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Sexual Double Standards


'You're shamed if you don’t sleep with anyone but you’re shamed if you sleep with too many, it’s like I can’t win!' A critical investigation into how young women navigate their casual sexual experiences, by Molly Turrell

For my final year dissertation, I chose to research the ways in which young women in today’s society experience casual sexual relationships. I wanted to investigate the massive contradiction that I saw existing between the narrative which claims that women’s sexual liberation and empowerment have been achieved, and the huge levels of sexual violence still being reported, evident for example in the explosion of the ‘MeToo’ movement into the mainstream.

My research aim was to interrogate how this contradiction influences the ways in which young women experience casual sex. I wanted to explore how young women navigate the messages that come from two very different value systems, telling them to be both conservative and sexually empowered; I did so by focusing on societal shifts in attitudes towards female sexual desire and the ways in which women navigate processes of consent. I hope to use this research to start a non-shaming conversation about casual sex that places women’s voices at the centre.

I conducted my research using two focus groups made up of friends who were all university students. This was done deliberately with the intention of removing some of the potential awkwardness when talking about sex by creating a more comfortable environment. Vignettes were introduced as a starting point for discussions in the groups. I discovered three key scenarios from the literature on female sexuality, and then sourced these as vignettes from existing material that I found online in the form of a short story, a blog post, and an extract from the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’. These were used as a way of drawing out the participants' perceptions and opinions on the topics and as a way of promoting discussion. These conversations were then analysed and key themes emerged.

The main finding of this research is that contrary to the claims of postfeminism, which suggest that sexual equality has now been achieved, a sexual double standard continues to exist in the way that young women experience casual sex. This means that women are not able to enjoy the same sexual freedoms as men. Traditional expectations of femininity, which position women as sexually innocent and passive, still have a powerful impact on women’s experiences. This is important because it reveals the ways in which women’s bodies are still monitored and governed by societal expectations.

Another important finding is that although these expectations are still prevalent, a new set of postfeminist requirements, which demand young women to be sexually assertive and empowered, also now exist. This means that young women must constantly walk a tightrope of expectations and expertly navigate the fine line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ displays of sexuality. This finding is significant because it shows that young women have to make near-impossible choices when constructing their identities.

This research also found that the wider structural barriers, which can limit women’s sexual decision-making, are often rendered invisible, meaning that unwanted or coerced sex may seem to be the result of personal failure and this dynamic can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. This finding demonstrates the importance of moving beyond the damaging individualising narrative that places the responsibility to make ‘good’ sexual choices entirely with women. This ties into the wider assumption that women are gatekeepers for men’s sexual desires, overall highlighting the need: to locate the decisions that women make within gendered power structures, to tackle the barriers that prevent them from making autonomous choices, to change the narrative and ultimately to hold men accountable.