Misperceived social norms about taboo sexual behaviors.

Author:Pariera, Katrina L.
Position:Author abstract


There is often a striking divergence between our own behavior and our perception of other people's behavior. Despite the mathematical impossibility, almost everyone believes they are below average when it comes to risky or taboo behaviors. (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Lee, et al., 2007; Martens et al., 2006; Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986; Perkins, 2007; Perkins et al., 1999; Prentice & Miller, 1993; and Sussman et al., 1988). These self-other norm discrepancies can cause pressure to engage in those behaviors more frequently, in an attempt to conform to the perceived norm. Regarding sexual behavior, norms are less likely to be socially observed. Some research into sexual behavior suggests that people also tend to place themselves in the below average range, believing they have fewer sexual partners and engage in less risky sexual behavior than their peers (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Martens et al., 2006; Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, & Holck, 2005; and Seal & Agostinelli, 1996). However, little is known about how sexual social norms affect our private behavior. Having a more in-depth understanding about perceived norm gaps for taboo sexual behavior would offer critical insights about if and how social perceptions affect private behaviors.

Social norms are the "prevailing codes of conduct that either prescribe or proscribe behaviors that members of a group can enact" (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005, p. 129). However, interpretations of norms are subjective, so people may act on them in different ways. Pluralistic ignorance is the concept often used to explain misperceived norms, and it refers to a social comparison occurrence whereby people who hold a majority opinion actually think they are in the minority. O'Gorman explains the concept as: "an erroneous cognitive belief shared by two or more people regarding the ideas, sentiments, and actions of other individuals" (O'Gorman, 1975). Pluralistic ignorance is sometimes a tenet of social norms theory (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986), which states that "our behavior is influenced by incorrect perceptions [pluralistic ignorance] of how other members of our social groups think and act," (Berkowitz, 2004). Prentice and Miller explained that people privately reject certain beliefs and practices, yet believe that everyone else privately accepts them (Prentice & Miller, 1996). They pointed out that group identification is a key component of pluralistic ignorance and that norms are often prescribed within groups.

Studies about social norms and pluralistic ignorance usually investigate the misperceptions about the attitudes and behaviors of people belonging to the same group, such as those of the same gender and age.

Pluralistic ignorance has been demonstrated many times in studies dealing with drinking behaviors. Prentice and Miller's 1993 study showed that college students viewed their friends, as well as the average person at their college, to have more lenient attitudes about drinking than themselves. They found that over time male students slowly shifted their behavior to adhere to the perceived norm, although female students did not. Baer, (1994) found that students entering their first year of college had a perception of high levels of acceptable drinking behaviors, but found that this diminished somewhat a year later, suggesting that direct experience with behaviors may mitigate norm perceptions. Martens, et al. (2006) conducted a survey comparing reported behaviors and perceived behaviors and found that participants overestimated not only the amount of drinking by their peers but other risky behavior as well, such as drug use (including cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine).

Social norms can be communicated either directly, by interpersonal communication and direct observation, or indirectly, wherein people infer norms without observation. Sexual norms are unique from drinking and drug use norms in that they are probably inferred indirectly rather than directly. Some studies have looked at the norm perceptions of sexual behavior. Martens, et al.'s study found that people overestimated their peers' sexual activity, including oral, vaginal and anal sex, and number of partners. Seal and Agostinelli (1996) found that men and women overestimate the prevalence of sexual behavior amongst men, while Lambert, Kahn and Apple's (2003) study found that men and women overestimated the other gender's comfort with casual sexual behavior. A study by Milhausen, Reece, and Perera, (2006) found that the more males perceived their peers to pprove of engaging in sexual acts at Mardi Gras, the higher their own intentions to engage in oral or vaginal sex there. Katz, Tirone, and van der Kloet, (2012) found that new college students perceived casual sex to be common on campus, and that those who actually engaged in the behavior perceived it to be more common than those who did not.

One study has found that a large gap in self-other norm discrepancies can lead to sexual dissatisfaction. Sullivan and Stephenson, (2009) found that not only did participants overestimate the sexual activity and permissiveness of others, the larger the perceived gap between them, the lower their reported general sexual satisfaction. However, the participants were mostly very young people (mean age was 18.5), and often not yet sexually active. It may be informative to look at various age levels and varying levels of sexual activity to understand how norms effect sexual satisfaction.

Some research has also examined the causes of self-other norm gaps. Borsari and Carey (2003) conducted a meta-analysis and found that gender was a significant predictor of self-other norm discrepancies. Miller and McFarland, (1987) found that people's belief that they fear embarrassment more than others and have higher social inhibition than others was a cause of higher pluralistic ignorance. Novak and Crawford, (2001) found that students with high social comparativeness were more likely to engage in risky behaviors than their less comparative peers. However, these studies focused on perceived norms about alcohol use, rather than sexual behaviors.

It is also important to understand if sexual norm misperceptions actually have an effect on feelings about one's behavior. While it has been shown that this is the case for drinking behaviors, sexual behaviors are less visibly demonstrable than drinking behaviors, and their private nature may make them less affected by norm misperceptions. For example, some research has suggested that even though women are highly aware of sexual double-standards and expectations, their behavior is not highly influenced by these broad norms (Lyons, Giordano, Manning, & Longmore, 2011). In other words, their social norms perceptions do not affect their sexual behaviors in this case.

This research will attempt to shed light on people's own behaviors and their perceptions of "normal" behavior for similar others, regarding somewhat taboo sexual acts. There is little research into perceptions of...

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