stubborn."

In what seems like "the blink of an eye," our babies become teenagers, and the double standards continue.  Only now it is often the teen boys and girls who have the double standards.  Sometimes they have double standards in their attitudes about sexual behavior:

  1. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, boys aged 12-19 are more likely than girls the same age to say they feel pressure to have sex and more likely than girls the same age to think that it is embarrassing to admit that they are virgins (24 precent vs. 14 percent).

  2. Teen boys say that they feel pressure to have sex because they think that "everyone is doing it." In reality, everyone is not doing it: a 2011 survey by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention of 15,425 students grades 9-12 from 43 states and 21 large urban school district, found that about half of high school males (49.2%) and high school females (45.6%) reported having had sex before.

The double standard may be evident in behaviors:

  1. More teen boys (17.8%) than teen girls (12.6%) had sexual intercourse with four or more people during their lives, according to the CDC survey.

The double standard may also be obvious in attitudes about behaviors:

  1. Ninety-one percent of teens aged 15-17 say that girls often get bad reputations because of having sex, while only 42% believe that boys often get bad reputations because of having sex.

  2. Peer acceptance has been shown in research to be positive for boys with many sexual partners but negative for girls with many sexual partners.

As a doctor for teenagers, I am frustrated by this double standard.  I recently asked a teenage boy, "What if your teenage sister had the same number of lifetime partners that you have had?" Shocked that I would suggest this, he shook his head and said that that would be "impossible," and she would be a "slut."

Is the double standard because girls can get pregnant and boys can't? Maybe. Teen boys may not think of consequences because they aren't the ones who get pregnant. About half (51%) of boys aged 12-19 years agree with the statement, "I have never really thought about what my life would be like if I got someone pregnant as a teen." Take it one step further: 4 in 10 boys aged 15-19 agree that getting a girl pregnant "will make you feel like a real man."

What if boys could get pregnant? In May, 2013, a billboard campaign featuring images of "pregnant" boys was launched in Chicago with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy rates in the city. The Chicago Department of Public Health chose the unusual images because it wanted to impress upon young males that preventing teen pregnancy is not just the girl's responsibility. The ad campaign was seen on billboards in the city, in the suburbs, on buses and on trains. A similar campaign was previously conducted in Milwaukee.

My advice to parents: Talk with your children about the double standards that exist in our society. Teach them that the Golden Rule applies to sexual behavior, too: "Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself."

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