Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 16, February 14, 2013


Misperceived Social Norms about Taboo Sexual Behaviors

Katrina L. Pariera
Doctoral student, Department of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Katrina L. Pariera,
Department of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism,
University of Southern California, 3502 Watt Way, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.
E-mail: pariera@usc.edu

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Drs. Lynn Miller and Johnnie Christensen for their invaluable feedback and support on this research.


People tend to think there are gaps between their behavior and "normal" behavior, usually overestimating the alcohol and drug use and sexual behavior of others. Sometimes these norm gaps cause dissatisfaction with one’s own behavior and can cause pressure to adhere to the perceived norm. This study investigated whether there were discrepancies between peoples’ own sexually taboo behaviors and their perceptions of other peoples’ sexually taboo behaviors. The study also examined which factors predicted greater self-other norm discrepancies, and whether or not these discrepancies predicted sex life satisfaction or sexual anxiety. An anonymous online questionnaire was administered to 144 adults to ask about their sexual behaviors and their perception of other peoples' sexual behaviors. Females reported lower frequencies of sexual behaviors for themselves than for the average male and female their age and males reported lower frequencies for themselves than the average male. Multiple linear regression revealed that sexual behavior, age, and gender were predictors of the self-other norm gap. However, this gap did not predict sex life satisfaction or sexual anxiety.


There is often a striking divergence between our own behavior and our perception of other people’s behavior. Despite the mathematical impossibility, almost everyone believes they are below average when it comes to risky or taboo behaviors. (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Lee,et al., 2007; Martens et al., 2006; Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986; Perkins, 2007; Perkins et al., 1999; Prentice & Miller, 1993; and Sussman et al., 1988). These self-other norm discrepancies can cause pressure to engage in those behaviors more frequently, in an attempt to conform to the perceived norm. Regarding sexual behavior, norms are less likely to be socially observed. Some research into sexual behavior suggests that people also tend to place themselves in the below average range, believing they have fewer sexual partners and engage in less risky sexual behavior than their peers (Lambert, Kahn, & Apple, 2003; Martens et al., 2006; Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne, & Holck, 2005; and Seal & Agostinelli, 1996). However, little is known about how sexual social norms affect our private behavior. Having a more in-depth understanding about perceived norm gaps for taboo sexual behavior would offer critical insights about if and how social perceptions affect private behaviors.

Social norms are the “prevailing codes of conduct that either prescribe or proscribe behaviors that members of a group can enact” (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005, p. 129). However, interpretations of norms are subjective, so people may act on them in different ways. Pluralistic ignorance is the concept often used to explain misperceived norms, and it refers to a social comparison occurrence whereby people who hold a majority opinion actually think they are in the minority. O’Gorman explains the concept as: “an erroneous cognitive belief shared by two or more people regarding the ideas, sentiments, and actions of other individuals” (O’Gorman, 1975). Pluralistic ignorance is sometimes a tenet of social norms theory (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986), which states that “our behavior is influenced by incorrect perceptions [pluralistic ignorance] of how other members of our social groups think and act,” (Berkowitz, 2004). Prentice and Miller explained that people privately reject certain beliefs and practices, yet believe that everyone else privately accepts them (Prentice & Miller, 1996). They pointed out that group identification is a key component of pluralistic ignorance and that norms are often prescribed within groups. Studies about social norms and pluralistic ignorance usually investigate the misperceptions about the attitudes and behaviors of people belonging to the same group, such as those of the same gender and age.

Pluralistic ignorance has been demonstrated many times in studies dealing with drinking behaviors. Prentice and Miller’s 1993 study showed that college students viewed their friends, as well as the average person at their college, to have more lenient attitudes about drinking than themselves. They found that over time male students slowly shifted their behavior to adhere to the perceived norm, although female students did not. Baer, (1994) found that students entering their first year of college had a perception of high levels of acceptable drinking behaviors, but found that this diminished somewhat a year later, suggesting that direct experience with behaviors may mitigate norm perceptions. Martens, et al. (2006) conducted a survey comparing reported behaviors and perceived behaviors and found that participants overestimated not only the amount of drinking by their peers but other risky behavior as well, such as drug use (including cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine).

