Relationships, Sexual Behavior, and Attachment Lab 

(from left to right) Ashley Wu, Michael Marks, Tara Young, Morgan Beasley

Research Interests

  • Sexual health decision making

  • Sexual and reproductive health

  • The sexual double standard

  • Sexual and romantic fantasies

  • Mating behaviors and strategies

  • Sexual orientation

  • Applied social psychology

  • Trust resilience in automation and technology

Research Overview

As a social psychologist, my research is aimed at answering questions related to the relationship between sexual health decision making and perceptions of others. With these goals in mind, much of my research examines gender inequalities with a focus on the sexual double standard. I utilize experimental, quasi-experimental, qualitative, and quantitative methodologies, along with a wide variety of theoretical perspectives and theories such as social role theory, social learning theory, evolutionary theories, and the theory of planned behavior to help me better answer my research questions. More recently, I have also gained interest in the distinction between sexual and romantic fantasies, and what role fantasies play in romantic and close relationships. Some questions my research aims to answer include:

  • How is sexual health decision making impacted by other’s perceptions of us?

  • How do gender inequalities (such as the sexual double standard) impact our sexual health decision making?

  • How does the sexual double standard impact other areas of our lives and how can we reduce its negative impact?

  • How do sexual and romantic fantasies effect our behavior in close and romantic relationships?

 

Sexual Health Decision Making

I am fascinated by why people do things they know are bad for them (i.e. have unprotected sex, smoke), or fail to do things they know benefit them (i.e. exercise, eat healthy, use condoms). Decisions individuals make regarding their sexual health are complex, but even small factors have potential to lead to large change. This led me to my research in which my collaborators and I examined how anonymity of purchasing scenarios (self-checkout vs. regular checkout vs. from a locked display; Young, Marks, Zaikman, & Zeiber, 2017) impacted condom purchasing emotions, embarrassment, and overall condom purchasing decisions. The results indicate that businesses can decrease negative emotions and increase condom sales by increasing anonymity provided to their customers. In the future, I plan to conduct a replication of this experiment on high school aged participants and include online condom purchasing as an option to see how this vulnerable population may be effected by condom purchase embarrassment. I expect condom purchase embarrassment to be more of a deterrence to condom use in sexually active adolescents and high school age individuals than in adults. Knowledge of how to increase ease of access to condoms is arguably one of the first and potentially most important steps towards increasing consistent condom use and healthy sexual behaviors.

In another study, I developed and partially tested a theoretically based online condom use intervention to increase condom use. The condom use intervention utilized the Theory of Planned Behavior to qualitatively and quantitatively examine motivators and barriers to using condom. I plan to seek funds to conduct the full scale intervention on a sexually active population to determine the usefulness of the online condom use intervention I designed and in the long run disseminate/implement the intervention in a large scale fashion to companies such as planned-parenthood. As a sub-set of this research, I examined the differences between motivators and barriers to condom use in a Hispanic Southwest border region sample versus an online non-Hispanic sample. Results from this study indicate that condom use is influenced most strongly by attitudes towards condoms in both samples. Additionally, I identified the most prevalent reported motivators of condom use to be lowered pregnancy and STI risk for both samples, although a greater portion of the Hispanic sample reported lowered STI risk to be a motivator than in the non-Hispanic sample. The top reported barriers to condom use was less pleasurable or intimate experiences, and that condoms interrupt the “heat of the moment,” however, a significantly higher portion of the non-Hispanic sample reported these barriers in comparison to the Hispanic sample (Less pleasurable: 86% compared to 65%, Interrupting: 42.5% compared to 26%). Condom purchase cost and embarrassment was a stronger barrier for the Hispanic sample than interrupting the heat of the moment (27% of the Hispanic sample reported this barrier), indicating the importance of culturally sensitive interventions.

 

In another project, I assessed how sexual health decision making, such as condom use, sexual health vaccinations, and regular sexual health screenings was impacted by individual’s endorsement of the sexual double standard (SDS), and perceptions of other’s endorsement of the SDS. Due to existing negative perceptions of sexually active women, women are likely to perceive consequences from their sexual behavior and act accordingly. The strength of these perceived consequences may arise from their own endorsement of the SDS and perceived endorsement of the SDS by others (ex. Agreement with statements such as, “Woman who are sexually experienced with multiple partners are usually not respected as much as men who are sexually experienced.”). Thus, another potential negative impact of real or perceived endorsement of the SDS could be less willingness to have regular sexual health screenings and overall poorer sexual health decision making. Participants reported how much they endorsed the SDS, and their perceived endorsement of the SDS by society, friends, and family. They also reported various sexual health decision making factors and sexual history. Correlational analysis revealed a negative relationship between personal endorsement of the SDS and frequency of STI checkups and consistency of condom use. Further, a positive relationship emerged between personal endorsement of the SDS and reported STIs. The results indicate that people’s own endorsement of the SDS and their perceived endorsement of the SDS by others does not appear to statistically influence their sexual health decision making, but trends indicate the need to research the impact of the SDS on sexual health decision making further.

Although my research primarily has focused on condom use behaviors, in the future, I plan to expand this research to other sexual health decisions individuals make. These include decisions such as whether or not to use birth control, whether to discuss contraception use with partners (before or after sexual intercourse), decisions about sexual health education (to receive it or not if it is optional, to vote for or against comprehensive sexual education), emotional and physical sexual health decisions, substance use and sexual behaviors, and minimizing risk of exposure to STIs. Examining and better understanding a wide range of sexual health behaviors will help in improving healthy sexual behaviors.

