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Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness

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Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness

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Prior research finds that sexually permissive individuals are judged more negatively than nonpermissive peers, placing them at risk of social isolation. Based on the positive assortment principle (i.e., preferences for similarity in attributes in close relationships), we examined whether participants’ own permissiveness mitigated negative judgments of permissive others in the same-sex friendship context. College students (N = 751) evaluated a hypothetical same-sex target with either 2 (nonpermissive) or 20 (permissive) past sex partners on 10 friendship-relevant outcomes. Participant permissiveness attenuated some negative evaluations. However, preferences were rarely reversed, and no moderation was found in five outcomes, suggesting the role of permissiveness-based positive assortment is limited, and evolutionary concerns may take precedence. Partial support for the sexual double standard was also found.
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DOI: 10.1177/0265407513487638
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2014 31: 93 originally published online 19Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
Zhana Vrangalova, Rachel E. Bukberg and Gerulf Rieger
Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness
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Article
Birds of a feather? Not
when it comes to sexual
permissiveness
Zhana Vrangalova
Rachel E. Bukberg
Gerulf Rieger
Cornell University, USA
Abstract
Prior research finds that sexually permissive individuals are judged more negatively than
nonpermissive peers, placing them at risk of social isolation. Based on the positive
assortment principle (i.e., preferences for similarity in attributes in close relationships),
we examined whether participants’ own permissiveness mitigated negative judgments of
permissive others in the same-sex friendship context. College students (N¼751)
evaluated a hypothetical same-sex target with either 2 (nonpermissive) or 20 (permis-
sive) past sex partners on 10 friendship-relevant outcomes. Participant permissiveness
attenuated some negative evaluations. However, preferences were rarely reversed, and
no moderation was found in five outcomes, suggesting the role of permissiveness-based
positive assortment is limited, and evolutionary concerns may take precedence. Partial
support for the sexual double standard was also found.
Keywords
Friendship desirability, permissiveness, person perception, positive assortment,
promiscuity, same-sex friendships, sexual double standard, sociosexuality
The need to belong and form deep, lasting interpersonal relationships is a fundamental
human motivation, and the failure to satisfy it leads to physical and psychological well-
being decrements (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Ryff & Singer, 1998). Satisfying this need
Corresponding author:
Zhana Vrangalova, Department of Human Development, Cornell University, B40 Martha Van Renselaer Hall,
Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.
Email: sv99@cornell.edu
Journal of Social and
Personal Relationships
2014, Vol. 31(1) 93–113
ªThe Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/0265407513487638
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could be more difficult for socially stigmatized individuals, as the number of close rela-
tionship partners available to them may be somewhat limited. For them, one of the few
sources of companionship may come from those with the same stigmatized attribute, as
people tend to associate with those similar to themselves with respect to many demo-
graphic, behavioral, and attitudinal attributes (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook,
2001). Sexually permissive individuals are often socially stigmatized and rejected as
potential friends or partners (Crawford & Popp, 2003). Little is known, however, about
the views of those who are themselves permissive, particularly in the context of same-sex
friendships. If permissive individuals are rejected not only by those different from them
but also by those similar to them, this may place them at a particularly high risk of social
isolation and its many negative consequences.
The present study used an experimental person–perception paradigm to examine how
participant permissiveness moderates the negative impact of target permissiveness on
desirability of nonsexual, same-sex friends. Friends are one important, evolutionarily
adaptive avenue for satisfying our need for belongingness, providing intimacy, support,
self-affirmation, and autonomy (Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1992; Sapadin, 1988).
Same-sex friends are particularly valuable because they constitute the majority of our
nonsexual friends throughout life (Stevens & Van Tilburg, 2011), we interact with them
more frequently (Reis, Lin, Bennett, & Nezlek, 1993), and we value them more highly
(Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1992) than cross-sex friends. They are also typically devoid
of sexual/romantic interests often present in cross-sex friendships and thus less burdened
with mate selection concerns (Afifi & Faulkner, 2000; Bleske-Rechek et al., 2012).
The undesirability of sexual permissiveness
Sexual permissiveness can be defined as attitudes or behaviors that are more liberal or
extensive than what is normative in a social group. It can include actual or desired
frequent, premarital, casual, group, or extradyadic sex, sex with many partners, early
sexual debut, or even nonverbal cues signalizing availability (e.g., provocative clothing).
There are evolutionary and sociocultural reasons for the undesirability of permissiveness
across interpersonal contexts. Permissive people are more likely to be sexually unfaithful
to a mate (Bailey, Kirk, Zhu, Dunne, & Martin, 2000) and to poach someone else’s mate
(Schmitt, 2004). This is costly for both sexes: It threatens paternity certainty for men, and
continued provision of partner resources for women (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). This
renders permissive individuals undesirable as partners as well as close same-sex friends,
and distancing oneself from permissive friends could be an effective mate guarding strat-
egy (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001).
Given the high cost of permissiveness to others, most societies have norms valuing
sexual restraint over permissiveness (Abbott, 2000). Although attitudes in the US have
become more permissive over time, the prevailing standard is one that finds sexual
activity acceptable only with a few long-term partners (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, &
Michaels, 1994; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Any person violating this—or any
other—social norm is likely to trigger a host of negative cognitive, emotional, and beha-
vioral reactions in others (Brown, 1991; Wilson & O’Gorman, 2003). In addition to
serving a social control function, such as internal and/or external distancing from the
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transgressor could serve a self-promoting function—preserving one’s reputation and
promoting one’s status (McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002).