Social norms can be communicated either directly, by interpersonal communication and direct observation, or indirectly, wherein people infer norms without observation. Sexual norms are unique from drinking and drug use norms in that they are probably inferred indirectly rather than directly. Some studies have looked at the norm perceptions of sexual behavior. Martens, et al.’s study found that people overestimated their peers’ sexual activity, including oral, vaginal and anal sex, and number of partners. Seal and Agostinelli (1996) found that men and women overestimate the prevalence of sexual behavior amongst men, while Lambert, Kahn and Apple’s (2003) study found that men and women overestimated the other gender’s comfort with casual sexual behavior. A study by Milhausen, Reece, and Perera, (2006) found that the more males perceived their peers to approve of engaging in sexual acts at Mardi Gras, the higher their own intentions to engage in oral or vaginal sex there. Katz, Tirone, and van der Kloet, (2012) found that new college students perceived casual sex to be common on campus, and that those who actually engaged in the behavior perceived it to be more common than those who did not.

One study has found that a large gap in self-other norm discrepancies can lead to sexual dissatisfaction. Sullivan and Stephenson, (2009) found that not only did participants overestimate the sexual activity and permissiveness of others, the larger the perceived gap between them, the lower their reported general sexual satisfaction. However, the participants were mostly very young people (mean age was 18.5), and often not yet sexually active. It may be informative to look at various age levels and varying levels of sexual activity to understand how norms effect sexual satisfaction.

Some research has also examined the causes of self-other norm gaps. Borsari and Carey (2003) conducted a meta-analysis and found that gender was a significant predictor of self-other norm discrepancies. Miller and McFarland, (1987) found that people’s belief that they fear embarrassment more than others and have higher social inhibition than others was a cause of higher pluralistic ignorance. Novak and Crawford, (2001) found that students with high social comparativeness were more likely to engage in risky behaviors than their less comparative peers. However, these studies focused on perceived norms about alcohol use, rather than sexual behaviors.

It is also important to understand if sexual norm misperceptions actually have an effect on feelings about one’s behavior. While it has been shown that this is the case for drinking behaviors, sexual behaviors are less visibly demonstrable than drinking behaviors, and their private nature may make them less affected by norm misperceptions. For example, some research has suggested that even though women are highly aware of sexual double-standards and expectations, their behavior is not highly influenced by these broad norms (Lyons, Giordano, Manning, & Longmore, 2011). In other words, their social norms perceptions do not affect their sexual behaviors in this case.

This research will attempt to shed light on people’s own behaviors and their perceptions of “normal” behavior for similar others, regarding somewhat taboo sexual acts. There is little research into perceptions of taboo sexual behaviors, which may be even more conducive to norm misperceptions since they carry more social stigma. It is predicted that participants will perceive the taboo sexual behaviors of the average person their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1), specifically that male participants will perceive the taboo sexual behaviors of the average male and female their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1a) and that female participants will perceive the taboo sexual behaviors of the average male and female their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1b). This study will also examine factors that predict these norm gaps. Based on previous norms research, it is hypothesized that gender and social comparativeness will predict self-other sexual norm discrepancies (Hypothesis 2), and that these norm gaps then predict satisfaction with one’s sex life and sexual anxiety (Hypothesis 3). These findings will offer insights into the kinds of social misperceptions we have about sexuality, how these misperceptions vary between people, and whether or not they affect our feelings about our private behavior.



The sample consisted of 86 females and 58 males (gender was asked on an open-ended question, but participants only wrote male or female). The mean age for participants was 37 (SD = 12, Mdn = 34), with a range from 18 to 79. The sample was 76% white (n = 110), 10% Asian American (n = 14), 7% Black/African-American (n = 10), 4% American Indian (n = 6), and 3% Latino (n = 4). This is closely representative of the white, Asian American, and American Indian U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.), but Latinos and African-Americans are under-represented in this sample (representing about 17% and 13%, respectively, in the U.S.). Political ideology ranged from very conservative to very liberal, with the majority being moderate or liberal. Participants also had a range of educational backgrounds with the majority having a high school diploma or some college (52%, n = 75), followed by a Bachelor’s degree or higher (48%, n = 69), with the latter being over-represented compared to the national average (28%).

All but thirteen of the participants identified their sexual orientation (via open-ended question) as straight, with five identifying as gay, six as bisexual and two as queer. Participants were also asked if they had sex with people of the same gender, and the respondents who answered in the affirmative were the same as those that identified as gay, bisexual or queer. None of these respondents were found to be outliers on any item and their answers are included in the results.


A convenience sample of 150 people was recruited to participate in an online survey questionnaire about sexual attitudes, approved by the university’s institutional review board. Participants were required to be at least 18 years of age, live in the United States, and have been sexually active at some point in their lives. Participants were informed that they would be answering questions about communication and sexuality. The survey was timed and any participant who completed the survey under two standard deviations from the average time (too quickly) was not included in the analysis (n = 6), resulting in 144 total participants.

