Sex Rules: Emerging Adults’ Perceptions of Gender’s Impact on Sexuality

Abstract

Past research often explains gender differences in sexual behavior according to differences in social norms for men and women. Yet, individuals’ perceptions and internalizations of current social norms are not well understood. This study aimed to examine emerging adults’ perceptions of how being male or female impacts their sexuality and how their perceptions would differ if they were another gender. Participants (N = 205) were college students, 61 % female, and ranged from age 18 to 25 (M = 20.5, SD = 1.7). Participants answered open-ended questions about gender and responses were coded for content, positive tone, and negative tone. In describing how being female affected their sexual thoughts and feelings, women were more likely than men to focus on reputation concerns and describe limits and contexts in which sexual behavior was acceptable. In describing how being male affected their sexual thoughts and feelings, men were more likely than women to focus on issues of desire. Women’s perceptions about how their sexual thoughts and feelings would differ if they were male were consistent with men’s perceptions of their own gender’s actual impact on sexuality, and vice versa. Women’s descriptions of their own gender’s impact on sexuality were more emotionally laden than men’s. Finally, being older was associated with less negative and more positive emotional tone in men’s and women’s responses respectively.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to Eva S. Lefkowitz (R-01 HD 41720) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (T32 DA017629). We are grateful to Tanya Boone, Shelley Hosterman, Eric Loken, Susan McHale, and Lisa Meyer for their help with study design, data collection, coding, and statistical analyses.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Megan K. Maas.

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Maas, M.K., Shearer, C.L., Gillen, M.M. et al. Sex Rules: Emerging Adults’ Perceptions of Gender’s Impact on Sexuality. Sexuality & Culture 19, 617–636 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-015-9281-6

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Keywords

  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Emerging adults
  • Stereotypes