Extensive research demonstrates the general undesirability of permissiveness. Sexual
experience in a friend or a partner is invariably rated as less desirable than sexual
restraint and is often among the least desirable traits (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001;
Coutinho, Hartnett, & Sagarin, 2007; Sprecher, 1989; Sprecher, Regan, McKinney,
Maxwell, & Wazienski, 1997). In school-based sociometric studies, permissive adoles-
cents, particularly girls, are often nominated as less liked and popular (Kreager & Staff,
2009; Prinstein, Meade, & Cohen, 2003), and hypothetical permissive targets are judged
as less-desirable friends, dating partners, and spouses and are viewed as less moral,
likable, intelligent, trustworthy, and adjusted (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001; Gentry,
1998; Mark & Miller, 1986; Marks & Fraley, 2005; O’Sullivan, 1995; Sprecher,
McKinney, & Orbuch, 1991; Vaillancourt & Sharma, 2011). Vaillancourt and Sharma
(2011) also found a greater need for mate guarding from permissive females among
women; no men were sampled.
Role of participants’ own sexual permissiveness
Although the negative impact of permissiveness on desirability is well established across
interpersonal contexts, less is known about factors that could attenuate or reverse this
trend. One such factor may be individuals’ own permissiveness. People tend to have
friends, partners, and colleagues who are similar to themselves in a variety of attributes,
including age, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and social class—a phenomenon
known as homophily (reviewed in McPherson et al., 2001). Homophily is often driven
by positive assortment, a preference for similarity in these attributes, because similarity
in close relationships is frequently beneficial (Prisbell & Andersen, 1980; Rogers &
Bhowmik, 1970). If individuals positively assort based on permissiveness, permissive
individuals would prefer permissive over nonpermissive others, providing critical social
support that permissive individuals are unlikely to receive from nonpermissive others.
However, homophily in same-sex friendships has evolutionary drawbacks, as similar
same-sex friends are more likely to be sexual rivals (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001).
Permissiveness-based homophily in close relationships may be particularly dangerous,
as the tendency of permissive people to be unfaithful and to engage in mate poaching
carries equal evolutionary costs for close others regardless of one’s own permissiveness.
Therefore, permissive people might reject permissive others just as strongly as do
nonpermissive people, placing permissive individuals at a particularly elevated risk of
social isolation.
Several studies have examined preferences for similarity in sexual behaviors and
attitudes in romantic relationships. In several experimental studies, permissive partici-
pants evaluated the dating and marriage desirability of hypothetical permissive targets
less harshly than did nonpermissive peers (Herold & Milhausen, 1999; Istvan & Griffit,
1980; Sprecher et al., 1991). Other studies found no such effects (Jacoby & Williams,
1985) or found them only among women (Sprecher et al., 1997). When moderation was
present, participant permissiveness attenuated or eliminated the negative effects of target
permissiveness among permissive participants, but it rarely reversed preferences.
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Only one study to date has examined participant permissiveness in a friendship
context, finding that permissive participants were more willing to befriend a same-sex
permissive person and less willing to befriend a nonpermissive person than were less per-
missive participants (Coutinho et al., 2007). However, this study was nonexperimental,
used different definitions of permissiveness for men and women, did not examine mate
guarding or friendship-relevant personality attributes, and did not compare willingness
to befriend permissive versus nonpermissive targets within levels of participant permis-
siveness. Thus, the power of participant permissiveness to mitigate the negative effects
of target permissiveness in the realm of friendships remains unknown.
Sex differences
One’s sex may also moderate desirability of permissiveness in same-sex friends. In vir-
tually all Western societies, women’s sexuality is more heavily regulated than that of
men, a phenomenon known as the sexual double standard (Baumeister & Twenge,
2002). In the weak version of the double standard, both sexes are judged negatively for
permissiveness, only men less so; in its strong version, women are judged negatively, but
men are judged positively. Despite widespread belief in the double standard’s existence
in contemporary cultures, experimental evidence regarding mate desirability and general
person perception is mixed (reviewed in Crawford & Popp, 2003; see also Marks &
Fraley, 2005, 2006).
The double standard may be particularly evident in same-sex friendships. Baumeister
and Twenge (2002) argued that women, not men, are the most forceful regulators of
women’s sexuality, and women have higher expectations of same-sex friends than do
men (reviewed in Hall, 2011). Furthermore, to the extent that permissive people are more
interested in casual sex than committed relationships, and men are more interested in
casual sex than are women (Buss & Schmitt, 1993), permissive same-sex friends pose
a greater fidelity threat to a woman with a male partner. If the double standard operates
strongly in the same-sex friendship context, men would prefer permissive, and women
would prefer nonpermissive friends. If the double standard does not operate in this
context, men and women would show similar preferences for permissive targets, nonper-
missive targets, or neither.
Research on the double standard in friendships is limited and mixed, with two studies
finding a weak double standard (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001; Kreager & Staff, 2009)
and three others finding no sex differences (Coutinho et al., 2007; Sprecher, 1989;
Sprecher et al., 1991) in friendship desirability. To our knowledge, no study has
examined sex differences in mate guarding. Thus, it remains unclear how sex impacts
preferences for permissiveness in same-sex friends.
Current study
The current study focused on nonsexual, same-sex friendships. Our primary goal was to
examine how participant permissiveness moderates the expected negative effects of
same-sex target permissiveness on several outcomes relevant for same-sex friendships,
including friendship desirability, need for mate guarding, target personality preferences,
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and target sexuality endorsement. This is one of the first studies to examine this interac-
tion effect in the context of friendships, and to our knowledge, the first to examine
multiple friendship-relevant outcomes and to do so in an experimental paradigm. A sec-
ondary goal was to contribute to the ongoing debate regarding the existence of the double
standard in same-sex friendships, adding the rarely assessed aspect of mate guarding. As
a final goal, we sought to replicate and extend findings of the negative main effects of
target permissiveness on various aspects of friendship desirability. Much of the extant
research is over a decade old, and as sexual attitudes have become more permissive over
time, past findings require replication in contemporary samples.