Participants were recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk online question-answering system and were paid a $1.25 to participate (making a rate of about $9.50 per hour). Once they agreed to take part in the study they were given a link to the survey, which took about eight minutes to complete. The questionnaire was administered anonymously online and participants were assured that no personal information would be collected for the study.


Sexual behaviors and self-other norm perceptions. To determine the gap between self reports of sexual behaviors and perceptions of normal sexual behaviors for similar others (with the same age and/or gender), participants were asked about five different sexual behaviors. The sexual behaviors measured were all related to moderately taboo sexual behavior. These items were decided based on a small online pilot study asking twelve participants to rate sexual behaviors as either highly, moderately, or minimally taboo. Behaviors rated as highly taboo (e.g. sadomasochism and exhibitionism) were not included because these would have likely had floor effects on the results. The moderately taboo behaviors selected for the study were measured on a five-point frequency scale from 1 (“Never”) to 5 (“Very Often”). Questions included “I visit pornography websites,” “I masturbate (alone, not with a partner),” “I have threesomes,” “I have anal sex,” and “I have phone or chat sex.” Similar to methods used in other studies of perceived norms, participants were asked to answer for themselves and to guess the answer for the average male their age and the average female their age. To determine the self-other norm discrepancy, the numerical score for the perceived sexual behaviors of same-sex others was subtracted from the numerical score of one’s own reported sexual behaviors.

Predictors of self-other norm discrepancies. Possible predictors of the hypothesized self-other norm discrepancies were also included in the questionnaire. These were socio-demographics, sexual communication, and social comparativeness.
         Socio-demographics. Participants answered questions about their age, ethnicity, political views, education, and sexual activity status (either not sexually active, or sexually active with one or more partners). Participants were also asked open-ended questions about their gender, sexual orientation, and the genders of people they have sex with.
         Sexual communication. Communication about sex was measured as a control variable, since norms are often conveyed interpersonally. Participants answered questions about how frequently they talk about sex to various people in their lives, on a five-point scale from “Never” to “Always.” Participants were asked about their parents, siblings, other family members, close friends, acquaintances, sexual partner(s) and health care providers, when applicable. Their answers were collapsed into an overall score for frequency of sexual communication.
         Social Comparativeness. Participants also answered questions from the Social Comparison Scale (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999) in order to determine if general social comparativeness has a relationship to self-other norm discrepancies. Six of the original 11 questions were used, because the pilot-test revealed that these were sufficient. Questions were asked on a five-point scale, including “I always pay a lot of attention to how I do things compared with how others do things,” “I always like to know what others in a similar situation would do,” and “If I want to learn more about something, I try to find out what others think about it.” Cronbach’s a for the Social Comparison scale was also high, at .83.

Sex life satisfaction and anxiety. The final part of the questionnaire assessed satisfaction with sex life, and sexual anxiety. Satisfaction and anxiety were chosen to capture both a positive and negative impact on sex life. Sex life satisfaction was measured with five questions modeled after the Satisfaction With Life scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985). This scale was chosen because most sexual satisfaction scales focus on being physically satisfied, but overall satisfaction with the state of one’s sex life was the desired variable. The scale included questions such as “The conditions of my sex life are excellent,” and “I am satisfied with my sex life.” These questions were asked on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (“Strongly Disagree”) to 5 (“Strongly Agree”). The Sex Life Satisfaction scale had high reliability within the sample, with Cronbach’s a of .94.

Sexual anxiety was measured using the Multidimensional Sexuality Questionnaire (Snell, Fisher, & Walters, 1993), which was previously found to be reliable. This included five questions on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (“Not At All Like Me”) to 5 (“A Lot Like Me”), including “I worry about the sexual aspects of my life,” “Thinking about the sexual aspects of my life makes me feel uneasy,” and “I feel unhappy about my sexual experiences.” The Sexual Anxiety scale also had a high reliability with Cronbach’s a of .89.


Sexual Behaviors and Self-Other Norm Perceptions

Sexual behaviors were all low to midrange in frequency for men and women. Women’s self-reported behavior for “I visit pornography websites,” “I masturbate (alone, not with a partner),” and “I have phone or chat sex” was significantly lower than men’s self-reported behavior and there was no significant difference between genders for “I have anal sex,” or “I have threesomes.” See Table 1 for details.

Differences between self-reports of sexual behavior and reports for the perceived sexual behavior of others were evaluated to understand if participants will perceive the taboo sexual behaviors of the average person their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1). As predicted, participants over-estimated the sexual behavior of the average male and female their age (see Figure 1). A paired samples t-test showed that participants reported significantly lower frequencies of all five sexual behaviors for themselves (M = 2.07, SD = .74) than the average male (M = 3.16, SD = .71) t(143) = 13.82, p < .001 and than the average female (M = 2.47, SD = .04), t(143) = 5.95, p < .001. The vast majority of participants reported lower frequencies of sexual behaviors for themselves than for average males and females, and only 8% (n = 12) reported some of their sexual behaviors as being more frequent than the average male and female. Within the sample of 12, there appeared to be no pattern for gender, age, or sexual orientation.

