SALT LAKE CITY — Even if young adults don't agree with the idea that men who "score" with lots of women are more popular, they still know about it and are shaped by it.
This idea of a "scorecard script" — a phrase coined by Washington State University researchers Stacey J.T. Hust and Kathleen Boyce Rodgers after nearly three years of talking with young adults — is just one indication that a sexual double standard is still alive and well, both in media portrayals and interpersonal relationships.
Their new book, "Scripting Adolescent Romance: Adolescents Talk about Romantic Relationships and Media's Sexual Scripts," shares the experiences of young adults who are trying to navigate this cultural double standard in which women are usually shamed by both men and women for sexual expression, while men are generally praised for, or expected by everyone to show, sexual aggressiveness.
Many of the women, ages 14 to 20, told researchers they had already experienced this sexual aggression, whether it was getting whistled at, having their behinds slapped in the hallways at school, or reading comments on their social media sites that quickly went from flattering to objectifying.
Hust's and Rodgers' interviews preceded the #metoo movement, and the young women didn't label these experiences as harassment, just “something you have to put up with,” said Rodgers.
And many of the young women said they dealt with it by leaving or avoiding the situation — deleting apps, steering clear of certain hallways or bailing out of dates.
"If you consider that women and young girls are literally having to leave social spaces in order to feel safe and comfortable, that's … wrong," said Hust, an associate professor of communication. "Their disengagement … is really indicative of a perpetual problem of women not being empowered to say … 'I'm going to be in this space, and this space is going to be safe.'"
Rodgers said she's hopeful the #metoo movement will give adolescents "a new script," and embolden them to stand up against such behaviors, but in the meantime, she calls on parents and educators to talk with teens about harassment, healthy relationships and how media portrayals aren't often reflections of reality.
"I don't think that adults understand the degree to which teens … understand media or perceive relationships to be potentially coercive," said Rodgers, an associate professor of human development. "The sexual double standard is really strong and without anything countering that, they may internalize that more."
Media as the teacher
The average teen, ages 13 to 18, spends about nine hours on entertainment media each day, according to a report from Common Sense Media, and advertisers spent nearly $195 billion on ads in 2016, yet young adults still believe that the media affect other people — not them.
"What they often say is, 'my younger siblings, or the kids I know who are younger than me, those are the kids who are going to have an issue with this,'" said Hust. "(Young adults) don't think (media) impacts them. They think they're more cognitively aware and more sophisticated in their processing."
This "third-person effect" is a false sense of security, though, as numerous studies point out links between media exposure and opinions or behavior, whether it's sexualized song lyrics and increased aggression, sexualized video games and increased rape myth acceptance or even food ads and boosted hunger levels.
The big problem comes when viewers don't have the media literacy to recognize misogyny or harassment, Hust said, or even point out situations that wouldn't happen that way in "real life."
In a 2017 report, "The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People's Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment," from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers surveyed more than 3,000 young adults in high school and college and found that among 18- to 25-year olds, 39 percent agreed with or were neutral on the statement that "it's rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television."
"That's stunning," said lead author Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer in education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and faculty director of Making Caring Common.
The inability to recognize misogyny and sexualization may be rooted in the fact that 62 percent of young adults said they'd never talked with their parents about what sexual harassment is and 76 percent said they'd never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.
One young man told Weissbourd's team that "my friends and me in middle school and high school didn't have any idea what sexual harassment or assault was. We just thought assault was some messed-up guy pulling a woman into a dark alley and raping her. That was all we knew we couldn’t do."
"Go beyond platitudes," Weissbourd encourages parents, educators and adult leaders. "We say to a boy, 'be respectful,' but they don't know what that means. They don't get that there are all kinds of ways to assault and violate women and they need someone to spell those out to them concretely."
Time to talk
And teens want to talk about difficult topics involving love and sex.
In fact, 70 percent wanted parents to talk with them about emotional parts of relationships, like how to deal with breakups, how to avoid getting hurt, or even how to begin a relationship — "the subtle, tender, demanding, generous work of learning how to love someone and to be loved by somebody," says Weissbourd.