We adopted an innovative approach for assessing perceptions of target personality in
a way informative of the potential of such perceptions to impact friendships. Prior
research used personality evaluations of hypothetical targets as outcomes. These provide
insight into how permissiveness influences general person perception and likely reflect
social ideals and stereotypes, but may not be relevant for friendship formation. Many
examined attributes (e.g., traditional, earning potential, or dominant) are not uniformly
(un)desirable in a same-sex friend, and it is unclear whether someone perceived as, for
example, less dominant would be discriminated against as a potential friend. Even
attributes that are more uniformly desirable, such as honesty or reliability (Sprecher &
Regan, 2002), are likely preferred to a different extent by different people. To provide
a measure of the degree to which permissive individuals might be discriminated against
as friends due to their perceived personality attributes, we used both perceptions of target
personality traits and the value each participant placed on those traits in a friend when
creating our personality outcomes.
Based on extensive prior research, we expected permissive targets to be judged more
negatively than nonpermissive targets on friendship-relevant outcomes. Our main
hypothesis, based on the positive assortment principle, was that participant permissive-
ness would moderate this negative impact of target permissiveness. However, given
opposing evolutionary forces, we expected this moderation to be of the weak, rather than
the crossover type: All participants, regardless of permissiveness, would judge permis-
sive targets more harshly than nonpermissive targets; only this tendency would be less
pronounced among permissive participants. Finally, we examined moderating effects
of sex, but given conflicting prior findings, made no specific predictions.
Method
Participants
Of 871 participants who completed the survey, 45 were excluded due to substantial
amounts of missing data, nine due to missing permissiveness data, 18 due to unserious
responding or response set bias, and six because they were older than 23 or missing age
information. To maintain the nonsexual nature of the manipulation, 35 participants who
identified as bisexual, mostly gay/lesbian, or gay/lesbian were also excluded.
Of 758 participants (75%female) with valid responses, the majority was White
(62%), with the rest East or Southeast Asian (19%), Hispanic (5%), Black (5%), and
multiracial (9%). Age ranged between 18 and 23 (M¼19.68, SD ¼1.18), and virtually
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all (99%) were current undergraduates, with a consistent distribution across graduation
years and a variety of majors, including social sciences (41%), life sciences (14%),
business (13%), engineering/math (9%), and humanities/arts (5%). Most were Catholic
(28%), nonbelievers (25%), Jewish (16%), or Protestant (16%); the sample was not very
religious (M¼2.27, SD ¼1.68 on a scale of 0–6, with higher scores indicating greater
religiosity) and somewhat politically liberal (M¼.69, SD ¼1.41 on a scale of 3toþ3,
with higher scores indicating greater liberality). Most were identified as upper-middle
(43%) or middle (33%) class, 11%as upper, and 13%as working or lower-middle class.
Most were identified as heterosexual (95%), 5%as mostly heterosexual, and 0.3%as
asexual. The sample included 43%single participants, 36%in a serious romantic
relationship, and 21%hooking up or casually dating.
Procedure
Most participants (97%) were recruited through in-class announcements in seven social
science and communications courses at a large public/private university in the Northeast-
ern US, inviting participants to take part in a 30-min online survey on friendship in return
for extra research credit. An additional 24 participants were recruited via a Facebook
advertisement placed online for 30 days, targeted to U.S. residents aged 18 to 23, with
a chance to win a $10 or $25 lottery prize as compensation. There were few demographic
differences between the two samples and were thus combined for all analyses; excluding
the Facebook subsample did not affect the results.
After consenting, participants were directed to an anonymous survey created with the
Qualtrics software. Participants first provided demographic information and rated a list
of personality attributes in terms of their importance for same-sex friendship. They were
then randomly assigned to read one of two vignettes (per sex of participant/target), a
paragraph-long description of a hypothetical same-sex person (Joan or Jim), described
as a 20-year-old student. The descriptions were identical except for target lifetime num-
ber (2 or 20) of sex partners (see Appendix 1 for full vignettes). After reading the target
description, participants rated the target in a series of closed- and open-ended questions.
Finally, they completed a measure of their own permissiveness, and other measures not
of interest for this study.
Measures
Independent variables
Target permissiveness. One half of the sample (99 men, 291 women) read a description
of a two-partner target; the other half (88 men, 279 women) read a description of a
20-partner target. Two was chosen for the typical target as it is slightly below the median
number of lifetime partners for U.S. men and women in this age group (Mosher, Chan-
dra, & Jones, 2005). Twenty was chosen for the highly permissive target based on data
that 7–16%of this age group reports 15 or more partners (Mosher et al., 2005).
Participant permissiveness. The Sociosexual Orientation Inventory-Revised (SOI-R;
Penke & Asendorpf, 2008) is a 9-item measure of casual sex motivation, attitudes, and
experience. Three behavior items (e.g., ‘‘With how many different partners have you had
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sex within the past 12 months?’’) are answered on a 9-point scale of 0–20 or more; three
desire items (e.g., ‘‘In everyday life, how often do you have spontaneous fantasies about
having sex with someone you have just met?’’) are answered on a 9-point scale from 1
(never)to9(at least once a day); and three attitude items (e.g., ‘‘Sex without love is
OK.’’) are rated on a 9-point scale from 1 (strongly disagree)to9(strongly agree).
Higher scores indicate greater permissiveness. Because men had significantly higher
SOI-R scores (M¼4.26, SD ¼1.53) than women (M¼3.16, SD ¼1.54;
t(749) ¼8.45, p< .001), we centered this variable within each sex.
1
Dependent variables
Overall friendship evaluation. On a 7-point scale from 3toþ3 participants rated: (1)
overall impressions of the target (I strongly dislike to I very much like him/her); (2) will-
ingness to consider the target a close friend (very unwilling to very willing); (3) the
amount of contact they would like to have with the target (I wouldn’t want any kind
of contact to I could see him/her as a best friend); and (4) willingness to let the target
maintain a close, nonsexual friendship with their own romantic partner (very unwilling
to very willing).
The first three items expressed participants’ general interest in a potential friendship
with the target, and were highly correlated (rs between .73 and .79). They were thus
averaged into a composite mean score of friendship desirability (a¼.90), with higher
scores indicating greater friendship desirability. The fourth item was an indicator of the
need for mate guarding from the target, with higher scores indicating lower need for
mate guarding.