Paired samples t-tests were also run to examine norm gaps by gender, in order to understand if male participants perceived the taboo sexual behaviors of the average male and female their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1a) and if female participants also perceived the taboo sexual behaviors of the average male and female their age as more frequent than their own taboo sexual behaviors (Hypothesis 1b). Results showed that males reported significantly lower frequencies of behavior on all five items than their perception of the average male their age, as was predicted (see Table 2). However, males reported their sexual behavior as roughly equivalent to, rather than lower than, their perception of the average female with no significant difference between the means. Like males, females perceived a significantly higher frequency of sexual behaviors for the average male, than for themselves. Females also perceived a higher frequency of sexual behavior for the average female than for themselves.

Predictors of Self-Other Norm Discrepancies

Sexual Communication. The mean score for sexual communication was 2.42 from the five-point scale (SD .80). For men it was 2.43 (SD = .79) and for women it was 2.41 (SD = .82), but there was no significant difference between men and women. Both men and women reported that they talk to their partner(s) the most frequently about sex, followed in order of frequency by close friends, health care providers, siblings, acquaintances, and other family members. Men reported talking to their father about sex more than their mother about sex. Women reported talking to their mother about sex more than their father about sex.

Social Comparativeness. Self-reported ratings for social-comparativeness were above the mid-point for men and women. The mean score for men was 3.38 (SD = .72), and the mean score for women was slightly lower, at 3.28, (SD = .83). There was no significant difference between social comparativeness for men and women.

Multiple linear regression using the standard method was run to test Hypothesis 2 (gender and social comparativeness will predict self-other sexual norm discrepancies) and Hypothesis 3 (self-other sexual norm discrepancies predict sex life satisfaction and sexual anxiety). For all regressions in this study, there were no serious violations for absence of multicollinearity, homogeneity of error variances, normality of residuals, and linearity. All continuous variables used in the analyses had normal distributions and dummy variables were created for gender and political outlook.

For the second hypothesis, a multiple regression analysis was done to evaluate the gap between self-reports of sexual behavior and perceptions of the same sex’s sexual behavior. Age, gender, political views, sexual activity status, frequency of communication about sex, sexual behavior, and social comparativeness were included as predictors, with self/same-sex norm gap as the dependent variable. A significant model emerged with more frequent sexual behavior, being female, and being older predicting smaller self-other norm gaps (R2adj = .44, F(7, 135) = 16.647, p < .001, see Tables 3 and 4). This indicates that 44% of the self-other norm gap can be explained by sexual behavior, gender, and age. Hypothesis 2 was partially supported in that gender, but not social comparativeness predicted self-other sexual norm discrepancies.

Sex Life Satisfaction and Anxiety

For men, satisfaction with sex life was at the mid-point on the five-point scale (M = 3.01, SD = 1.23). For women it was slightly below the mid-point (M = 2.88, SD = 1.11) but the difference was not significant (p = .53). For sexual anxiety women had lower scores (M = 1.89, SD = 1.06) than men (M = 1.92, SD = .94), but like sex life satisfaction, there was no significant difference between genders (p = .87). Standard multiple linear regressions were conducted to evaluate the third hypothesis, whether self-other norm gaps predicted satisfaction or anxiety. In addition to norm gaps, predictors entered into the model included age, gender, sexual activity status, frequency of communication about sex, and all five sexual behaviors. Hypothesis 3 was not supported because self-other norm discrepancy was not a predictor of sex-life satisfaction or sexual anxiety.


The results from this study show that there are indeed gaps in people’s actual sexual behavior and their perceptions of other people’s sexual behavior. These results suggest that pluralistic ignorance is at work in the domain of sexual norms, and that people are relatively unaware of the actual frequencies of their peers’ behaviors. For most taboo sexual behaviors people’s perceptions of others were markedly more frequent than their own behavior. For phone/chat sex, anal sex, and threesomes, the majority of participants reported that they never engage in these behaviors, yet they perceive the average person to engage in them quite regularly. For visiting pornography sites and masturbating, participants report they do so sometimes, but still perceive the average male to do so very often.

