Why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 15 2010 6:59 AM

Generation Scold

Why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity.

Couple hugging. Click image to expand.

In the late '60s and early '70s, when "sleeping with someone was almost like shaking hands," womanizers had a certain allure, according to Norris Church Mailer in her charming new memoir A Ticket to the Circus. She knew her husband Norman was involved with several other women when she met him and even after she married him. But she stayed, because "the good outweighed the bad," she writes. Also, "the sex was always great."

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

The Don Juans were always a source of trouble and danger for women, but they also carried a whiff of glamour. These days, they've lost even that. A cad is just a cad, and a cheated-on wife is a source of shame and embarrassment to women, great sex notwithstanding. "If she's looking to avoid judgment, she told some of the wrong anecdotes," writes Jezebel's Sadie Stein of the Church Mailer memoir, "It read, to me, more like cautionary tale than love story." When the fabulous feminist, free-love advocate, and former Norman Mailer sparring partner Germaine Greer wrote about sleeping with director Federico Fellini, the reaction was equally scolding.

It's not just women who are being judged for their sexual choices. DoubleX contributor Amanda Marcotte takes modern guys to task on the Daily Beast for using Facebook as a "G-rated version of … amateur porn." The notion that men might be having sexual fantasies about women they know has an "undeniable ick factor" to it, Marcotte says. Even the ostensibly libertine Lady Gaga said recently, "It's not really cool any more to have sex all the time. It's cooler to be strong and independent," as if one could not be simultaneously strong and sexually adventurous.

What's changed? Why is there no category for a woman who chooses great sex over emotional comfort? Why did the lusty gentleman lose all his sex appeal? Apparently, the last few years have seen the rise of Generation Scold. The scarlet letter standard was once applied to married women who were unfaithful to their husbands. Now it applies to everyone—unmarried women, men, bystanders who let their men get away with it.

To merely suggest, say, that sex without a condom feels better will get you called idiotic, inflammatory, immature, not to mention self-loathing. You should know better, and if you behave without caution, Generation Scold has no sympathy for you.

The newest development is the judgment heaped on men for bad behavior. Women's judgment of adultery and promiscuity in men has become far harsher, according to recent studies. The shift in attitude could be interpreted as a feminist advance. Women now hold men to the same stringent sexual standards that they themselves have long been held to. Even men are beginning to judge other men for promiscuity. What this points to is the end of a great American tradition: the double standard.

The prevailing cultural assumption has been that women are judged more harshly for overly sexual behavior than men are—women who sleep around are "sluts," while men who get around are "studs." But this perception has been shifting for at least a decade among women. According to a 1999 study of Canadian female grad students published in the Journal of Sex Research, "Contrary to the double standard, the vast majority of women listed only negative words to describe either a man or woman who has had many partners." They often labeled experienced men as "manipulative" and "exploitative," and said they would warn their girlfriends not to date a man who had slept with 10 or more partners. This was years before Web sites like dontdatehimgirl.com made this kind of warning viral.

A new study confirms these findings. Sociologists Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman of the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed over 17,000 college students through the Online College Social Life Survey and found that both men and women lost respect for members of the opposite sex who hooked up with a lot of people, according to a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families. * "In fact, slightly, but significantly more students [of both genders] say they would lose respect for a man who had hooked up and had sex with a lot than would lose respect for a similarly-engaged woman," Allison and Risman observed. This wrinkle—that men are also now judging fellow men for promiscuity—is a new twist.

One reason for the shift, they hypothesize, is the increasing power of young women to determine the sexual mores. They're definitely rejecting the double standard against women. But rather than embrace a more relaxed standard for all, as the Church Mailer generation did, they are using this new "leverage to overwhelmingly disapprove of college men who hook up with a lot of partners." And some men are echoing that disapproval. If things continue to change in this direction, say Allison and Risman, "this change will move society toward a more restrictive standard for all, rather than toward increasing freedom to sexual pleasure wherever one may find and desire it."

This new data deepens the impression by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Millennials Rising, which pegged this generation as deeply conventional and traditional. They call the millennials a "corrective generation," a group that reverses the "negative youth trends that boomers initiated." To millennials, boomers "seem far too sexually obsessed and pleasure driven." They found the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal deeply distasteful. Additionally, this generation was born into a post-AIDS world, where total sexual freedom was considered morally suspect and potentially deadly, something that Katie Roiphe lamented in her 1997 polemic Last Night in Paradise. Now that men have bought into the new rules about sex, the transformation seems complete.

 "Think about the title: circuses are themselves kind of relics of another era, tinged as they are with fear, cruelty and terrifyingly unpredictable clowns," Stein writes about the Church Mailer memoir. True, the death-defying trapeze of promiscuity has always seemed unpredictable and scary. But apparently, it's no longer considered fun.

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Correction, April 15, 2010: This article originally misstated that Allison and Risman are at the University of Chicago, Illinois. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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