Friendship-relevant personality preferences. Before reading the target description, par-
ticipants rated the importance of 32 personality attributes in a close same-sex friend,
ranging from 3(it is very important to me that a potential friend does not have this
characteristic)toþ3(it is very important to me that a potential friend does have this
characteristic). After reading the target description, participants rated the target on the
same 32 attributes on a scale from 3(Joan/Jim does not display this characteristic
at all)toþ3(Joan/Jim does display this characteristic greatly). To account for
between-person variability in values placed on different attributes, we multiplied the
ratings of importance of each attribute in a friend with the target rating for that attribute.
Scores for these friendship-relevant personality preferences ranged from 9toþ9, with
positive scores indicating the target was desirable as a friend with respect to that attri-
bute, either because the participant valued the attribute positively and felt the target
possessed it, or because they valued the attribute negatively and felt the target did not
possess it. Negative scores indicate the target was not desirable with respect to that
attribute, either because the participant valued that attribute positively but felt the target
did not possess it, or because they valued the attribute negatively but felt the target
possessed it. Scores of 0 represent a neutral opinion—the particular attribute was rated
as neither desirable nor undesirable, the target was rated as neither high nor low on that
attribute, or both.
The 32 personality attributes were chosen based on past research on person percep-
tion, friend selection, and partner selection (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007; Kenrick,
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Groth, Trost, & Sadalla, 1993; Sprecher & Regan, 2002). To reduce the number of
outcomes, we grouped the friendship-relevant personality preferences for 29 of these
attributes into six personality dimensions important for friendship using a combination
of a priori considerations from previous research adopting evolutionary (Kenrick
et al., 1993) or social cognition perspectives (Fiske et al., 2007), other classification
schemes utilized by researchers in the area of partner and friend selection (Regan &
Sprecher, 1995; Sprecher & Regan, 2002), and factor analytic results of our participants’
ratings of the importance of each attribute in a same-sex friend. The six dimensions are
competence, including hardworking, responsible, intelligent, sophisticated, ambitious,
mature, self-confident, and independent; warmth, including honest, caring, considerate,
selfish (reverse scored), and trustworthy; emotional stability, including jealous, fearful,
fragile, spoiled, and insecure (all reverse scored); dominance, including dominant,
potential for wealth, aggressive, popular, and masculine; extraversion, including soci-
able, easy going/fun, shy (reverse scored), and passionate; and morality, including moral
and faithful. Two items (feminine and traditional) could not be placed theoretically or
statistically in any of the dimensions and are not discussed further (results available
on request). A third item, sexually experienced, was used as an experimental manipula-
tion check (described below) and was not included in the composites.
Target sexuality endorsement. At the end of the target evaluation portion of the survey,
participants listed three things they liked the most and least about the target. Responses
were coded for whether the target’s sexuality was mentioned among the three things, and
if so, whether it was the lack or the presence of sexual experience that was liked/disliked.
Interrater reliability between two raters was high (all k> .95); the few disagreements
were discussed and resolved to complete agreement. Two binary variables were created,
liked sexuality and disliked sexuality, coded 1 if a participant liked/disliked something
about the target’s sexuality, and 0 if there was no mention of sexuality. Information
regarding whether it was the lack or the presence of experience that was liked/disliked is
presented as descriptive and qualitative data.
Manipulation check
A linear regression with target permissiveness, participant permissiveness, sex, and their
interactions as predictors indicated that the permissive target was rated as significantly
more ‘‘sexually experienced’’ (M¼2.69, SD ¼.70) than the nonpermissive target
(M¼1.17, SD ¼1.18), B¼1.68, SE ¼.13, p< .001, on a scale of 3(does not display
this characteristic at all)toþ3(does display this characteristic greatly). There was no
interaction with sex. Follow-up tests of a significant interaction with participant
permissiveness, B¼.10, SE ¼.02, p< .001, indicated that both groups perceived the
permissive target as more sexually experienced than the nonpermissive target, only this
effect was somewhat stronger among permissive, B¼.94, SE ¼.05, p< .001, than non-
permissive participants, B¼.63, SE ¼.05, p< .001. For seven participants who did not
find the permissive target sexually experienced (rated him/her 0 or 1), we considered
the experimental manipulation unsuccessful and excluded them from further analyses,
reducing the analytic sample to 751 (566 women, 185 men).
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Analytic plan
Descriptive data and correlations for all outcomes are shown in Table 1. A series of
linear and logistic regressions were conducted using target permissiveness, participant
permissiveness, sex, and their interactions as predictors. All analyses controlled for age,
relationship status (single/hooking up vs. partnered), race (white vs. nonwhite), and
socioeconomic status (middle/working vs. upper/upper-middle class). Results are
presented in Table 2. Only the main effects of target permissiveness and the moderating
effects of sex and participant permissiveness on target permissiveness were of interest,
and only these are discussed. Interactions that were at least marginally significant
(p< .08) were probed further. Significant interactions with sex were probed by running
separate analyses for women and men. Significant interactions with participant permis-
siveness were probed using simple slopes for +1SD of SOI-R, hereafter, referred to as
permissive and nonpermissive participants.
Results
Overall friendship evaluation
As Table 2 demonstrates that there was a significant three-way interaction for friend-
ship desirability. Follow-up analyses indicated that, among women, there was a main
effect of target permissiveness, B¼.21, SE ¼.04, p< .001: Women rated permissive
targets more negatively than nonpermissive targets. Probing the marginally significant
interaction with participant permissiveness, B¼.05, SE ¼.03, p< .08, revealed that
this tendency was more pronounced among nonpermissive, B¼.28, SE ¼.06,
Table 1. Descriptive data and correlations for all outcome variables, for men (under the diagonal)
and women (above the diagonal).
