Sexual satisfaction is a core element of health and well-being (Mulhall et al., 2008; Stephenson & Meston, 2015). Being sexually satisfied is associated with greater life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, as well as reduced risk of anxiety and depression (Carcedo et al., 2020; McNulty et al., 2016; Stephenson & Meston, 2015). Therefore, investigating factors that play a role in women’s sexual satisfaction is important, especially when considering that some literature suggests women are less sexually satisfied than men across different sexual contexts and relationship (Carpenter et al., 2009; Mark et al., 2015). In part, gender differences in sexual satisfaction may be attributable to physiological factors (e.g., women report greater difficulty orgasming relative to men, Frederick et al., 2017). Part of this disparity, however, is also likely to reflect social disparities (i.e. the different sexual pressures and expectations placed on men and women; Harris et al., 2016). In the present study, we explore the links between heterosexual women’s beliefs about gender and sex and sexual dissatisfaction.
Gender Beliefs and Benevolent Sexism
Gender beliefs describe people’s expectations for how women and men should move through the world (Sanchez et al., 2005). A common way of examining the influence of gender beliefs on attitudes and behaviors in psychological research is by assessing the extent to which people endorse sexist worldviews (Glick & Fiske, 1996). Benevolent sexism describes a set of gender beliefs that are subjectively positive about women but ultimately undermine women’s power, competence, and autonomy (Glick et al., 2015; Harris et al., 2016). For example, the belief that men should look after women characterizes benevolent sexism; is positive in that it encourages a kind, benevolent disposition towards women, but it is patronizing in that it implicitly assumes that women need men to look after them. Unlike hostile sexism (i.e. overtly disliking women who violate or challenge traditional gender stereotypes), benevolently sexist attitudes are as prevalent in women as they are in men (Glick & Fiske, 1996; Glick et al., 2000; Harris et al., 2016). Research on the role of benevolent sexism in societal and relational settings underscores a number of negative consequences of benevolent sexism for women; for example, women who are benevolently sexist struggle to persevere in relationships when problems occur (Hammond & Overall, 2013). However, research on the role of benevolent sexism in women’s sexual experiences, and sexual satisfaction, is in its infancy.
We propose that the negative consequences of benevolent sexism for women may extend to their sexual experiences. A benevolently sexist worldview positions women as pure, moral, and refined; conversely, men are positioned as protectors and admirers, who should cherish and adore women and place them on a pedestal. One consequence of positioning women as sexually pure may be that women are expected to be sexually passive, in control of their sexual desire, and less motivated by sexual pleasure than men. Given that existing literature has established an association between sexual passivity and sexual dissatisfaction (Sanchez et al., 2011, 2012a, b), we theorize that women who hold a benevolently sexist worldview may be dissatisfied with their sex lives, since they may take a passive role during sex that prioritizes their partner’s pleasure over their own.
To our knowledge, there is only one study to date that has explicitly examined the association between benevolent sexism and sexual dissatisfaction for women. Among a sample of women of diverse sexualities (e.g., heterosexual, homosexual), Lentz and Zaikman (2021) found no direct link between benevolent sexism and sexual dissatisfaction. However, based on related existing literature, we contend that benevolent sexism might indirectly predict sexual dissatisfaction specifically for heterosexual women. For example, Harris et al. (2016) examined whether benevolent sexism was predictive of orgasm frequency for heterosexual women. While they established no direct link, benevolent sexism was indirectly associated with orgasm frequency. Specifically, benevolently sexist women perceived men as more sexually selfish; in turn, they were less willing to ask men for sexual pleasure and subsequently orgasmed less frequently. Given that orgasm frequency has been shown to positively predict sexual satisfaction (Haning et al., 2007), we propose that benevolent sexism may also indirectly predict sexual dissatisfaction. As such, the present study aims to examine the mechanism through which benevolent sexism might predict sexual dissatisfaction for heterosexual women. We propose that benevolent sexism may be associated with adherence to traditional (sexual) gender roles, and that this in turn might predict sexual dissatisfaction.
