New research has found that 70% of women feel they will be judged for having multiple sexual partners.
“Sadly, the majority of today’s society continues to view women who have casual sex in a more negative light than they do our male counterparts," says sex and relationship coach Annabelle Knight.
“Just look at the language still used today... a guy might be a stud, a ladies' man, or a Casanova, but we all know what women get labelled as. This unhealthy and unhelpful language culminates in feelings of shame around the enjoyment of sex for many women.”
TV freelancer Natalie, 29, from London (who preferred not to give her surname due to the stigma) identifies as 'pansexual', meaning she’s open to having relationships with anyone, regardless of their sexuality or gender. She also defines herself as 'polyamorous', meaning she has multiple romantic and sexual relationships “as long as” she explains, “It’s safe consensual sex with all people involved.”
Read more: LGBTQ+ terms explained – how to get it right
Does she feel judged by society for being non-monogamous?
“Not personally… but my experience is that women in general are. Even in my peer group it is slightly taboo. We are the children of parents for whom monogamy was the only way, after all," she says.
"I don’t go around advertising my polyamory as people don’t understand. I worry I’d be viewed as ‘easy’ or reckless."
The new research released by Hana (a mini pill available without prescription) showing 70% of women feel they'll be judged in this way shows a high proportion share Natalie’s fear, but why? Where does this blatant inequality come from?
Considering recent events, perhaps this discrepancy isn't so surprising. Marisa Peer, therapist and relationship expert, explains, “Although women’s rights have been hard fought over the past 50 years, there seems to be a swathe of society who want to turn back the clock. Look at the recent Supreme Court ruling in the US to reverse Roe vs. Wade and take away decisions around abortions, for instance.”
Peer thinks perhaps our evolutionary DNA could be to blame too. “Since we were cavemen, in order to ensure the continuity of the species, men were programmed to have sex with numerous partners whilst women became pregnant and focused on child-rearing," she believes.
"Inequality has been built into society. Any gains women have made have been fought for, rather than being perceived as the natural order of things… women who don’t conform, behaving more like their male counterparts, are still judged more harshly,” she concludes.
Whilst we are not running around in loin cloths anymore, the mental attitudes remain.
As Natalie says: “Even among my peers, if a guy is seeing several girls, then it’s like, they’re a cool guy. They’re popular. Whereas, if a woman does it, it's more like, 'Are you ok?'
"There’s this presumption she needs therapy or fixing in some way."
Just as society judges men and women differently, it seems they judge themselves differently too.
“Whilst I see clients of both sexes who come to me because of their guilt at having numerous sexual partners, there can be a huge discrepancy between the two,” says Peer.
“A woman might worry about having slept with scores of partners, whereas a man might be talking hundreds. Women also tend to have guilt and angst surrounding their behaviour as well as concerns about what other people think of them.
"Men are more focused on themselves and want to know what’s wrong with them, seeking reassurance that they’ve nothing to worry about.”
The false stereotype that women who have casual sex have low self-esteem and need – as Natalie describes – ‘fixing’ prevails. But is there any truth in it?
“There may be… as many people use attention-seeking tactics to boost their self-esteem,” says Knight.
“Sometimes the attention we seek comes in the form of intimacy but, for lots of people, genuine, emotional intimacy can be hard to come by and the next best thing is physical intimacy, aka sex.
"However, that isn’t to say that people with poor self-esteem will have lots of sex with multiple partners, and it certainly isn’t to say that if you engage in that type of behaviour your self-esteem will suffer.”
Peer adds that women who have multiple partners can even be perceived as ‘threatening’.
“There is something threatening to both sexes about a woman who doesn’t conform to the maternal norm," she says.
"In some cases, there may be validity in the fact that casual sex is a way to seek validation, but for many people it is about enjoying sex for the sake of it and the immediate pleasure it brings.”
The fact is however, that shame for women who don’t conform is real and can be harmful, as Knight says:
“Shame around sex can result in so many complicated and harmful emotions and behaviours. It has an impact on the quality of the relationships you’re able to make and maintain.
"It’s so refreshing to see the sex-positive movement thriving – women taking control of their sex lives and fertility on their own terms.”
Natalie is certainly one such woman, and is keen to subvert the stereotypes of women who have multiple partners.
“There’s this view you are irresponsible or have self-esteem issues if you – so-called – ‘sleep around’, but the people I know who aren’t monogamous are anything but those things; they are some of the most level-headed, together people I know,” she says. “They’re happy, because they are liberated.”
“It takes a lot more work to be respectful to multiple partners," she continues. "A lot of emotional intelligence, respect, honesty and more than anything – communication.
"Being polyamorous is not an excuse to sleep around, it's still very much rooted in the respect that you expect in a monogamous relationship."
Far from being ‘reckless’ too, Natalie explains how safe sex is top of her and other non-monogamous friends’ priorities.
“There is a big emphasis on responsible, safe sex; we talk openly about contraception, consent and respectful sex.
"At the end of the day, it's time we start removing the shame around us, women, being judged for taking agency over that area of our lives," she asserts. "I have certainly felt a lot more liberated since I started to accept that there is no shame in me seeking pleasure or fulfilling my desires with more than one person. It's a lot of weight to put on one partner to fulfil those needs.”
Peer couldn’t agree more. “If both parties are consenting adults and not causing potential hurt to an existing partner, then people’s sex lives are their own business,” she says.
“Orgasms are a gift to women – they fight ageing, illness and depression making us feel alive. We should enjoy them without guilt just nature intended."
Amen to that...
Watch: The day I came out as LGBTQ+: Six people share their powerful coming out stories