Measure 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 MSD
1. Friend desirability
a
.45 .43 .50 .33 .16 .37 .42 .14 .18 .97 1.03
2. Mate guarding
b
.57 – .31 .31 .19 .19 .12 .44 .08 .38 .00 1.66
3. Competence
c
.34 .27 .54 .40 .16 .58 .41 .10 .08 2.21 1.51
4. Warmth
c
.45 .22 .55 – .51 .28 .45 .43 .12 .13 2.93 2.25
5. Emotional stability
c
.35 .12 .40 .46 .33 .36 .21 .07 .03 1.83 2.08
6. Dominance
c
.15 .11 .30 .21 .17 .21 .09 .08 .04 .40 .89
7. Extraversion
c
.36 .24 .52 .45 .34 .16 .17 .06 .08 2.16 1.59
8. Morality
c
.45 .38 .31 .38 .06 .07 .08 .19 .36 .77 2.51
9. Liked sexuality
d
.14 .20 .12 .15 .10 .12 .11 .24 – .21 .08
10. Disliked sexuality
d
.09 .25 .00 .04 .07 .00 .09 .36 .20 – .57
M.86 .14 1.78 2.45 1.76 .44 1.65 .74 .13 .51
SD 1.02 1.57 1.40 1.84 1.97 .78 1.33 2.44
Note. For men, n¼183–185, p< .01 for rs.19; for women, n¼555–566, p< .01 for rs.12.
a
Higher scores (3toþ3) indicate greater friendship desirability.
b
Higher scores (3toþ3) indicate lower mate guarding.
c
Higher scores (9toþ9) indicate greater preference for that personality dimension.
d
Coded 1 (sexuality mentioned), and 0 (sexuality not mentioned) among things liked/disliked about the target.
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Table 2. Linear and logistic regression results for all outcomes.
Sex Target Ps Ss SOI Sex* Target Ps Sex* Ss SOI
Ss SOI*
Target Ps
Three-way
interaction
B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) R
2
Overall friendship evaluation
Friend desirability
a
.06 (.04) 0.15 (0.04)*** .13 (0.03)*** .06 (.04) .05 (.03) .11 (.03)*** .06 (.03)* .09
Mate guarding
b
.06 (.06) .53 (.06)*** .15 (.04)*** .10 (.06) .02 (.04) .05 (.04) .05 (.04) .16
Friendship-relevant personality preferences
c
Competence .21 (.06)** .01 (.06) .06 (.04) .21 (.06)** .01 (.04) .02 (.04) .03 (.04) .06
Warmth .23 (.09)* .22 (.09)* .06 (.06) .21 (.09)* .04 (.06) .11 (.06)y.06 (.06) .05
Emotional stability .02 (.09) .01 (.09) .07 (.06) .32 (.09)*** .00 (.06) .17 (.06)** .11 (.06)y.05
Dominance .02 (.04) .09 (.04)* .02 (.03) .09 (.04)* .01 (.02) .03 (.02) .00 (.02) .04
Extraversion .25 (.06)*** .18 (.06)** .08 (.04) .06 (.06) .02 (.04) .06 (.04) .07 (.04) .07
Morality .02 (.10) .91 (.10)*** .28 (.07)*** .07 (.10) .11 (.06) .27 (.06)*** .12 (.06)y.20
Target sexuality endorsement
d
B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE) B (SE)
Liked sexuality 1.05 (.44)* 1.87 (.44)*** .27 (.12)* .37 (.22) .10 (.11) .36 (.11)** .00 (.11)
Disliked sexuality .50 (.22)* 2.34 (.22)*** .49 (.08)*** .37 (.10)** .02 (.07) .12 (.07) .01 (.07)
Note.Nranges between 738 and 750 due to missing data. All analyses control for relationship status, race, socioeconomic status, and age; data not shown. Sex ¼1 (female) and 1
(male). Target Ps—Target partners, coded 1 (20) and 1 (2). Ss SOI—Participants’ sociosexual orientation, higher scores indicate greater unrestrictiveness.
a
Higher scores indicate greater friendship desirability.
b
Higher scores indicate lower mate guarding.
c
Higher scores indicate greater preference for that personality dimension.
d
Coded 1 (sexuality mentioned), and 0 (sexuality not mentioned) among things liked/disliked about the target.
yp< .08; *p< .05; **p< .01; ***p< .001.
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p< .001, than permissive women, B¼.13, SE ¼.06, p< .05, but was present in both
groups. Among men, there was a significant interaction between target and participant
permissiveness, B¼.16, SE ¼.05, p< .01. Simple slopes analyses revealed that only
nonpermissive men showed a preference for the nonpermissive target, B¼.34,
SE ¼.10, p< .01; permissive men rated both targets similarly, B¼.15, SE ¼.10,
p> .10 (Figure 1).
An unmoderated main effect of target permissiveness on mate guarding indicated that
all participants, regardless of sex or permissiveness, felt a greater need to mate guard
from permissive than from nonpermissive targets.
Friendship-relevant personality preferences
For three of six personality dimensions examined, including competence, warmth, and
dominance, there were interaction effects of sex. Follow-up tests revealed that women pre-
ferred the nonpermissive target in terms of competence, B¼.20, SE ¼.06, p<.01;
warmth, B¼.42, SE ¼.09, p< .001; and dominance, B¼.19, SE ¼.04, p<.001.In
contrast, men preferred the permissive target incompetence,B¼.23, SE ¼.10, p<.05,and
showed no preference for either target in warmth, B¼.04, SE ¼.14, p>.10,and
dominance, B¼.00, SE ¼.06, p> .10. Regarding warmth, there was also a marginally
significant interaction effect with participant permissiveness. Follow-up tests revealed that
the tendency to view permissive targets as less warm was strongly pronounced among
nonpermissive participants, B¼.45, SE ¼.11, p< .001, but only marginally so among
permissive participants, B¼.20, SE ¼.11, p< .08. For preferences regarding extraver-
sion, a significant unmoderated main effect of target permissiveness indicated greater
preference for the permissive over the nonpermissive target.