Parents and teens can work through questions like, "What's the difference between attraction, infatuation and love?" "Why do I like someone more the less interested they are in me?" or even, "Does this relationship make me — and my partner — a better person?"
Even a parent's relational failures can be instructive for their teen, said Weissbourd, as parents explain some of their missteps, what they learned and how they moved forward.
Because when parents are quiet, the media quickly step in to fill the void, establishing unrealistic standards and inflated expectations.
One 20-year-old woman told Hust and Rodgers about her "Disney man crush" on Flynn Rider from the movie "Tangled."
She wanted a "bad boy" like Rider, because he was daring and bold, yet still caring and kind.
"He's literally not real," said Hust, "not even physically real, yet she wants a husband like him."
One young man who was a heavy viewer of Spartacus said he wanted a wife who was supportive like Spartacus' wife. Yet, Rodgers noticed that he never pointed out that the wife was also sexually subservient, because it wasn't something he noticed.
"Media images of love, in part because we are not taught to view them as aberrant, may be more harmful than media images of violence," Weissbourd wrote. "For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about romantic love — and sex — to popular culture is a dumbfounding abdication of responsibility."
What teens see
In order for parents to accurately address what their teens are experiencing, it helps to know how they perceive media messages, which is why Hust and Rodgers often used media clips to spark their focus group discussions.
In one clip from the TV show, "Pretty Little Liars," two high-school age characters went camping and had a deep conversation that ended in a kiss. From there, they moved into a tent, where they talked briefly about whether or not to have sex.
Hust and Rodgers then turned off the clip and asked the group of female participants what would happen if the TV girl said "no."
Their responses? The boy would "get really mad," and "he'd probably force her." Since they were in the woods he would "just try to take advantage of her."
"None of the girls suggested that Caleb would be supportive," said Hust. "To be honest, we were surprised a little bit by that. It showed us that … they've internalized this scorecard script that men are just going to have sex and want to have sex at all costs."
Even when a video clip showed a man rejecting the scorecard script, both male and female focus group participants found the scene unrealistic and atypical.
Many young men told researchers they knew about the script, but said they rejected such behavior. However, other comments they made still betrayed an internalization of the script, like saying "their ideal female marriage partner would have only slept with three people or less," said Hust.
While much of their focus has been on physical sexual harassment behaviors, researchers are increasingly looking at how sexual double standards and harassment play out through digital interactions.
A recent meta-analysis found that sexting is a growing phenomenon among teens, with 1 in 7 teens sending sexts and 1 in 4 receiving them — and there's no difference in the rates of participation between boys and girls, according to the review of 39 sexting studies of more than 110,000 teens worldwide published in JAMA Pediatrics in late February.
These data break the stereotype of the "naïve girl that sexts," said study co-author Joris Van Ouytsel, a researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who studies the influence of digital media on relationship experiences and sexuality among adolescents, particularly sexting — the sending of sexually explicit messages, pictures or videos via cellphones.
However, while the gender-based difference may be narrowing for actual sexting behavior, girls and boys still feel the social pressures differently, said Sheri Madigan, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Calgary.
If girls do sext, they're often criticized for sending pictures, she said, and if they don't, they're often labeled a "prude," and can lose social standing.
But Madigan is most worried about the finding showing 1 in 8 teens have forwarded a sext without consent — another type of sexual harassment, and an area ripe for more research, she said.
"Among adolescents, their online and their offline lives are really intertwined in a way that no other generation has had before," Madigan said. "I'm not surprised that now their online life is becoming a component of their sexual behavior."7 comments on this story
And just like parents need to teach and set rules for offline behavior, teens need to know that those same standards "apply in an online life," as well, says Madigan.
"We should focus on healthy relationships in general," said Van Ouytsel. "Making young people resilient for all types of pressure, whether it's saying 'no' to substance abuse, being able to negotiate certain boundaries within romantic relationships or dealing with peer pressure in the … online world."