Female sexuality is caught up in a double standard: women are simultaneously encouraged to present themselves as sex objects to cater to the male gaze, and derided as “slutty” if they actually follow through. At this point, a growing body of scientific research has confirmed that it’s pretty much impossible for women to navigate that line — and, no matter what kind of choices they make about how to present their bodies to the world, they face consequences either way.
For instance, a new study from Oregon State University researchers finds that young women who post sexy photos of themselves on social media are more likely to be seen by their peers as less competent. But refraining from posting those kind of images may force women to lose out on “social rewards,” like attention from boys and men. In a press release about the results, the lead researcher of the study pointed out that girls are essentially in a “no-win” situation when it comes to their social media accounts.
Researchers investigated this dynamic by asking young women between the ages of 13 and 25 to examine two fake Facebook profiles of a fictitious 20-year-old named Amanda — one with photos of Amanda wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up the thigh, and another with photos of Amanda wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a scarf. The experiment used real photos of a young woman who agreed to participate. Respondents were more likely to rate the “non-sexy” version of Amanda as someone who would be a good friend and accomplish tasks competently.
“There is so much pressure on teen girls and young women to portray themselves as sexy, but sharing those sexy photos online may have more negative consequences than positive,” Elizabeth Daniels, the lead author of the study and a psychology professor who studies how media affects girls’ body image, noted in a statement.
And this isn’t the first research of its kind to investigate the double standards for U.S. women who are forced with a choice about how to display their sexuality.
For example, previous studies have found that sexting — the act of sending explicit sexual photos — ends up having more consequences for girls than it does for boys. Even though girls and boys sext at about the same rate, girls’ photos are more likely to be forwarded on to other people without their consent. And according to University of Michigan researchers, this is another “no-win” situation. Boys consider the girls who send sexts to be “slutty,” but think the girls who don’t are “prudes.”
Another study recently published in Social Psychology Quarterly found that these attitudes are so deeply ingrained in our culture that the majority of college women “slut shame” each other even though there’s no clear definition of what actually makes a woman a slut. “If you want to make a young woman feel bad, pulling out the term ‘slut’ is a sure fire way to do it,” one of the researchers explained to the Atlantic. “It’s ‘she isn’t one of us, we don’t like her and she’s different.’”
Research has confirmed that college women who are viewed by their peers as “promiscuous” have a harder time making friends and finding romantic partners. But it’s not exactly easy for women to ensure that other people’s impressions of them aren’t immediately linked with their sexuality. Scientists have studied men’s brains and discovered that when they look at images of attractive woman, they see them as “different kinds of humans — ones that are capable of feeling but not thinking.” A 2012 study found that we’ve been taught to look at women in the same way we look at houses or sandwiches: not as a whole individual, but as a composite of separate attractive parts.
So where does this all leave us? It’s not hard to extrapolate these ideas about women’s appearance, sexuality, and worth to start noticing this dynamic in many aspects of society. For instance, in our culture, public figures who happen to be female are told they’re too pretty to be smart, and department stores sell clothing to little girls to reinforce that message. The female journalists who cover news related to reproductive health care are derided as “sluts” and “whores.” We’re still debating whether it’s possible for women over 40 to be desirable. And ultimately, we’re left in an environment that ensures women are constantly punished for their sexuality, no matter how they express it.