A marginally significant three-way interaction moderated effects for emotional
stability. Follow-up analyses revealed an unmoderated main effect among women,
0
0.5
1
1.5
2 Partners
Friendship desirability
Target permissiveness
–1 SD SOI-R +1 SD SOI-R –1 SD SOI-R +1 SD SOI-R
**
ns
Men
0
0.5
1
1.5
Friendship desirability
*
***
Women
20 Partners 2 Partners
Target permissiveness
20 Partners
Figure 1. Friendship desirability of nonpermissive (two partners) versus permissive (20 partners)
targets for nonpermissive (1SD SOI-R) and permissive (þ1SD SOI-R) participants. Error bars
represent standard errors. Higher scores (3toþ3) indicate greater friendship desirability. Note.
*p< .05; **p< .01; ***p< .001; ns: p> .05 within levels of subject permissiveness. SOI-R: socio-
sexual Orientation inventory-Revised; SD: standard deviation.
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B¼.30, SE ¼.09, p< .001, indicating they uniformly preferred the nonpermissive
target. For men, on the other hand, there was a positive main effect of target permissive-
ness, B¼.32, SE ¼.14, p< .05, suggesting they preferred the emotional stability of the
permissive target. This effect, however, was moderated by participant permissiveness,
B¼.31, SE ¼.09, p< .01. Simple slopes analysis revealed this preference was only
present among permissive men, B¼.80, SE ¼.20, p< .001; nonpermissive men did not
prefer either target, B¼.16, SE ¼.20, p> .10.
Finally, there was a marginally significant three-way interaction for morality. Follow-
up indicated highly significant main effects of target permissiveness among both men,
B¼.84, SE ¼.16, p< .001, and women, B¼.99, SE ¼.10, p< .001, that were mod-
erated by participant permissiveness in both men, B¼.39, SE ¼.11, p< .001, and
women, B¼.15, SE ¼.06, p< .05. Simple slopes revealed that, for women, the
interaction was mostly a matter of degree, as both permissive, B¼.76, SE ¼0.14,
p< .001, and nonpermissive women, B¼1.22, SE ¼.14, p< .001, strongly preferred
the morality of the nonpermissive target. For men, their own permissiveness was more
consequential. Only nonpermissive men showed a preference for the nonpermissive
target, B¼1.45, SE ¼.23, p< .001; permissive men did not prefer either target in
terms of morality, B¼.24, SE ¼.23, p> .10.
Target sexuality endorsement
In open-ended questions, 9%noted something about the target’s sexuality among the
things they liked about them. Of these, most women (81%) and men (65%) referred to
relatively low sexual involvement as positive, for example, ‘‘he only had two relation-
ships’’ (male, two partners), ‘‘not a slut’’ (female, two partners). A minority of partici-
pants framed their likes in terms of high sexual involvement, such as ‘‘she is comfortable
exploring her sexuality’’ (female, 20 partners), ‘‘likes to have fun (parties/sex partners)’
(male, two partners). A significant main effect of target permissiveness indicated that
participants in the permissive condition were less likely to like the target’s sexuality than
were those in the nonpermissive condition. Follow-up of the significant interaction with
participant permissiveness suggested this tendency was present in all participants, but
was stronger in nonpermissive, B¼2.91, SE ¼.64, p< .001, than permissive partici-
pants, B¼.92, SE ¼.37, p< .05.
Over half (56%) of all participants included something about the target’s sexuality
among their least-liked attributes. Of these, virtually all men (96%) and women (98%)
referred to high involvement as negative, for example, ‘‘has whore-like tendencies’
(female, 20 partners), ‘‘had sex before marriage’’ (male, two partners). Extremely rare
were comments designating low sexual involvement as negative, such as ‘‘only had sex
with 2 girls’’ (male, two partners), ‘‘had little sexual experience’’ (female, two partners).
A main effect of target permissiveness indicated participants in the permissive condition
were more likely than those in the nonpermissive condition to dislike the target’s
sexuality. Follow-up of the significant interaction with sex suggested this tendency was
stronger in women, B¼3.09, SE ¼.27, p< .001, than men, B¼1.63, SE ¼.35, p< .001,
but was clearly present in both sexes.
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Discussion
This study used an experimental person–perception paradigm to examine how permis-
siveness in a hypothetical same-sex target impacted that target’s friendship appeal and
the extent to which this depended on sex and participants’ own levels of permissiveness.
Given extensive prior research, we expected permissive targets to be judged more
negatively than nonpermissive targets on 10 friendship-relevant outcomes. Given the
opposing forces of positive assortment and evolutionary concerns, we hypothesized that
participant permissiveness would mitigate, but not reverse, the negative impact of target
permissiveness. Finally, given conflicting prior findings on the sexual double standard,
we examined the moderating effects of sex but made no specific predictions. We found
partial support for all three effects. We first discuss the well-established main effect of
target permissiveness and the contentious double standard, followed by the more novel
moderation effects of participant permissiveness.
As predicted, compared to the nonpermissive target, participants expressed greater
need for mate guarding from permissive targets, preferred them less with respect to
morality, were more likely to dislike their sexuality, and less likely to like their sexuality.
Women and nonpermissive men also rated the permissive target lower on friendship
desirability. Such negative main effects and a general lack of a double standard in these
overall evaluation-type outcomes are consistent with prior findings (Bleske & Shackel-
ford, 2001; Coutinho et al., 2007; Marks & Fraley, 2005; O’Sullivan, 1995; Sprecher,
1989; Sprecher et al., 1991, 1997; Vaillancourt & Sharma, 2011). Thus, across samples,
operational definitions, and interpersonal contexts, permissiveness is an undesirable
trait. This supports evolutionary claims that although permissiveness may be advanta-
geous for some people under some circumstances, it is disadvantageous for those in close
relationships with them (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001). It also suggests that although the
specific risks posed by permissive friends and partners may differ for men and women,
permissive intimates carry a similar overall amount of risk for both sexes.
