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The surprising role sex plays in adolescent friendships

A new study suggests that teens and pre-teens gain and lose friends based on their sexual activity.
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to dating, research shows we're still in the Dark Ages of double standards.

Group Of Female High School Students Talking By Lockers;Shutterstock

Recent studies of college "hook-up" culture make clear that young people, like their older counterparts, perceive sexually active males and females differently.

A new study suggests these double standards start early, and they affect the friendships we make. According to the research, adolescent girls lose friends when they first have sex, but when boys go all the way, they become more popular.

Interestingly, the study, which relied on information given by students aged 11 to 16 from rural communities, found that the reverse was also true: girls who only made out with boys — kissing and touching without having sexual intercourse — were more popular among their male and female peers than girls who had intercourse. Yet, boys who only made out with girls lost cool points — and popularity — among other males.

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It was that second finding that most surprised Derek A. Kreager, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Pennsylvania State University. “Although it makes sense that should occur if the sexual script young people are learning is consistent,” he says.

That script, says Kreager, teaches girls they should be chaste “gatekeepers” of sexuality, warding off boys’ advances. Girls are supposed to yearn for romance, and monogamy, while boys learn the opposite.

“If you are in a romantic relationship, and especially if you are not having sex in that romantic relationship, it’s going to hurt your status, particularly among other boys,” says Kreager. A boy like that may be perceived as less masculine by his peers, the researchers speculate.

To conduct the study, which will be presented this week at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, researchers used data from a broader study about drug prevention. They looked at surveys filled out by 921 students across 28 communities in rural Iowa and Pennsylvania between 2003 and 2007. At different points in each school year, students answered questions about their sexual behavior and their closest friends. Researchers matched up the answers and found that once girls first reported having sex, they experienced, on average, a 45 percent decrease in peer acceptance, while boys experienced an 88 percent increase in popularity.

The data about those who didn't go all the way was as striking. Girls who reported only making out experienced a 25 percent increase in popularity, while boys who only made out experienced a 29 percent decrease.

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Such a gender dynamic in adolescence is problematic for many reasons, the researchers believe. Beyond simply perpetuating gender inequality, it could also teach girls to think negatively about sex.

“Girls, if they follow this script, will tend to associate sex with shame or guilt and they won’t be able to take agency or even have sexual desire because they will associate that with some penalty, with some social stigma,” Kreager says.

Boys who absorb the message that they should be having lots of casual sex with multiple partners risk the potential of having unsafe or non-consensual sex, he says.

Adolescence expert Laurence Steinberg agrees that a double standard about sexuality among adolescent females and males still exists.

However, Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of "Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence." says it’s important to note that the study used data from youth in rural communities.

“Rural communities tend to be more conservative — that’s the whole red state/blue state thing that we know — and rural communities are also more religious. Conservative religious communities are communities where gender roles are more stereotyped,” says Steinberg.

"Focusing on youth in those communities may overestimate any kind of stigmatization effect," he says.

Kreager acknowledges the limitations of the study's data, but insists its findings are important.

“We may not generalize to the entire adolescent population because our sample is rural,” says Kreager. “But we think the theory would suggest that you’re going to find similar dynamics in other settings.”