Double standards are all around us. It’s easy to think of examples. The problem is what to do with them. Some seem intractable. But some might exist for a reason.
A recent Facebook discussion got me thinking. The topic was abortion and choice. I mentioned a controversial idea advocated by some. What if a man doesn’t want to be a parent? Should he have the right to a “financial abortion”? That is, to give up all legal and financial rights and responsibilities as a parent?
I wrote that I don’t support this, but I felt hypocritical for thinking that women can’t be forced into parenthood, but men can be. Some of the responses were pointed, however, even though I was agreeing that only women can choose birth or abortion because only women can get pregnant, and that the father’s financial support is in the child’s best interests.
One man wrote that a man “already made his decision… when he chose to have sex with her…A condom is a fuck of a lot cheaper than child support”. A woman agreed: “So, here’s the thing boys, the time for male choice is when you enter into a sexual relationship.” I responded that I wouldn’t make that argument with the gender roles reversed. Rather, I don’t believe a woman is consenting to motherhood just because she consents to sex.
My point was simply that my stance on choice is inconsistent, and I’m admitting that I hold a double standard. But most of us don’t like to admit that we hold double standards.
The types and degrees of sex differences are hotly debated. Are women really better at multitasking? Are men actually better at math? Differences in what makes a man or a woman attractive are obvious, however. Being poor doesn’t diminish a woman’s attractiveness nearly as much as it does for a man. On the other hand, as he ages a man’s physical appearance is judged far less harshly than an older woman’s appearance is.
What’s considered beautiful in a woman varies by culture, but men in every culture value women of youth and health far above all. And extensive research shows that women the world over value men of high social status, which usually means being a good provider.
In other words, parental investment theory has it right. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we seek mates who will bear the healthiest offspring (men’s desire for young women), and who are best able to provide for these offspring (women’s desire for resourceful men). Though the latter is less important in the modern world of career women who can provide for children without men.
But the human ability to make choices, with knowledge as power, means biology is not destiny. A key point for men and women who are looking for love is that just because certain people are considered to be the most attractive doesn’t mean that other people are not attractive. In the long run, the quality of the relationship matters more than youth or social status.
The most indisputable sex difference, however, is that no man can get pregnant. Further, women’s reproductive opportunities are more limited than men’s. Women can get pregnant but once a year, and not past middle age without medical intervention. But a man could impregnate several women each year, and some men have become fathers even as retirees.
It’s no wonder that women are more selective. There are Youtube videos of men asking women for sex, which is always met with a refusal and sometimes a slap; and women asking men for sex, which inevitably results in several yeses.
Casual sex is simply less risky for men. But the most infamous double standard for those with multiple sex partners is that women are sluts and men are studs.
I oppose slut shaming (and shaming in general), and I think there’s much we can do to change cultural attitudes. But I doubt women will ever be thought of as studs for having multiple partners. Do we have an unconscious bias because of women’s exclusive physical investment in pregnancy? If so, women might always be more selective than men, while promiscuous men are seen as successful because they’ve demonstrated a track record of overcoming the barrier of female selectiveness. But note that this bias in no way condones shaming either women or men.
Besides slut shaming, there are other ways that culture can magnify sex differences. Perhaps men’s role as the initiators, and women’s role as the choosers, is why the “yes means yes” debate focuses almost exclusively on whether men obtain consent from women.
But we must not blind ourselves to the reality that women can sexually assault men. For example, there’s been a proliferation of news items about women (usually teachers) having sex with boys. Women, however, receive far lighter sentences than men who have sex with girls. Indeed, many people don’t think it’s as bad when a woman has sex with a boy.
Like slut shaming, I think this is a double standard we should address even if it’s an uphill battle. After all, I doubt women’s motivations are different from men’s. It’s about an adult’s control over a vulnerable person. And even if the boy desires the woman, he might not be prepared emotionally or legally for the consequences.