A double standard emerged for preferences regarding four specific personality
dimensions, including competence, emotional stability, warmth, and dominance. Whereas
women preferred the nonpermissive target in all four dimensions, men showed preference
for the permissive target in the first two, and no preference in the last two dimensions.
These and prior results (Gentry, 1998; Mark & Miller, 1986; Marks & Fraley, 2005;
O’Sullivan, 1995) suggest that although the double standard may not operate in overall
person evaluation, it may shape perceptions of permissive people in specific domains. For
example, competence and emotionalstability were valued in a friend by both sexes;the sex
difference in preferences was due to opposing perceptions of permissive men (more
competent and stable) versus women (less competent and stable; friendship–importance
and target–perception data on all personality dimensions available on request). This is
consistent with sexual strategies theory that men benefit from many partners and are less
selective than women; for women, the advantage of many partners is limited and the cost
can be substantial (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Thus, a man who has managed to attract many
partners is particularly successful and assumed to be confident and emotionally secure.
The acquisition of many sexual partners by a woman, on the other hand, is not a difficult
achievement and is therefore interpreted as resulting from low self-esteem.
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Both sexes valued warmth in a friend; the sex difference in preferences was due to
different perceptions of permissive women (as less warm) versus men (as similar in
warmth) compared to nonpermissive targets. In contrast, both sexes perceived permis-
sive targets as more dominant; the sex difference in preferences was due to different
values placed on dominance in a friend (undesirable for women; neutral for men). These
differences in perceptions of warmth and values for dominance likely reflect gender
stereotypes of power, dominance, and unbridled sexuality as male-typical trait, and
communion and care (i.e., warmth) as female-typical trait (Deaux & Lewis, 1984). Our
experimental manipulation may have amplified gender-typical responding, as people
become more gender typical in their perceptions when primed with sexuality (Hundham-
mer & Mussweiler, 2012).
Extraversion was the only dimension where permissive targets were preferred over
nonpermissive targets by both sexes, due to the positive value placed on extraversion in a
friend coupled with perceptions of the permissive target as more extraverted. This is
consistent with past findings that permissive people are seen as more fun and outgoing
(Coutinho et al., 2007; Marks & Fraley, 2005),and with the assumption that in order to
accrue many partners one would need to frequently socialize. Given overwhelmingly
negative evaluations of the permissive target in all other outcomes, especially among
women, it appears that people might like permissive others as entertaining acquain-
tances, but not as close friends.
This is one of the first studies to investigate interactions between target and partici-
pant permissiveness in the friendship domain. Participant permissiveness moderated the
effect of target permissiveness in half of all outcomes, including friendship desirability,
liking of the target’s sexuality, and preferences for morality, warmth, and emotional
stability (among men only). The moderation was in the expected direction, such that
more permissive participants evaluated permissive targets more favorably than did less
permissive ones. This suggests permissiveness-based positive assortment does play some
role in friendships, providing permissive individuals with protection from negative eva-
luations by less permissive others. This effect may be particularly relevant for men,
where permissiveness typically eliminated or, rarely, reversed preferences for the non-
permissive target. Among women, however, the role of permissiveness appears limited,
as there was no reversal or even elimination of preferences in any of the four outcomes:
Like nonpermissive women, permissive women also preferred the nonpermissive target,
only somewhat less so. Even very permissive women—those at two standard deviations
above the mean—did not reverse preferences in these four outcomes, showing, at best,
no preference for either target (data available on request).
No moderation of participant permissiveness was detected regarding mate guarding,
with the heightened need to mate guard from permissive targets compared to non-
permissive targets equally pronounced in all participants. This indicates a precedence of
evolutionary concerns over positive assortment in this regard, confirming evolutionary
expectations that mate poaching is considered universally undesirable, even by those
who are most likely to attempt it themselves, and that permissive friends pose the same
level of risk for everyone, regardless of one’s own permissiveness. There was also no
moderation of participant permissiveness in disliking of sexuality, and in prefe-
rences regarding competence, dominance, extraversion, and emotional stability (among
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women). This suggests that the influence one’s permissiveness may have over overall
person evaluations does not extend into preferences for specific personality attributes.
Limitations and future research
The study has several limitations. We focused exclusively on same-sex friendships, and
thus cannot make inferences regarding cross-sex friendships, where friends’ permissive-
ness may be judged less harshly given absence of mate poaching concerns. Additionally,
if permissive women are ostracized primarily by other women (Baumeister & Twenge,
2002), the double standard might not emerge in cross-sex friendships. Moreover, if men,
particularly permissive men, see in permissive female friends a welcome opportunity for
easy sexual access (Bleske-Rechek & Buss, 2001; Bleske-Rechek et al., 2012), a
reversed double standard may even occur, providing permissive women with a key
buffer from the uniform rejection by other women.
Our sample had relatively few men compared to women, which decreased statistical
power, and may have particularly limited our ability to detect reversal of preferences
among permissive men. We focused exclusively on college students, as campuses are
highly sexualized environments (Bogle, 2008) where sexual information is often sought
by and shared across social networks (Holman & Sillars, 2012). Future work should
examine these links in noncollege and older adults. Older adults have more experience
with long-term relationships and the risks permissive friends can pose, potentially
increasing hostility toward permissive friends, but they also acquire more sex partners,
potentially increasing permissiveness-based positive assortment. Future research also
needs to examine these links among nonheterosexuals who are more politically and
sexually liberal and less burdened with evolutionary concerns than heterosexuals
(Bailey, Gaulin, Agyei, & Gladue, 1994; Herek, Norton, Allen, & Sims, 2010). Finally,
our findings may not generalize to non-Western cultures. Culture exerts a powerful influ-
ence over sexual attitudes (Abbott, 2000), and the negative effects of permissiveness
may be attenuated in more sex-positive cultures. Given their likely evolutionary base,
however, they are unlikely to be completely eliminated, regardless of the cultural milieu.
