The Costs of Traditional Gender Beliefs in Sex

Attitudes about gender have shifted considerably in recent decades to the point that today the vast majority of adults in the U.S. disagree with the notion that men should support the family while women should stay home and take care of the house and children. But do these beliefs come at a cost? Some would say yes, especially when it comes to sex. Consensual sex among romantic partners requires arousal and it has been argued that only traditional gender roles enact the sexual scripts that lead to arousal. Yet, recent research suggests that there is no difference in sexual frequency between traditional and egalitarian couples.

How much sex you have with your partner may not depend on whether you believe in gender equality, but the kind of sex you have, and how satisfying and pleasurable it is, certainly does. In a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family my colleague Brian Soller and I examined how gender attitudes were associated with sexual frequency in heterosexual partners. We found that traditionally-minded couples (i.e., partners believe in distinct work roles for men and women) had as much sex as couples who believed in gender equality (i.e., partners should share work responsibilities). We found however that their pathways to sex were very different and that this likely has significant consequences for the quality of their sex.

For traditionally-minded couples, sex is a male-driven enterprise. That is, for those who adhere to traditional notions of gender men decide the when, where, and how of sex. Men initiate sex and they control the process and interaction of intercourse.  You’re shocked, I’m sure to find this out (not really). When we think about masculinity and femininity, sex is central to the ways we demonstrate gender. Masculine men are supposed to be sexually driven and sexually prolific. Indeed, when it comes to sexual relationships, it is men’s traditional responsibility to progress relationships, men are supposed to ask women out, men are supposed to plan dates, men are supposed to propose, and men are supposed to initiate intimacy, sex included. This is because women are supposed to have no interest in sex. The common image of the modern couple is of a man who always wants sex and his partner who always has a headache. Of course, it’s a fallacy that women have no sex drive; rather Western conceptions of gender preclude women from expressing their desires. To be properly feminine means that women must be sexy without being sexual. They must be objects of men’s desire, but express no desire themselves. Indeed, our findings show that in couples who adhere to traditional beliefs about gender, men exhibit high levels of sexual self-efficacy — one’s perceived ability to achieve physical and psychological pleasure within sexual experiences — while women exhibit low sexual self-efficacy. In sum, traditional beliefs provide men the sexual self-efficacy to pursue their sexual desires. This leads to frequent sexual intercourse with their partners, but their partners are inhibited from achieving their sexual preferences. 

Sex among partners who believe in gender equality is very different. Although traditionally-minded couples achieve sex through male sexual empowerment, egalitarian-minded couples reach intercourse through increased communication. More communication means not only discussing each other’s days or who will cook dinner that evening, but also discussing each other’s sexual desires. Indeed, valuing gender equality is associated with increases in both men’s and women’s sexual self-efficacy and the belief that women should initiate sex as much as her partner. Unsurprisingly, increases in women’s sexual self-efficacy is associated with more sex among couples.

What does all of this mean? It means that although traditional and egalitarian couples may have roughly the same amount of sex, the quality of that sex varies significantly. This is important because so much research suggests that sexual frequency is key to relationship quality. But what may be more important isn’t how much sex you have as how satisfying that sex is. Indeed, our work shows that sexual frequency and satisfaction are only loosely related. Moreover, sexual satisfaction is a much stronger predictor of relationship quality than sexual frequency. This is important since male control over sexual activity may not translate into pleasurable and/or satisfying sexual experiences, especially for women. Moreover, traditional beliefs set the stage for adversarial sexual relationships where sexual pleasure for one partner may come at a cost for the other. Egalitarianism sets the stage for mutually beneficial sexual relationships built on communication and reciprocity where each partner’s needs are considered. In our current environment where a happy sex life is considered the second most important aspect of a successful relationship next to fidelity, sharing is not only more fun for everyone, but it also keeps couples happy and together.

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