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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


     

Sexuality Standards, Sexual Attitudes and Sexual Behavior

Betty A Harris

http://dataguru.org/love/sexstd/index.asp

 

In recent years a major public health effort has been directed at slowing the rise of teen pregnancy and halting the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. The appearance of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) on the sexual scene has added new urgency to these programs since there is currently no vaccine or cure. Behavioral change is the only way to limit the spread of AIDS. Abstinence and using condoms if sexually active can reduce the spread of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and can also effectively reduce the transmission of other sexually transmitted diseases and prevent pregnancy.

Have public health education efforts resulted in a reduction of risky sexual behavior in heterosexuals?

*        Current statistics indicate that heterosexuals may not be altering their behavior to the extent necessary to prevent the spread of AIDS in that population. Current data on the first 500,000 AIDS cases from CDC indicates that during 1993 to 1995 heterosexuals accounted for a larger proportion of AIDS cases than ever before. The proportion of AIDS cases due to heterosexual transmission increased from 2.5% during the 1981 to 1987 time period to 6.1% of diagnosed AIDS cases during the 1988-1992 time period to a new high of 10.1% of diagnosed AIDS cases during the 1993-1995 time period. During the 1993-1995 time period 20 to 29 year olds accounted for almost 17% of diagnosed AIDS cases, 30 to 39 year olds accounted for 45% of AIDS cases and 40 to 49 year olds accounted for about 26% of diagnosed AIDS cases. Given the long period between HIV exposure to development of symptoms, most people were probably exposed to HIV during adolescence or young adulthood.

*        Sexually transmitted diseases would also be an indicator of risky behavior. In 1995 in the United States, there were over 150 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 population and almost 200 cases of Chlamydia per 100,000 ( PLUTO III State Profile).

*        Teen pregnancy would also be an indicator of risky sexual behavior. In 1995, almost four teens out of 100 teens aged 15 to 17 gave birth (PLUTO III State Profile).

*        In a study conducted with Texas college students (Hursey, Diletto, et al, 1991), over half of the sample (n = 500) had been sexually active with the last person they dated. Less than 20% of those sexually active individuals reported using a latex condom all of the time during sexual activity. It seems from these data that a sizable portion of young people are engaging in behaviors that place them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS.

We need a theory based approach to understanding nonmarital sexual behavior. This will allow us to understand the major factors that affect whether or not people engage in sex in new relationships and may allow the development of interventions designed to reduce risky behavior.

The Origin of the Sexuality Standard Concept

In 1960, Ira Reiss identified four standards for premarital sexual behavior:

*        Abstinence--sexual relations are acceptable only after marriage;

*        Permissiveness with affection--sexual relations are acceptable in the context of a stable, loving relationship;

*        Permissiveness without affection--sexual relations are acceptable based on physical attraction alone; and

*        the Double Standard--nonmarital sexual relations are acceptable for males but not for females.

In the 1960's the double standard was the predominant standard for sexual behavior in our society (Reiss, 1967). Today, it is commonly accepted that permissiveness with affection is becoming the predominant standard for both males and females (DeLamater & MacCorquodale, 1979; Robinson and Jedlicka, 1982).

     

The Developmental Origins of Sexuality Standards

If we agree that sexual arousal is an inherently enjoyable state, then socialization from significant others regarding sexual behavior must be how we learn to place restrictions on our sexuality (Abramson, 1983; Fisher, Byrne, & White, 1983, Reiss, 1960; Reiss 1967). This socialization may consist of informational feedback (factual information, as well as reward and punishment) regarding the contexts in which various sexual activities are acceptable. According to the sexual behavior sequence (Byrne, 1983; Fisher, 1986; Kelley, 1983) one early form of feedback consists of classical conditioning of emotional responses. For example, the parent's reactions to the child's genital self manipulation evoke negative emotional responses that the child begins to associate with sexuality. However, the parent's reaction to the child's self manipulation is a function of both the self manipulation and the context in which it occurs. Some parents may handle the situation by punishing the child with verbal and nonverbal signals that self manipulation is 'bad' and totally unacceptable in any situation. While other parents may make the distinction between public and private self manipulation--it is not acceptable to masturbate in public but it is acceptable to masturbate in private. These behavior-situation-reinforcer contingencies provide two types of related information: information about the context in which a specific behavior is, or is not acceptable which in turn become associated with the affective responses evoked by the type of reinforcement. If this premise is tenable then a person's premarital sexuality standards may be the result of informational feedback as to what preconditions must be present for sexual behavior to become acceptable. Since Reiss's premarital sexuality standards represent beliefs as to the acceptability of sexual activity prior to marriage, sexuality standards could be considered the cognitive or informational component of sexual attitudes. Sexuality standards may provide the context for the evocation of emotional/affective reactions to premarital sexuality. For the person who requires love prior to the onset of sexual relations, sexual overtures may be aversive without love. However, within the context of a loving relationship sexual activity would probably be considered a positive thing.

