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Do women really think one-night-stands are immoral?

April 1st, 2006

Dr Petra

According to the latest press coverage, it seems women believe that casual sex is a problem. Here are a few example headlines:

One-night stands immoral, say 9 in 10 women – Telegraph
One-night stands are immoral, say women – Daily Mail
Women say no to one-night stands – Scotsman
One-night stands turn off women – Glasgow Daily Record
One-night stands still wrong, say women – ic Wales
Why today’s woman really is saving herself – Scotsman

So what was the research that caused all this fuss?

The study, by researchers at the University of Sheffield, involved in-depth interviews with 46 women aged 23-83. Participants were asked to discuss attitudes to sex, including one-night-stands. Of the 46 participants, 90% viewed one-night-stands ‘negatively’. This included viewing casual sex as ‘male behaviour’, seeing it as ‘needy’ or ‘deviant’, or something outside of a traditional female role. Even women who had one-night-stands were apparently negative about them.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Although things are changing, we still live in a culture where women are expected to stick within a certain form of sexual behaviour. Those who transgress are viewed negatively, and often it’s women who’ll be more judgemental.

What isn’t clear is how participants were questioned within this research. Kosher sex research is always careful to avoid using value-laden terminology. Words like ‘adultery’, ‘casual sex’ or ‘one-night-stands’ carry with them very negative meanings that can lead participants to either deny engaging in such behaviour or be judgemental about such activities. If you want people to open up to you, perhaps asking them to talk about ‘casual sex’ isn’t the best way to go about it. Put simply, we could explain the results of this study as participant’s responses to negative terminology, rather than actual behaviour.

Although the study is an in-depth piece of work, and qualitative research is definitely a great way to study sex, this research isn’t representative of all women. It just gives us an insight into the views some women hold.

However, that hasn’t stopped a lot of journalists getting very excited about the research.

The question is why did this study get this coverage at this time?

It’s quite simple. The study was press released as part of the British Psychological Society’s annual conference, and as a veteran of presenting sex research at that event I know that it’s a very easy way to get press coverage.

Aside from being on a ‘sexy’ topic, this study captured a moral subtext that would keep the right wing press happy, whilst allowing for talking points across the media. It lent itself well to debates like ‘are one night stands immoral?’, ‘are women less capable of having one-night-stands’ or ‘are you a woman who disagrees with this research?’. Nice black and white answers to gloss over a far more complex problem.

Perhaps predictably the media coverage got most of its reporting wrong – although it does allow us to see how media sex coverage could be improved….

What was wrong with media coverage of the one-night-stands research?

It ignored existing evidence

This study hasn’t told us anything that over 30 decades of research hasn’t already found. Countless studies have shown women and men are negative about women who have casual sex, whilst the sexual double standard where men who enjoy sex are ‘studs’ and women who enjoy sex are ‘slags’ remains. The media coverage of this small study responded as though it was ‘news’, a more interesting angle might be how nothing seems to be changing.

The method was misunderstood

Countless media coverage of this research referred to it as a ‘survey’. This is an ongoing problem where journalists have been so overwhelmed with ‘surveys’ that they wrongly think this it’s the only research method. The study in question was an in-depth qualitative study. In such research you interview small groups of people, audio or videotape them, and analyse their accounts. It serves a totally different purpose to a survey where you study a far wider range of people using closed-ended questions.

As well as muddling an in-depth interview with a survey, journalists also reported the qualitative data as though it was a quantitative study – hence the headlines ‘9/10 women believe one-night-stands are ‘immoral’’. Whilst the majority of people in this study were undoubtedly negative about casual sex (for reasons already outlined), it wasn’t a large enough piece of research to extrapolate to a general population, and the aim of qualitative research is not to do this anyway.

Data reports were muddled

Several newspaper reports drew on other existing data reporting increasing sexual activity to show how the one-night-stands study ‘disproved’ them. That’s not correct. The one-night-stand research showed that people are judgemental about sex. Just because people are having more sex, or more partners, doesn’t mean the negative labelling of women who are sexual has disappeared. In fact, increasing sexual activity may, for some women, go hand-in-hand with greater social pressure and negative reactions.

Journalists were confused by sex research

Some reports showed a further misunderstanding of social research. In “The Sun” (Saturday 1 April) under the headline ‘girls hit back at study on casual flings’ and ‘I love one-night stands and still respect myself’ readers were told the research was ‘rubbish’ and that ‘girls aren’t going to boast about their conquests to their mums or to strangers – which is why this research is so faulty’.

Now there are several flaws within this research (which The Sun failed to notice), but talking to strangers isn’t one of them. For a start, we know that well-run sex research where someone can confide in a researcher unknown to them can lead to greater disclosure. But also you’re not really a ‘stranger’. You’ll have consented participants into your study and in qualitative research like this study create a safe space for someone to talk.

Unlike ‘The Sun’ who invited two ‘case studies’ to be photographed and interviewed. Either this was another case of ‘strangers’ asking someone to share their sex life which The Sun had already claimed was faulty. Or it was someone known to the journalist. Which is ethically dodgy and certainly more likely to present leading results.

And again, a misunderstanding of the study. The researchers weren’t claiming all women think one-night-stands are bad, they were saying women were made to feel bad for having one-night-stands. Simply lining up two cases that say they’re happy to have casual sex isn’t going to alter sexual inequalities.

What’s bizarre is the media were happy to critique this research in detail, yet never bat an eyelid at those countless PR sex ‘surveys’ they use to fill copy on a daily basis. We should expect the same critical rigour of all sex stories – perhaps accompanied by a smidgen of understanding of sex research too.

Coverage assumed ‘the sexual liberation’ had really happened

The bizarre subtext in all of the media coverage was that sexual liberation had already happened. It wasn’t clear when that was, perhaps around the 1970s some suggested, but it had definitely happened. The women in the present study were therefore at odds with this assumed era of sexual equality.

Whilst Western women have greater sexual freedoms than their grandmothers, it would be wrong to place sexual liberation in the past tense – either for Western women or women globally.

Reportage didn’t look beyond the West

In fact, one fault both the media coverage and the one-night-stand research had in common was the inability to look at sex outside a stereotypical Western view. The idea of women all being single, happy, and controlling casual sexual encounters safely and enjoyably is possible – however it’s far more of a media construction than a reality. For women in the UK who’re on low incomes, from different ethnic minority groups, or who lack confidence, this image of womanhood does not apply or is outside their reach. And for women in the developing world there are huge issues with domestic violence, sexual coercion and exploitation that means one-night-stands happen, but are really better described as rape.

‘Casual sex’ was equated with ‘liberation’

Finally the problem with both the study and its reportage is that it equated casual sex with liberation. There’s nothing inherently liberating or immoral about casual sex. Sexual liberation is far more about education, safety, and choice.

The problem with reports of studies like this is they set up the benchmark of liberation as ‘one-night-stands’ and fail to get to grips with the sexual double standards that deny women choices.

So do women really think one-night-stands are immoral? Probably many do. But what’s more obvious is so do many journalists too.

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