Study Links Views on Female Economic Dependence and Disapproval of Female Sexuality

The term “barefoot and pregnant” is a figure of speech that generally refers to the idea that a woman’s place is in the home.  In other words, a “traditional” woman should not be working outside the home and should not be freely accessing contraception.  A recent study confirms a link between those two “traditional” notions.

Female Economic Dependence and the Morality of Promiscuity, a study recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that “opposition to promiscuity was higher among people who perceived greater female economic dependence in their social network.”  Jesse Signal at Science of Us explains:

[R]esearchers from Brunel University asked a large group of Americans to rate their level of agreement with statements like “It is wrong for women to engage in promiscuous sex” and “It is fine for a woman to have sex with a man she has just met, if they both want to.”  They also had them respond to statements gauging to what extent they viewed women as economically reliant on men — “Of the women I know who are in long-term heterosexual relationships, most do not depend very heavily on money contributed by their male partner,” and so on.

Overall, the more likely a given respondent believed women were economically dependent on men, the more likely they were to view female promiscuity as immoral.  These were modest to medium effects, but they were statistically significant, even controlling for factors like religiosity and political conservatism.

The researchers posited that social networks with higher female dependence are more likely to be conscious of “negative consequences associated with promiscuity,” namely, that there are financial and social consequences associated with paternity uncertainty.

The link between the American conservative movement and anger or discomfort with female sexuality tracks these findings.  Think of Rush Limbaugh, who vocally supports traditional gender roles and exhibits a fair amount of hysteria about female sexualityStaunch conservatives are the most likely of any political group to listen to his program.  Staunch conservatives are also more likely to be 50 or older, white, married, and religious.  Sounds a lot like the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that just decided Hobby Lobby with a strange degree of indifference to women’s health.

The researchers posited that, when living within such conservative social networks, “[b]eliefs may persist due to cultural evolutionary adaptive lag . . . that is, because the environment has changed faster than the moral system.”  And conservative views on female sexuality and economic independence do seem to demonstrate a lag behind reality: Women comprise close to half of the workforce and are projected to account for more than 50% increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018.  In 40% of US households, women are now the sole or primary breadwinner.  99% of women aged 15-44 have used a contraceptive method during sexual intercourse and 95% of Americans have premarital sex.

Clearly, American women are no longer “barefoot and pregnant.”  But, if the conservative biases based on social network continue to inform the undertones of politics and Supreme Court decisions about women’s health, they could perpetuate a frustrating feedback loop.  As Sandra Day O’Connor famously wrote in Casey, “[t]he ability of women to participate in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

Lizzy Gropman

Lizzy Gropman is a former contributor to Shattering the Ceiling.

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