Take a look at the cover of nearly every erotic romance novel and you'll notice a trend: Strapping men with bulging muscles are almost always shown standing over feeble, desperate-looking women. The message? "Don't worry, honey—I'll save you and then I'll ravish you, whether you like it or not." #Swoon
Don't get me wrong—erotic fiction can be hot. Research has shown that women do get turned on by sexually dominant men, including those who tie them up, spank them, and make them submit. Perhaps nothing has proved this more than the commercial success of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.
Unfortunately, most popular erotic fiction only features that one dynamic: Dominant male, submissive female. So that's what we're exposed to—which is a problem. According to social cognitive theory, the media we consume helps shape our world view, so exposure to just one type of sexual dominance can backfire. In fact, studies have shown books like Fifty Shades increase endorsement of sexism—and contribute to the acceptance of rape myths.
With all of this in mind, psychologists from the University of Queensland in Australia decided to flip the script and see how reversing the gender roles in an erotic story similar to Fifty Shades would alter study participants' attitudes toward sexism and rape culture. They were also curious if men and women would be equally turned on when faced with a sexually dominant female instead of a sexually dominant male.
To conduct their experiment, the researchers recruited 481 heterosexual participants from the United States. The men (241) and women (240) were split into four groups. One group read an erotic story about a sexually dominant man who performed various sexual acts on his partner. (In the story, the characters established a safe word so readers knew the scenario was 100% consensual.) The second group read the same story, but the lead was a sexually dominant woman who performed those same acts on a submissive man. The third group read an erotic story in which the man and woman were equally dominant, and the fourth (and least lucky) group read a control story about the life of a Canada lynx. Lolz.
After reading the erotica, participants were asked a myriad of questions meant to measure different aspects of their beliefs regarding hostile and benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and sexual desires. Participants' sexism levels were also measured before the story to get a baseline.
To measure hostile sexism, researchers used statements such as, “Women are too easily offended” and “Feminists are not seeking for women to have more power than men” (reverse scored). To measure benevolent sexism, they used statements like, “Women should be cherished and protected by men” and “In a disaster, women ought not necessarily to be rescued before men” (reverse scored). To measure rape myth acceptance they used statements such as “Women often provoke rape through their appearance or behavior” and “A raped woman is an innocent victim, not a responsible one” (reverse scored). You get the idea.
After the experiment was complete, several key findings emerged, which the researchers published in the The Journal of Sex Research.
First, the psychologists noted that women who read the story about a sexually dominant male endorsed benevolent sexism more than men. That's right—female participants who read the male-dominated erotica expressed more sexist beliefs than male participants. "I find this interesting because it is showing that women’s internalized sexism can actually overtake men’s sexism after reading a story depicting sharp power differentials in the bedroom," says Emily Harris, lead author on the study.
(Previous research backs up this finding, revealing that women who find Fifty Shades of Grey romantic are also more likely to endorse benevolent sexism.)
Second, researchers found that reading a story about a sexually dominant man increased rape myth acceptance among males. Across the board, men scored higher in rape myth acceptance than women—but men in the group that read about a man sexually dominating a woman ultimately endorsed those myths the most.
"Reading about a woman who enjoys sexual domination by a man may lead men to believe that women desire forceful submission in real life and hence develop ambivalence about women’s right to refuse sex," write the authors in the study. In light of these findings, the researchers noted: "Overall, our research suggests that reading erotica depicting a man dominating a woman negatively impacts attitudes toward women."
But what happened when the gender roles were reversed?
Interestingly, when men read about a sexually dominant female they came to value female dominance more. Meanwhile, men in the other groups did not value having a sexually dominant partner at all. In other words, men became more accepting of the idea after reading about it in a story—just like social cognitive theory teaches us!
Another interesting finding is that all three erotic stories aroused the participants equally. Let me repeat that—all three stories were equally erotic. This is important because it means that there's room in the erotica and romance market for different kinds of stories, including ones that may not perpetuate the same negative side effects for women.
"Our research suggests that broadening our repertoire of erotica to include stories in which a woman is dominant may not only lead to an enjoyment of fresh narratives, but also a more positive attitude towards women," Harris told me.
So the real takeaway is not to eradicate the world of stories about sexually dominant men, but to publish stories about sexually dominant women, too.
"I would never advocate for a limit on male dominant erotica or anything like that. I believe people should read whatever they enjoy!" she says. "But I would love to see a greater variety of erotica available, because at the moment, a lot of people may not know that they could also enjoy stories in which a woman is sexually dominant."
By exposing adults to different types of erotica—in which women don't always play an Anastasia Steele or damsel in distress—we alter the narrative that says women can only be submissive. That women are only sex objects. That women are only there to fulfill the needs of men.
Indeed, study after study confirms that by portraying women in such a consistently submissive light, we both perpetuate negative attitudes toward women and increase false beliefs about rape victims—including such pernicious ones as "she was asking for it" and "she wanted it." Because that's what we're exposed to.
Isn't it about time women took off their blindfolds and whipped the erotica market into shape?
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.