Sometimes it takes a popular vampire series or Rihanna song to get people talking about otherwise taboo sex topics. Most recently, it’s the best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which follows the dominant-submissive relationship between a powerful businessman and a college student, complete with explicit S&M sex scenes. Undoubtedly your neighbor has read it, and—mom jokes aside—maybe even your mom.
Since its re-release in April, it’s been shaking up book clubs, bedrooms—even sparking a debate about the power dynamics between women and men. Though only a small part of the population reports fantasizing about sadomasochism/bondage (8 percent, according to a Durex global survey), the theme has piqued interest on a mass scale.
“I read it for my book club, and most of the women would have never spoken about sex to each other in such a personal way,” a New York-based editor says. “One mother of two expressed openly that she not only felt sexually liberated, but empowered, while reading the book.”
How can women feel liberated by reading a book about sexual domination? Here, we’ll explore some psychology behind submissive sex fantasies (not sadomasochism, but “Fifty Shades” definitely touches on that.) The majority of readers are probably not running to get chains and whips after finishing the book (though if that’s your thing, go for it). Likely, they’re identifying with the thrilling idea of giving up control to a trustworthy, domineering partner during sex. (We hope it goes without saying that any fantasy sex play—domineering or not—should always be safe and consensual.)
“After making decisions all day, sometimes I don’t want to have to make any more decisions at the end of the day. I don’t mind being led in the bedroom,” says one marketing analyst and mother, who read the novel.
This leads to three surprising findings about women’s submission fantasies, the first from a 2009 study led by Patricia Hawley, Ph.D and her student, Will Hensley at the University of Kansas psychology department.
In this research, and contrary to conventional wisdom, most people who were turned on by a “forceful submission fantasy” didn’t imagine pain or humiliation (masochism), but were instead drawn to what they thought of as “a passionate exchange with a powerful, resource-holding and attentive suitor.” That’s a key distinction: The researchers believe this shows that people use these fantasies to assert power, not to give it up.
1. Assertive women enjoy the idea of being submissive in bed, more than traditionally submissive women.
Surprisingly, women who enjoyed these forceful submission fantasies weren’t submissive in their lives outside of the bedroom. In fact, the most aggressive group of females preferred a fantasy where they were dominated. And real life “non-controllers” (women who have less agency in social situations) had the least preference for sexual submission.
One explanation is that dominant females pursue dominant males, as they do in the animal kingdom, says Hawley. Catching the attention of a dominant male means you’ve risen to the top of the pack, so acting out that fantasy (where he pursues, you resist and that power struggle leads to hot, hot sex) reinforces a woman’s status and desirability, which makes her feel good about herself. (Note that you can sub in any gender and the same theory applies.) While that’s just one possible explanation, the point here is that at its core, this fantasy enhances self-esteem.
How could being dominated help someone feel more powerful? Hawley’s research suggests that the real sexy (yes, even empowering) element of a forceful submission fantasy is not about the power imbalance per se, but instead the fiery passion of the pursuit. Meaning, the one who’s so passionately sought after is just so immensely desirable that they must be “pursued,” even taken, right then and there.
In a study Hawley presented this March, the results indicated another interesting conclusion about submissive fantasies. Handing over the reins to your partner isn’t just a sexual desire exclusive to women.
2) Men like when women take control in the bedroom.
Women get all the attention for having forceful submission fantasies. But it’s a very common sexual fantasy for men, too.
Take the classic romance novel vignette of being led into the bedroom by someone who “hasn’t been able to take their eyes off you” and insists they must “take what they’ve wanted all night.” When guys read this from the perspective of a woman coming onto them so strongly, they were totally into it.
While some people have tried to shame women for submissive fantasies or explain it away as masochism, Hawley says no way. She and her team concluded: “we see little reason to invoke special theories to ‘account for women’s masochistic tendencies,’ especially since predilection for this type of material is shared with men.” The research found no evidence that wanting to be dominated is synonymous with masochism, for either gender. In other words, submission and self-respect can easily go hand-in-hand.
Other research confirms that dominant and submissive acts are seen as equally desirable for men and women to perform.
And in an earlier study, men had a higher preference for submissive fantasies than women. How’s that for mixing up the gender stereotype?
One last finding that may not come as a surprise now:
3) Fantasizing about dominant/submissive sex is normal.
The viral spread and bestseller status of “50 Shades” should be enough to convince you that submissive sex fantasies are common (and totally normal). In fact, 50 percent of men and women claim that this kind of kink makes up fully half of their sex fantasies.
And for anyone who assumes that women who fantasize about being dominated have “daddy issues” or low self-esteem, Hawley’s research shows we can put that prejudice to bed—for good. In fact, she found no correlation between neuroticism and women’s sexually submissive fantasies.
If anything, the book is allowing women to embrace fantasies that they were ashamed to indulge. “It eliminated some of the taboo characteristics of submissive fantasies,” says one recently engaged lawyer, of her experience reading the book. “It made them seem less ‘off limits’ for otherwise straight-edge women.”
While the book touches on S&M, and this research doesn’t, it may still help explain the appeal of submissive sex fantasies.
Whether you buy it or not, the research shakes up common stereotypes about sex fantasies, and explains why your neighbor has already finished the triology, and is encouraging you to start it.
The bottom line: Owning your lack of control in the bedroom doesn’t strip you of power, but can in fact be empowering.
Most likely, you’re being aggressively pursued because you’re just that awesome.