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.