The Traditional Sexual Script
In any social interaction, people must quickly and accurately assess how they are expected to behave, taking into account whether their behavior will be received positively or negatively by others. Given the sheer number of interactions individuals encounter within a lifetime, however, it is impossible for anyone to make these judgements on an entirely case-by-case basis. Instead, we come to rely on scripts–cognitive schemas or “playbooks” that provide guidelines for how to act in familiar and common situations (Abelson, 1981). Sexual activity is no exception (Simon & Gagnon, 1986, 2003).
The most common sexual script for heterosexual relationships in Western society is the traditional sexual script (O’Sullivan & Byers, 1992). In this script, men and women are expected to adhere to gender-specific behaviors during sexual activity. These behaviors are consistent with stereotypical gender roles (Masters et al., 2013). Men are assumed to have stronger sexual needs than women and are subsequently expected to initiate sexual contact (Byers, 1996; Littleton & Axsom, 2003; Masters et al., 2013). In contrast, women are considered the gatekeepers of sex—they are expected to succumb to men’s sexual urges by expressing initial reluctance, and subsequent submission, toward engaging in sex. Further, women are assumed to take on a passive and submissive role during intercourse (Byers, 1996; Wiederman, 2005).
Benevolent Sexism and the Traditional Sexual Script
Given that the traditional sexual script encompasses stereotypically gendered sexual roles (O’Sullivan & Byers, 1992), we infer that women who endorse benevolent sexism will be more likely to adopt the traditional sexual script. No study to date has specifically explored the relationship between benevolent sexism and traditional sexual script adoption. However, existing literature has shown that benevolently sexist women are more likely to seek out sexually dominant partners (Altenburger et al., 2017; Harris et al., 2016). Furthermore, benevolent sexism in women is associated with valuing paternalistic chivalry—that is, the tendency for men to assume a dominant role in courtship and sexual practices (Viki et al., 2003). As such, we propose that benevolently sexist women will be more likely to adopt the traditional sexual script.
The Traditional Sexual Script, Sexual Preferences, and Sexual Dissatisfaction
A woman’s willingness to ask for sexual pleasure directly influences the frequency with which she orgasms (Harris et al., 2016), suggesting that women who are not willing to ask for sexual pleasure are also less likely to be sexually satisfied (Haning et al., 2007). Given that a woman asking for pleasure would deviate from the traditional sexual script (Masters et al., 2013), women adopting the traditional sexual script may be less sexually satisfied. Further, research suggests that conforming to gender norms and sexual submissiveness—much like is expected in the traditional sexual script—reduces sexual autonomy, thereby reducing sexual satisfaction and arousal (Sanchez et al., 2005, 2006). While sexual submissiveness might be associated with sexual dissatisfaction, some women prefer to be submissive during sex. Sanchez et al. (2012a, b) found that among such women, sexually submissive behavior did not lead to reduced sexual satisfaction; submissive behavior only reduced satisfaction among women who did not have a preference for submission. Therefore, we predict that traditional sexual script adoption will predict sexual dissatisfaction, but only among women with a low degree of interest in sexual submission.
In the present study, we investigate the relationship between benevolent sexism, the traditional sexual script, and sexual dissatisfaction in heterosexual women (Open Science Framework: https://tinyurl.com/5y443znp). We hypothesize that there will be an indirect relationship between benevolently sexist attitudes and sexual dissatisfaction, such that benevolent sexism will be associated with an increased adoption of the traditional sexual script, which in turn will be associated with increased sexual dissatisfaction. In line with Sanchez et al. (2012a, b), we also hypothesize that the relationship between traditional sexual script adoption and sexual dissatisfaction will be moderated by sexual preferences, such that adopting the traditional sexual script will only predict sexual dissatisfaction among women who do not enjoy being submissive. Finally, we hypothesize that our overall moderated mediation model (see Fig. 1) will account for a significant proportion of variance in heterosexual women’s sexual dissatisfaction.