We all know the kind of conversation where people describe others as smart, tall or eloquent. The concept of shifting standards, refer to the idea that such judgements are influenced by relative comparison and made with reference to some standard or expected norm on the person or object being described. While we are listening, we may ask ourselves, what does smart mean, how tall is tall and how many words would an eloquent person use per day? The standards for judging such attributes vary from person to person, as a lot of evaluation has to do with one’s own experiences and points of views.
When you ask around in your circle of friends, it might even turn out that the term sex means different things to them than to you. Apart from the fact that most of your friends enjoy the activity and agree that it creates a bigger bond between the individuals, everybody has the right to define what sex means to them – no matter if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. To a lot of people, sex doesn’t only mean penetration to reach orgasm but also consider oral contact as something that counts.
If you are happy enough to have an open-minded circle of friends and are able to communicate about any sex-related topic, you might quickly learn that people have double standards when it comes to cheating. According to a study published in 2016, people were more likely to label certain behaviour as cheating when a partner did it compared to themselves. This shows that we tend to be more permissive at our own behaviours, something social psychologists refer to as the actor-observer effect.
The actor-observer effect revolves around the belief that we make different attributions depending on whether we are the actor or the observer in a situation. As a result, we tend to attribute another person’s behaviour to his or her personal disposition when we are observing and are judging their character as we believe their behaviour is all about internal causes. When we are acting the same, however, we believe our behaviour is provoked by external factors and it is therefore not surprising why we have different standards when it comes to infidelity. One way to do it is by telling ourselves that a sexual encounter outside a monogamous relationship doesn’t mean anything as we were drunk or that it was a one-off, but the overall pattern is to be more permissive when judging our own behaviours in order to maintain a positive self-image.
On the other hand, when someone else engages in the same behaviour, we do not rationalize it but assume that this misstep reveals a person’s bad characteristics and personal traits. For example, given your partner would be sexting with somebody else you’d most possibly incline this behaviour as infidelity whereas if you were to do the same thing, you would maybe not even think of it as sexting or find an excuse for your behaviour. Such shifting standards are important for researchers to evaluate and foresee where society is trending to also in terms of sexual behaviour.
But such studies are also important for health professionals who need to be very clear and specific when asking patients about their sexual history and what practice they refer to when they use the word sex. Especially men, who consult a doctor because of a sexual dysfunction such as premature ejaculation, might find it embarrassing to address this sexual matter. With patients who consult a doctor to discuss their health condition, it is necessary to be able to communicate openly about sexual matters to find the right treatment, ranging from lifestyle changes to medication or sexual therapy.