As Seen on TV? What Americans Really Think About Women Who Have Casual Sex
Perhaps no other phenomenon best reflects the twin cultural shifts of the last half century—toward gender equality in the much of the West, and toward greater acceptance of casual sex—than primetime’s women characters. Week after week, these world-class surgeons, gossip girls, and hardboiled detectives engage in no-strings-attached sex. To be clear, these women often ask for sex, enjoy that sex, and move on with heads held high (often to another short-term rendezvous).
But What Do Americans Really Think About Everyday Women Who Have Casual Sex?
In our recent studies, we document for the first time a familiar—but seemingly unfounded—stereotype: Americans believe that women who have casual sex have low self-esteem.
First, we asked participants to read about a 26-year-old woman, man, or person (no gender given), who either has casual sex or long-term sexual relationships (or we didn’t mention sexual behavior). People stereotyped women (but not men) described as having casual sex as having low self-esteem. In contrast, people thought that women (and men) described as having long-term relationships had high self-esteem.
But maybe people simply dislike women who have casual sex, and view them as having all sorts of negative traits. For example, people might view women who have casual sex as desperate for attention, sexually undesirable, or physically unattractive. To find out, we asked participants to tell us how physically attractive they thought the target was. People tended to think that women who had casual sex were more attractive!
Is this low self-esteem stereotype pervasive? Intuition suggests that this stereotype might exist only among certain Americans—maybe those who are sexist, highly religious, or politically conservative. But the stereotype held regardless of these factors, and regardless of our participants’ own self-esteem or sexual behavior.
The stereotype also held when we asked about it less obviously—simply having people read about a man or woman who was having either casual or long-term sex, and asking whether this target person was more likely to be (a) an English major or (b) an English major with low self-esteem. Answers revealed that people viewed women who have casual sex as having low self-esteem—answering (b) more often, despite the fact that statistically, answer (b) is always less likely.
Next, we asked what drives this stereotype. People might assume that women only have short-term sex if they cannot secure long-term relationships. Indeed, people tended to think that women who have short-term involvements (versus long-term) were not having sexual relationships that were happy or fulfilling.
This suggested a path forward: Describing women who have casual sex as being satisfied with their sexual behavior might break the stereotype.
In our final experiment, we did just that—we told participants that women who had casual sex were satisfied with their sexual lifestyles. These women were still stereotyped as having low self-esteem. More striking, people rated women described as having longer-term sex but being dissatisfied with it as having higher self-esteem.
Where Does This Stereotype Come From?
One possibility is that people hold this stereotype because it reflects reality—that is, women who have casual sex really do have lower self-esteem. Across most of our experiments, we asked about participants’ own sexual behavior and self-esteem. But in line with other work, we found virtually no relationship between our participants’ own short-term sexual strategies and their self-esteem.
Another possibility is that this stereotype is instilled via media. The trope that women who have short-term sex come from unloving households has certainly been fodder for artists, from humorist Amy Schumer to rapper Lil Dicky. But at the same time, TV creator/producer Shonda Rhimes—of Grey’s Anatomy fame—has built her empire on strong women characters who have no qualms about using men for sex.
An important reality is that our modern minds house stone-aged brains, which have been attuned to real asymmetries in the costs of short-term sex that men and women faced throughout human history. For example, a sex act that can costs a man only several minutes can cost his woman partner months of pregnancy, then lactation, and further infant care. Only in recent years have technologies like birth control and legal abortions helped to free women from some of short-term sex’s costly, unwanted consequences.
Right now, you might be rolling your eyes, thinking that being perceived as having low self-esteem only matters for Millennials and ‘influencers.’ You would be wrong. Research has demonstrated that perceptions of a person’s self-esteem play an important role in how we treat them. For example, women perceived as having low self-esteem are likely to face diminished social, economic, and political opportunities; they are less likely to be asked on dates, hired for jobs, or voted into office.
Women who have casual sex might “have it all” on-screen, but women who do this in the real world face serious consequences—despite increases in gender equality and the increasing acceptance of casual sex.
For Further Reading
Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161–176. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027911
Schmitt, D. P. (2005). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(2), 247-275. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0140525x05000051.
Zeigler‐Hill, V., Besser, A., Myers, E. M., Southard, A. C., & Malkin, M. L. (2013). The status‐signaling property of self‐esteem: The role of self‐reported self‐esteem and perceived self‐esteem in personality judgments. Journal of Personality, 81(2), 209-220. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00790.
Jaimie Arona Krems is an assistant professor of psychology, and a member/co-founder of the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary Analysis (OCEAN) at Oklahoma State University. Her research investigates how women actively cooperate, strategically compete, and are perceived by others.