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NMSU psychology professor studies sexual double standard

To improve the public's health, a New Mexico State University psychology professor is working to eliminate the sexual double standard in society.

Michael Marks, an assistant psychology professor at New Mexico State University, researches attitudes about sex. (Courtesy photo)

"It's more acceptable for men in our society to engage in sexual behavior or sexual intercourse with multiple women, and it's not as acceptable for women to exhibit that same kind of behavior," said Michael Marks, an assistant professor of psychology who researches attitudes about sex.

Marks said the shame and guilt that some women feel due to the double standard might prevent them from getting protection for sexually transmitted diseases or obtaining birth control for unwanted pregnancies.

"A lot of these things could be prevented because of the double standard," Marks said.

At the center of Marks' research is why the double standard exists in the first place.

When he first got to graduate school in 2002, he noticed that even though the double standard was common in people's lives, lab results weren't confirming its existence because the way the research was conducted didn't properly tap into the way people think.

"The way we remember and process information can play a big part in the double standard," Marks said. "We tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs, and ignore things that don't."

For instance, Marks said when we see a man rewarded or a woman derogated for promiscuous behavior; we remember it because that's what we expected. We don't tend to remember information that suggests the opposite?that men and women are treated equally for sexual behavior.

Marks likened it to a vicious cycle.

"So, we notice the double standard being confirmed, which reinforces its existence, and the fact that it is then reinforced makes it even more likely that we notice it in the future," Marks said.

To test the concept, Marks had research participants read about men or women who were treated equally for engaging in sex; a few people congratulated them, and a few insulted or reprimanded them. The participants in the study tended to remember more instances of the men being praised and the women being derogated.

After evaluating the feedback, Marks made conclusions based on statistical analysis.

The results will be used to increase the awareness of what happens and to hopefully lessen the negative impact of a person's sexual past, Marks said.

Advancements in awareness have been made in the past 10 years and examining the media is part of the research, according to Marks.

"The media portrays this kind of thing very often," Marks said. "Reality shows are selectively edited to show this thing in force."

His ultimate goal is to get rid of the double standard.

"So a woman, instead of being ashamed to go buy condoms or get birth control can say, 'Oh this is something that is overblown in the media,'" Marks said. "'That's not the way it is and I can confidently purchase condoms or get birth control or be sexual as opposed to feeling ashamed about it.'"

Marks' next project will be to explore examples of female sexuality that are now commonly accepted as opposed to a decade ago.

Marks plans to look at the attitudes about women who attend progressive parties, called pajama parties or passion parties. These parties are much like the Tupperware parties of the past, except these parties sell lingerie and other sexual items for women.

He expects the attitudes will be positive.

"Increasing public awareness of the double standard and how it works is probably going to be the best weapon in hopefully, eventually eliminating it," Marks said.