The findings demonstrate that women perceive themselves to be less sexually active than the average man and average woman, while men perceive themselves to be less sexually active than the average man. This may be due to common beliefs about the “typical” male being more likely to engage in sexually permissive behavior, (Cohen & Shotland, 1996; Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Seal & Agostinelli, 1996). Another possible explanation for this is that men sometimes over-report their sexual behaviors, although in anonymous questionnaires this over-reporting has only been shown to be moderate (Alexander & Fisher, 2003).

The findings also show that self-other norm gaps can partly be explained by the frequency of one’s own sexual behavior, their gender, and age. The more frequently a person engages in sexual behaviors the more narrow is their self-other norm gap, which can be explained by the fact that more frequent sexual activity brings people closer to their perceived norm. For gender, males experience norm disparities more than females, which upholds both the findings by Lyons et al. (2011) that women are less influenced by sexual norms and the findings from Borsari and Carey (2003) that gender predicts norm gaps. The fact that age was an additional predictor suggests that as one gets older their norm gap gets smaller. More research is needed to clarify this finding, but some possible explanations could be that people perceive lower frequencies of sexual behavior amongst their peers as they get older, or could be a result of more experience and knowledge about others’ behaviors with time. Moreover, although Novak and Crawford (2001) found that social comparativeness was related to higher norm perceptions for drinking, it had no relationship with sexual norm perceptions.

Although substantial norm misperceptions were found for every sexual behavior, these misperceptions did not have an impact on sex life satisfaction or sexual anxiety. This finding does not fit with past research showing that norm gaps cause anxiety for public behaviors like drinking. This also contradicts Sullivan and Stephenson’s (2009) research showing a relationship between sexual norm misperceptions and sexual dissatisfaction. These findings instead suggest that while people think they are below average in terms of frequency of sexual behaviors, this does not impact their attitudes about their own sex life.

There are a number of limitations to keep in mind when interpreting the conclusions of this study. Participants may have been somewhat biased by choosing to be in a study about sexuality. However, participants had fairly low frequencies of sexual behaviors, which suggests that they did not choose to be in the study because they perceived themselves as highly sexual. Nevertheless, a larger and more racially/ethnically representative sample would add more validity to the findings in this study. Moreover, a study of these attitudes and behaviors by ethnic group would provide insights into the influence of culture on sexual norms. Also, the sample studied was predominantly straight. The number of people identifying as gay or bisexual in the study was small, and further research is needed to understand if perceptions of social norms vary with sexual orientation. Different populations should also be studied, such as those that do engage frequently in taboo behaviors. People are part of discursive environments that build constructs of norms and expectations, and more research is needed to understand how interpersonal, social and mediated information work together and against each other in the establishment of sexual norms.


This study contributes to our understanding of whether our perceived norms about sex play a role in our own sex lives, and how these norms come to be. Knowing that sexual norm misperceptions are highly prevalent and that they are predicted by gender and age can have important implications for public health practitioners, sex and marital therapists, and others working to promote sexual health. Past research about misperceived social norms has demonstrated that correcting those norms can promote healthier behavior. Correcting misperceived sexual norms may alleviate expectations to live up to norms, and may lead to a better understanding of peer and partner behavior. Additional research should be undertaken to understand the nuances of social norms and sexual behavior and these findings should be included in discussions of interventions targeted at sexual health and well-being.


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Table 1. Average Reported Sexual Behaviors by Gender (N = 144)





Sig. (p)

“I visit pornography websites”















“I masturbate (alone, not with a partner)”















“I have phone or chat sex”















“I have anal sex”















“I have threesomes”















Note. ** p < .01, *** p < .001



Table 2. Self-Other Norm Gaps By Gender (N = 144)





Sig. (p)






      Own Behavior



4.68          .000***

      Perception of Average Male







      Own Behavior



-.16            .875

      Perception of Average Female













      Own Behavior



16.94         .000***

      Perception of Average Male








      Own Behavior



9.65             .001**

      Perception of Average Female



Note. ** p < .01, *** p < .001

Table 3. Summary of Multiple Regression Analysis for Self/Same-Sex Norm Gap (N = 144)






Sig. (p)

Sexual Behavior






Gender (1=Male, 2=Female)












Political Views (1=Very Conservative, 5=Very Liberal)






Sexual Activity Status






Social Comparativeness






Sexual Communication






Note. R = .681, R2 = .463. Adjusted R2 = .435
* p < .05
** p < .01
*** p < .001

Table 4. Correlation Matrix for Potential Predictors of Self-Other Norm Discrepancies (N = 144)












1. Self-Other Norm Discrepancies









2. Social Comparativeness









3. Sexual Activity Status









4. Age









5. Gender









6.Own Sexual Behavior









7.Sexual Communication









8.Political Views




































Note.  Correlations with an absolute value of .14 or greater are significant at p < .05.

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