Gender roles hurt everyone. They hinder people’s ability to be their full selves, discourage people from pursuing their interests if they don’t fit a stereotype, and shame those who embrace who they are. Gender roles even hurt our sex lives. Regardless of what gender you identify with or who you have sex with, chances are you’ve been constrained in some way by gender roles, in the bedroom and outside it. If your personality happens to match the traits assigned to your gender, there’s nothing wrong with that, but a problem arises when people feel pressure to behave in certain ways.
“Gender roles can be detrimental if one or all partners are performing according to how they’re expected to behave, rather than what feels natural and pleasurable to them, — emphasis on ‘performing,'” sex educator Anne Hodder, ACS, tells Bustle. “Sexual pleasure is difficult to enjoy when you’re in your head and playing a role, rather than participating and connecting, and expecting others to behave according to our own gender expectations sets us up for instant disappointment and can cause emotional harm to our partners. Traditional gender roles — ex. the idea that masculine people are naturally dominant, sexual animals and ‘take’ sexual pleasure while feminine people are submissive, nurturing, and ‘give’ sexual pleasure — establish an instant hierarchy and power divide between sexual partners, as well as the binary assumption that in every successful coupling, there’s a feminine person and masculine person.”
Here are some ways our sex lives are constrained and diminished by society’s limiting gender norms.
Women are expected to behave the same way in bed as they’re expected to behave in the rest of their lives. Namely, they’re expected to put other people before them. The result is that men are receiving more oral sex and having more orgasms than women, and few people learn the specifics of how to please a woman. The ironic thing is that women’s partners, men included, usually want to please their partners, so they’re missing out as well.
Men are under enormous pressure to make the first move, be dominant in bed, and act like they know exactly what to do without needing any feedback from their partners. This expectation discourages communication between partners, which is necessary for good sex without exception, and diminishes women’s agency by pressuring men to make all the decisions. When someone feels pressure to push things along, it can also detract from proper practices around consent.
Women are often looked down upon for having a high number of sexual partners, while men are looked down upon for having few partners. The result of this is that women feel ashamed for being sexual and men feel pressured to jump into sexual relationships before they’re ready. Everything from having lots of casual sex to remaining abstinent is a valid decision; what’s important is that people make this decision based on what works best for them.
While women are assumed to get romantically attached whenever they have sex, men are expected to have sex coldly and callously, often at the expense of forming real human connections. While there’s nothing wrong with casual sex, people deserve warmth and caring even from casual partners. Sex is a vulnerable act, and part of what makes it profound is the ability for both people to show vulnerability.
One consequence of the objectification of women is that women become focused on their physical appearance, rather than what they might be feeling, in the bedroom. This self-objectification can hinder arousal and pleasure. It also leads women to deprioritize their pleasure, since it makes them believe pleasing their partners is their primary purpose in the bedroom.
Gender stereotypes are often used to justify sexual assault. When men violate people’s boundaries, people say that “boys will be boys” or that “biological urges” are driving their behavior. Men learn that it’s in women’s nature to be “coy,” so if they say “no,” it’s men’s job to change their minds. And lastly, we’re taught that men have a greater desire for sex and greater capacity for sexual pleasure, which normalizes encounters where women experience less desire or pleasure than men — or no desire or pleasure at all.
Society romanticizes gender roles, which means it idealizes relationships between a stereotypically masculine man and a stereotypically feminine woman. This leaves little room for men and women in a relationship who don’t conform to gender roles, let alone LGBTQ people. Their relationships are viewed as less valid, or they’re expected to have one person play the role of “the man” and the other play “the woman.” This contributes to the view that sex and relationships between LGBTQ people are less real or satisfying than those between straight, cisgender people.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with performing a gender role if it happens to resonate with you. But when people are expected to perform certain roles solely based on their gender, everyone loses out. People of all genders deserve the chance to be who they are, in the bedroom and outside it.