 

Gender Inequality and the Sexual Double Standard

Driven by the desire to understand the constructs that contribute to gender inequality, I began researching the sexual double standard (SDS), whereby men and women are evaluated differently for engaging in similar sexual behaviors. Perceptions of sexually active women has important implications on women’s sexual health, identity, social lives, and perceptions of sexual assault victims. Some questions that motivated this line of research included why the SDS exists, what factors influence and perpetuate its existence, whether there is a way to decrease its exhibition in our society, and if so, how that is done.

In several studies, my colleagues and I examined how relational factors, such as how socially close two people are, and knowledge of someone’s sexual history influenced perceptions of others. For example, do you perceive your best friend or sister as being less ‘slutty’ than your co-worker for having a one night stand, or a high number of sexual partners? Many factors suggest we might treat close others differently than acquaintances. Specifically, our knowledge of closer others is likely to be rich and nuanced rather than based on a few pieces of information, we are more lenient in our treatment of close others after they commit transgressions, and we see them as in-group members. In order to determine the influence of social closeness on evaluations of others, I conducted a series of studies which focused on bolstering the ecological validity of SDS research by asking real-world individuals to describe their perceptions of real-world acquaintances, close friends, family, and romantic relationship partners. Much SDS research focuses on hypothetical scenarios and in-lab studies, which, while they can be tightly controlled, often weakly support the existence of SDS, or do not support it at all, despite the belief that the SDS is pervasive (85% of individuals polled believe it exists). Results indicated that women were evaluated more negatively as their number of sexual partners increased, whereas number of partners was not related to evaluations of men, providing support for the existence of the SDS in real world contexts. The SDS was not, however, moderated by the closeness of the relationship between the participant and the target person.

In another study, I examined how the type of relationship a sexual encounter emerged from impacts evaluations of that individual. Much research on the SDS focuses on the number of sexual partners an individual has had, given my background and knowledge of gender differences in mating strategies and preferences, I considered that the type of relationship individuals were having was potentially an impactful factor in addition to number of sexual partners. I conducted a set of experiments which examined how individuals perceived and evaluated others in either one or 12 exclusive/long-term or non-exclusive/short-term relationships. Results demonstrated that individuals with one sexual partner were evaluated more positively than those with 12 sexual partners. Targets described as in long-term/exclusive relationships were evaluated more positively than those described as being involved in short-term/non-exclusive relationships. The reversed sexual double standard emerged such that women evaluated female targets who engaged in non-exclusive relationships more positively than male targets who engaged in non-exclusive relationships. Results implied that social norms may impact evaluations of others more than evolutionary theories, which suggests that relationship type differences do not appear to largely affect the sexual double standard.

In the future, I feel there is a strong need to expand beyond manipulating or studying the common independent and dependent variables of previous work (number of sexual partners, perceptions and behavioral intentions of others). Specifically, I plan to examine how people perceive others differently based on a variety of sexual behaviors, not just number of partners, along with timing of when sexual behaviors occur within a relationship (ex. Onset of sexual activity in one’s life, or onset of sexual activity between individuals-how many dates until they kiss, sleep together, etc.), and attitudes people hold towards a variety of sexual behaviors. Exploring these factors is an important step in better understanding how individuals, especially women, allow evaluations from others about their sexuality to greatly impact their self-worth and self-esteem. This line of work can help in reducing these negative impacts on women. Further, while I value the information gained through common dependent variables such as perceptions scales or behavioral intention scales, I feel that other creative and applied dependent variables would serve as a unique top-down approach in detecting how the nuanced perceptions and information individuals have influences how we treat one another on a daily basis. For instance, how are hiring decisions or helping behaviors impacted by knowledge of an individual’s sexual behaviors or history?

 

Sexual and Romantic Fantasies

Sexual and romantic fantasies serve as a window into romantic lives and relationships. Better understanding the content of, along with how and why individuals fantasize can lend a hand to better understanding behaviors in romantic relationships and close relationships. When I became interested in studying relationship behaviors in the context of fantasies, I realized no clear distinction had been made in the literature between romantic fantasies and sexual fantasies. Romantic fantasies (such as imagining going on a date, getting married, or having children with somebody) often become lumped in with sexual fantasies, or ignored altogether. In one project, I utilized an ANOVA content validity procedure to develop and validate a set of fantasy items to determine whether romantic and sexual fantasies were distinct from one another, and whether sexual/romantic fantasies also exist. I then applied the measure to compare gay men and lesbians' fantasies to those of heterosexual individuals. Overall, this research contributes to the field through a new measure of fantasies and by distinguishing romantic fantasies as distinct and unique from sexual fantasies. In the future, I plan to apply and utilize this measure to dive deeper into how fantasies effect behaviors within relationships and relationship seeking behaviors.

Research Experience

Research Assistant in the following labs:                                                                                                

Michael Marks Relationships, Sexual Behavior, and Attachment Lab

New Mexico State University                                                                                 Fall 2014-Present

                                                                                                      

Jing Chen’s Applied Human Performance and Decision Making Lab

New Mexico State University                                                                         Spring 2016-Fall 2016

 

Angela Pirlott’s Mating Behaviors among Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women Lab

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire                                                     Spring 2013-Summer 2014

 

Jeff Goodman’s Social Psychology Lab: Stigma & Prejudice     

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire                                                    Summer 2013-Summer 2014

 

 

Tasks across all labs:

  • Regularly attend lab and project meetings

  • Design independent and collaborative studies

  • Mentor peer and undergraduate students

  • Collect data in lab and online through Amazon Mechanical Turk

  • Program studies in Qualtrics, Survey Monkey, and ePrime

  • Analyze data in SPSS and SAS

  • Make excel graphs of data

  • Write literature reviews and scholarly papers

  • Attend and present at conferences

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