Our operationalization of target permissiveness—number of lifetime sex partners—is
a direct and frequently used indicator of this construct. Engagement in casual sex is
another aspect of permissiveness that has recently gained in social salience (Garcia,
Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012) and that is often condemned as immoral and
unhealthy (Stepp, 2005). Very few studies have examined the two indicators indepen-
dently (Kreager & Staff, 2009; O’Sullivan, 1995); thus, it remains unclear whether their
impact on desirability is additive or interchangeable. Furthermore, we were specifically
interested in comparing a typical to a highly permissive target, hence our choice of two-
versus 20-partner targets. Future studies should explore other levels of permissiveness.
In older studies virgins were often rated most favorably (Jacoby & Williams, 1985; Mark
& Miller, 1986); however, as standards have changed over time, for contemporary youth
virginity may be less desirable (Carpenter, 2001; Prinstein et al., 2003), and moderately
permissive targets may be viewed most positively (Marks & Fraley, 2005).
Our study examined one factor that may offer some protection against social rejection
of permissive individuals—positive assortment. Future research should investigate other
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factors. Relationship status may be one key variable: Single people have no mates to
guard, and may also value more the ‘‘entertainment’’ potential of permissive friends, as
this could lead to increased exposure to members of the opposite sex and likelihood of
finding mates (Coutinho et al., 2007). Cross-sex, cross-sexual orientation friendships
(e.g., gay men and heterosexual women) may be another such factor. Certain personality
traits (e.g., loyalty) or a current monogamous status of a target may override the negative
effects of their permissive past. Individuals who do not expect sexual fidelity from a
romantic partner (e.g., swingers) may in fact welcome permissive friends into their
circle. Finally, certain demographic characteristics, such as race, socioeconomic status,
or urbanicity may also play a role.
The judgments our participants made about the target occurred in response to
hypothetical scenarios, and the pattern of findings should be replicated with more
ecologically valid methodologies. The (limited) role of positive assortment based on
permissiveness and its implications that permissive people would be subjected to more
peer rejection and aggression should be examined in ‘‘real-life’’ situations and experi-
ments. Longitudinal studies of friendship patterns, peer aggression, and loneliness as
outcomes of permissiveness are all but lacking. Sociometric studies, which test for
enacted peer acceptance, have not been done with adults. Furthermore, pur study, like
others of this type, focused on individuals in nongroup situations. Social psychological
theory suggests that people conform to social norms more in the presence of others
(Turner, 1991); thus, examining these issues in group settings is warranted. Finally, our
findings only suggest that there is lower preference for homophily at the highest levels of
permissiveness; actual levels of homophily may be high due to mechanisms other than
preferences, such as rejection or withdrawal (Schaefer, Kornienko, & Fox, 2011). More
sophisticated longitudinal dynamic network data are needed to address this question.
Conclusions
The current study adds to growing evidence for the general undesirability of sexual
permissiveness across a variety of personal relationships, which places permissive
individuals at elevated risk for social rejection and aggression, and a host of negative
well-being consequences. Adding to past findings regarding marriage and dating
desirability (Sprecher et al., 1991, 1997), our study also presents evidence that
permissiveness-based positive assortment is present in same-sex friendships, which
could provide some buffer against social rejection. Such a buffer appears particularly
likely to operate among men, as permissive men viewed the permissive target either
similarly to or more positively than the nonpermissive target in all but two outcomes
(mate guarding and dislike of sexuality). Permissiveness’ buffering effects among
women seem more limited, as women rated the permissive target more negatively than
the nonpermissive one regardless of their own permissiveness in all but one outcome
(extraversion). Permissive women, therefore, may be at particularly high risk of negative
consequences, a risk that may be further compounded by women’s higher friendship
expectations (Hall, 2011) and their tendency to engage in more disclosure-based
interactions (Fehr, 2004), thereby, increasing opportunities for revealing potentially
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damaging sexual information. This vulnerability of permissive people, particularly
women, should be taken into consideration by parents, counselors, and educators.
Appendix 1
Target description
Joan/Jim Summer is a 20-year-old who grew up in a small town on the West coast. She/
he is now an undergraduate student at a large university in the Northeast. She/he is White
and comes from a middle-class family. She/he attended a medium-sized public high
school, and, for the most part, enjoyed his/her high school years. Although things were
a bit rocky in the past, Joan/Jim now is pretty close with his/her parents and his/her two
siblings, and communicates regularly with them. She/he works reasonably hard at his/her
schoolwork; his/her grades are in the B to A range. She/he also finds time to volunteer at
a daycare center and participate on an intramural lacrosse team, though on weekends she/
he likes to take at least one day to ‘‘just be lazy’’ or go out and party. She/he has a few
close friends and a number of acquaintances, and though Joan/Jim does not participate
formally in the Greek system at her school, some of his/her friends do. She/he began
exploring his/her sexuality in the latter part of high school, considers him/herself hetero-
sexual, and so far has had two/20 sex partners. She/he is currently single, and although
not in a hurry to find his/her soul mate, she/he hopes to get married and have a family
someday. In his/her professional life, Joan/Jim is planning on becoming either a lawyer
or a social worker, but his/her greatest dream is to travel as much as she/he can—before
she/he dies, she/he hopes to have visited at least one country on each continent.
Funding
This research was partially supported by a Human Ecology Alumni Association grant by Cornell
University, New York, USA, awarded to REB for conducting her undergraduate honors research.
Note
1. The results are virtually identical when participant permissiveness is operationalized in a way
more directly comparable to the operationalization of target permissiveness—using partici-
pants’ total lifetime number of sex partners instead of SOI-R (tables available on request).
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... That is, participants who judged initiators more negatively in terms of their cognitive abilities, morality, and partner quality also assumed that they had a more extensive sexual history. Similarly, researchers have found that sexual permissiveness tends to be viewed negatively and that sexually permissive individuals are less desirable romantic partners (Vrangalova & Bukberg, 2015;Vrangalova et al., 2014). This extends previous research on MGTs (Thompson & Byers, 2017) by showing that the devil effect extends to evaluations of individual's sexual history. ...
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