According to Fisher, et al, the process by which attitudes about sexuality are acquired is this pairing of sexual cues with positive or negative affective responses. When sexual cues are paired with negative outcomes, negative affective responses are associated with sexuality and erotophobia results. Conversely, when sexual cues are paired with positive outcomes, erotophilia results. We assert however that affective responses to what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior are specific to the type of sexual behavior and the context in which that behavior occurs. In the case of vaginal intercourse, it is our premise that socialization as to what preconditions must be met prior to the onset of vaginal intercourse (sexuality standards) is a major determinant of affective responses to the act of vaginal intercourse.

Sexuality standards can be conceptualized as a continuum that is defined by the amount of affection and public commitment which is necessary prior to the onset of sexual relations (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Requirements prior to sexual activity


Sexuality Standards Continuum

According to Reiss' theory, people have different criteria for love and commitment that must be met prior to the onset of sexual relations. People who believe in abstinence require not only love but public commitment within the socially sanctioned institution of marriage prior to the onset of vaginal intercourse. Those who adhere to the permissiveness with affection standard require some degree of affection or love within a stable relationship prior to the onset of vaginal intercourse. Whereas people who subscribe to the permissiveness without affection standard require no affection or public commitment only physical attraction prior to sexual relations. Within the context of premarital sexuality there exists a person - situation interaction--For which person is sex acceptable in which situations?

Several studies were conducted to examine relationships between sexuality standards, beliefs and behavior. There should be a strong relationship between measures of sexuality standards and beliefs, attitudes and behavior:

People with different sexuality standards should differ in terms of the amount of love and commitment they need prior to engaging in sex with a partner.

People with differing sexuality standards should differ in their q-sort similarity ratings of vignettes written to illustrate couples in various relationship stages either abstaining from or engaging in sexual relations.

People with differing sexuality standards should also differ in their reports of onset and diversity of sexual behavior.

People with differing sexuality standards should vary in their affective reactions to sexually related material.

We should be able to predict whether or not people report having had sex with a partner using information about their sexuality standards and the context of the relationship in which the behavior occurs.

Methods. How was the research conducted?

Findings

Changes in Sexuality Standards over time. Overall, it appears that Permissiveness with affection is the predominant standard for sexual behavior in our society. It's also interesting to note that across all of these samples, a higher percentage of males chose permissiveness without affection than did females. Generally the reverse was true regarding the Abstinence Standard-females showed a slightly high endorsement rate of the Abstinence standard than did males.

Sexuality Standards by Age Younger people are less permissive (require more love and commitment prior to the onset of sex) than older people in the The Love Test Sample.

Sexuality Standards for the Oklahoma, Texas, and Love Test Samples. Responses to the Sexuality Standards Item (RRRS) for the Oklahoma, Texas and Love Test Samples and descriptives for the sexuality standards groups used in the following analyses.

Relationship Between the Various Measures of Sexuality Standards. The various measures of sexuality standards are highly correlated indicating that it's likely that they are tapping the same construct and that there is not much difference between using the single item measure and the 5 item measure of sexuality standards.

Acceptability of Various Behaviors as a Function of Relationship Type and Sexuality Standards. Over all, sex if engaged and sex if in love were rated as acceptable behaviors for self on average by the Texas sample, however abstinence if engaged, sex if only friends and sex if they've just met the person were rated as not acceptable for self. People who require engagement or marriage prior to sex rated only abstinence if engaged as acceptable for self. The group who said they require love prior to engaging in sexual relations indicated that they believe that it's OK for them to engage in sex if they are engaged or in love. The group who said they require friendship or casual acquaintance prior to sex, believe that it's OK for them to engage in sex if engaged, if in love, and if they like the person, however abstinence if engaged in unacceptable.

     

Sexual Opinion Survey (SOS). People who require more love and commitment prior to sex score as more erotophobic (have more negative affective reactions to sexually related material) on the Sexual Opinion Survey then those who require less love and commitment prior to the onset of sexual intercourse.

