Traditional gender roles dictate that men should be dominant and women should be submissive when it comes to matters of sex. For centuries, people around the world have bought into these ideas. However, a new study finds that people who subscribe to such beliefs may have less ability to obtain sexual satisfaction, as well as a reduced likelihood of practicing female-controlled methods of safe sex.
In a study published in the journal Sex Roles, male and female college undergraduates were given a survey that inquired about their general support for social inequality (“It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others”) as well as their support for traditional gender power dynamics in the bedroom (“The man should be the one who dictates what happens during sex”).1 The survey also inquired about participants’ sexual self-efficacy, which refers to their perceived ability to turn down sex, to achieve sexual satisfaction, and to initiate safe-sex practices. After completing this survey, participants were individually taken to a private cubicle where there was a bowl of female condoms next to a sign that read “Please take some! FREE FEMALE CONDOMS.” After exiting the cubicle, a research assistant counted the number of condoms remaining to determine how many the participant took.
For both men and women, general support for social inequality was associated with endorsement of traditional gender power dynamics in the bedroom, which is perhaps not surprising (i.e., if you support inequality at a general level, you are likely to support more specific forms of inequality, even those that personally disadvantage you). Support for traditional gender roles was, in turn, correlated with lower sexual self-efficacy. Lastly, in terms of number of condoms taken, support for traditional gender roles predicted taking fewer female condoms for women, but not for men.
These results indicate that holding on to the belief that men should be the initiators and decision makers in the bedroom could potentially undermine sexual satisfaction for both men and women by reducing sexual self-efficacy. Moreover, these findings are particularly worrisome because they suggest that women who hold these traditional beliefs may feel that they have less power to negotiate safe sex practices and may defer those decisions to their partners.
Of course, these results are limited in that we are dealing with correlational data here. Thus, we do not know how traditional gender role beliefs would play out during the context of an actual sexual encounter or if such beliefs actually cause changes in sexual behavior. However, the fact that women who strongly believed in male sexual dominance took fewer female condoms should be of serious concern and it would be worth exploring whether female sexual empowerment reduces this effect in future studies.
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1Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., & Earnshaw, V. A. (in press). Social dominance orientation relates to believing men should dominate sexually, sexual self-efficacy, and taking free female condoms among undergraduate women and men. Sex Roles.