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Who's on Top? Power and Control In and Out of the Bedroom

Is control in the bedroom related to power in the relationship?

Power dynamics are a relatively common element of sexual fantasy.1 Some individuals enjoy being sexually dominant – they derive satisfaction from exerting power or control over their sexual partners. Others enjoy being sexually submissive – they are satisfied when their sexual partners exert power over them. But the reader poses an intriguing question: do a couple’s power dynamics within the bedroom mirror their power dynamics outside the bedroom?

Media portrayals of dominant/submissive sexual activities often suggest that these power dynamics do permeate the couple’s entire relationship. For example, Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey exerted control over his lover Ana not only sexually, but in all domains of her life, right down to what she wore or what she ate. He even decided what time she should go to bed! However, a growing amount of research suggests that this portrayal of sexual dominance and submission is generally inaccurate. For example, Browning and colleagues recently conducted a study on people in romantic relationships.2 They measured the participants’ dominant and submissive motivations for wanting to have sex with their partners (i.e., liking sex because they like controlling versus being controlled by their partners). The researchers found that neither dominant nor submissive sexual desires correlated with how much power the participants felt they had in other areas of their romantic relationships. In other words, just because a person felt dominant in the sexual domain does not mean that they felt dominant in other areas of the relationship.   

Another team of researchers examined dominant and submissive themes in people’s sexual fantasies, and then assessed associations between these themes and various beliefs and attitudes.1 In particular, the researchers examined traditional beliefs toward women, with items like, “Women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers” (offensive, I know). Dominant and submissive sexual desires did not correlate with these attitudes toward women, either for men or for women. This suggests that, in real life, a man with sexual desires like Christian Grey’s (i.e., desires of being sexually dominant or sexually in-charge) would be just as likely as the next guy to want an equal, equitable relationship with his partner outside the bedroom. Similarly, a woman with sexual desires like Ana (i.e., to be sexually submissive or sexually controlled) would likely be just as off-put as the next woman by Christian’s long list of non-sexual demands.

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1Zurbriggen, E. L., & Yost, M. R. (2004). Power, desire, and pleasure in sexual fantasies. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 288-300.

2Browning, J. R., Kessler, D., Hatfield, E., & Choo, P. (1999). Power, gender, and sexual behavior. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, 342-347.

Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner? 

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