Bem Sex Role Inventory. There was not a significant relationship between the BSRI femininity scale scores and sexuality standards, however, masculinity was significantly related to sexuality standards. People who require less love and/or commitment prior to sex score higher in masculinity than those who require more love/and or commitment prior to the onset of sexual intercourse.

Self Monitoring. People who require more love and commitment prior to sex tend to be more attentive to dispositional cues whereas those who require less love and commitment prior to sex tend to be more attentive to situational cues.

Correlations Between Sexuality Standards and Other Self Report Items. Correlations between sexuality standards and: factors that people say have increased or decreased their requirements for love and commitment prior to sex (e.g., religion, friends, parents, fear of STDs, sex drive, etc.); control to increase or decrease the likelihood of having sex with a date; ratings of how much one is affected by the emotions of the moment in terms of having sex with a partner; enjoyment of sex, comfort with self sexually, fantasizing about sex with another partner, frequency of thinking about sex, etc.

Number of Sexual Partners in the Last Year. People who require more of a love and commitment prior to sex reported fewer sexual partners in the last year as compared to those who require less love and commitment prior to sex. Over both samples approximately 34% of participants report being abstinent during the last year, 32% report having one sexual partner, and 34% report having more than one sexual partner. It seems that in terms of the number of sexual partners, the sample is fairly evenly divided between abstinence, monogamy and sex with multiple partners.

Number of One Night Stands in the Last Year. People who require more love and commitment prior to sex reported fewer one night stands in the last year than did those requiring less love and commitment prior to the onset of sexual relations. The Texas sample reported from 0 to 15 one night stands in the last year (mean = 1.13, sd = 1.93). The majority of the Texas sample reported having 0 (59%) or 1 (27%) one night stands in the last year. However 24% of the Texas sample reported having two or more one night stands in the last year.

Age of First Sexual Intercourse. People who require engagement or marriage prior to sex reported a older age of onset of sexual intercourse than did those who require only love prior to the onset of sexual relations or those who require friendship or casual acquaintance prior to the onset of sexual intercourse.

Age of Onset of Various Sexual Acts. Overall, there is not much difference in age of onset of the various sexual behaviors between those who require love prior to sex and those who require casual acquaintance or friendship prior to sex. However, those who require engagement or marriage prior to sex report a later onset of the various sexual behaviors including oral sex and vaginal sex.

Church Attendance. People who require engagement or marriage prior to sex reported attending church more frequently during the last month than did 1) those who require only love prior to the onset of sexual relations and 2) those who require friendship or casual acquaintance prior to the onset of sexual intercourse. Self reports of religiosity were also related to sexuality standards: only 19% of the people who require friendship or casual acquaintance prior to the onset of sex, rated themselves as moderately or very religious, as compared to 28% of people who require love prior to the onset of sex, and 69% of people who require engagement or marriage prior to the onset of sex.

Correlations between Sexuality Standard Vignettes and Ratings of Self. Over all, Abstinence and Permissiveness with Affection were rated as more similar to self than was Permissiveness without Affection. However correlations between self ratings and ratings of the sexuality standard vignettes varied as a function of the person's sexuality standards. People who require engagement or marriage prior to sex rated the Abstinence vignettes as most similar to self. People who require love prior to sex rated the Abstinence and Permissiveness with Affection vignettes as most like self. There were mixed finding for the group containing people who require friendship or casual acquaintance prior to sex: the Oklahoma Sample rated the Permissiveness with Affection vignette as being most similar to self, however in the Texas sample there were no statistically significant differences in self- vignette correlations between the sexuality standards vignettes for this group.

Correlations between ratings of Typical Male, Typical Female and ratings of the Sexuality Standards Vignettes. The Oklahoma sample rated the typical female as being most similar to the abstinence vignette. They rated the typical male as being most similar to the permissiveness without affection vignette.

Scores on The Love Test by Sexuality Standard Group. Descriptives for Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment Scales by sexuality standard group and Descriptives for Love Test items by sexuality standard group.

Predicting Whether or Not They had Sex with a Partner. Using measures of sexuality standards and various measures of attachment to the person, I was able to correctly predict for almost 80% of participants whether or not they had sex with their romantic interest. The addition of the Sexual Opinion Survey (in the Texas sample) did not increase the ability to predict whether or not people had sex with their past date.