The sexual double standard — the concept that women are more highly criticized for sexual activity than men are — may play a role in bullying victimization among high school girls, according to a new study led by a team of University researchers.
“Sexually active girls have 2.27 times the odds of being bullied compared to boys who are also sexually active,” said Hailee Dunn, the former manager of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine and lead author of the study. The study was co-authored by three other Brown researchers and was released in this month’s issue of the journal Women’s Health Issues.
Girls who have engaged in sexual intercourse are almost twice as likely to be bullied, Dunn said. “If you look at boys, it’s not as significant.”
Girls who became sexually active at younger ages were found to be more prone to bullying than those who were not sexually active until they were older.
This same correlation does not exist with boys, “so that may be indicative of some sort of sexual double standard,” Dunn said.
In regard to use of condoms and other forms of contraception, there are no significant gender differences, according to the study.
From this finding, the researchers “interpreted that maybe our health education programs are working,” Dunn said. “There is this sort of stigma if you’re not using a form of protection that applies to both boys and girls.” Both boys and girls who had not used condoms reported higher rates of bullying than those who had.
The study analyzed the results of 13,065 high school boys and girls who took the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011, Dunn said.
In the YRBS, students were asked two questions about bullying, and those who answered yes to at least one of the questions were classified as having been bullied.
Dunn, who comes from a background in psychology, sociology and women’s studies, was looking to “synthesize (her) different experiences” and apply a feminist theoretical framework to her previous work.
Dunn said she was inspired to do the study when she heard about the 2012 Steubenville rape case, in which a high school girl was sexually assaulted in the Ohio town and the resulting controversy garnered national attention. She said she was shocked by the way the media covered the case, “as if there was more sympathy towards the two football players” than the girl who was raped.
“I had read an article about the backlash that this girl had gotten through social media networks, not just from boys but from girls, too. It showed how we continue to enforce this rape culture,” Dunn said.
“I’m interested in how we’re implicitly motivated by norms surrounding masculinity and femininity. I took that concept and applied it to looking at the association between sexual engagement and bullying,” she added. “In that instant, to me it seemed that the cultural norms around rape culture facilitated this violence.”
Because the study is correlational, Dunn said that researchers can conclude only that these two variables are related, not which one might lead to the other. For example, “it’s possible that girls who are bullied then go out and engage in promiscuous behavior,” Dunn said.
One of Dunn’s main critiques of the study was that it only looks at survey results from one year. In a second, related paper, which is being submitted to journals for review, Dunn said, she looked at combined Rhode Island sample YRBS data from 2009, 2011 and 2013.
“We’re looking to see if the sexual double standard applies to heterosexual youth and sexual minorities in the same way,” Dunn said. “We weren’t able to do that in this study because in the national level they don’t ask about sexual orientation, so we weren’t able to control for that.”
Mary Crawford, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, led a study in 2003 that looked at the sexual double standard in college-aged students and found less convincing evidence of its existence.
“The sexual double standard is still with us but difficult to pin down in research because it is not ‘cool’ to acknowledge it. Students want to present themselves as sexually sophisticated, and may deny views that seem dated,” Crawford said. “This is why the double standard shows up in subtle measures … more than direct ones.”
But Dunn said Crawford’s contradictory findings may have resulted because “when you engage in sexual intercourse in college, it’s probably a less deviant behavior than if you were to engage in it in high school, because it’s a first time for kids.”
“Maybe there’s not much of an emphasis on the sexual double standard as we get older, but it seems like it could definitely be more prominent when kids are younger,” Dunn said. “Especially from eighth grade to ninth grade, it’s where we start to develop our identities. I think that’s where we experience more hyper-masculinity or hyper-femininity because we’re trying to figure out who we are. We need to draw attention to the implicit things that motivate us.”
Dunn pointed out that many high school curricula lack gender studies and human rights programs.
Bullying intervention is a challenging topic to address, but Dunn said “we need to tackle the underlying causes so that kids don’t treat each other that way.”
A previous version of this article misstated Hailee Dunn’s title. She is the former, not current, manager of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. The Herald regrets the error.