Jonas Ekblom reflects on power dynamics in bed.

Every single pseudointellectual fluff piece about sex begins with a quote (apparently quite apocryphally) attributed to Oscar Wilde, and many others: “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” This article is no different.

One reason why it has such a seemingly lasting impact is probably because it rings true to a lot of people. The whole act of penetration, a staple in heterosexual sex, is widely seen as asserting power: the penetrating party (usually the person possessing a penis) is the dominant one, whilst the one being penetrated is the dominated one. Being dominated is asserting power over the dominated one.

The same dynamic can even be seen in some homosexual male relationships. This power dynamic with a dominant versus submissive party in the bedroom – even a gay one – often takes a gendered tint: being dominant is gendered as male and submissive as female. Many a man in a relationship with another man have been asked the question “Well, who’s the woman in the relationship?” often followed by a resounding laugh.

Apart from the fact that both men are, well, men in a homosexual relationship, is the question not necessarily as outrageous as it sounds, if picked apart. Many men who have sex with men identify with being either a ‘top’ or a ‘bottom’ (preferring to penetrate or being penetrated, respectively). One can have no preference and be ‘versatile’. Research has shown that tops are often seen by men who have sex with men as “hegemonically masculine” and bottoms as “feminine”.
From where do these stereotypes stem? There are some theories – such as ideas that top/bottom-preferences have biological explanations – but most researchers point to heteronormativity being one factor. One researcher argues that “guys who are feminine are being pushed into feminine roles, and we construct roles in heterosexist ways.”

Even in a seemingly gender-neutral context as in a sexual relationship between two cis-gender men, power discrepancies between traditional gender roles still have an effect: masculinity is worth more than femininity. In yet another study, researchers found that bottom-identifying men with internalised homophobia are more likely to work out to build more muscle, seen as a masculine trait. Being a bottom has, seemingly for some, a stigma attached to it: femininity.

And gender can also, with apologies to Mr. Wilde, be about power.

This begs the question: are these gendered dominant/submissive roles in the bedroom – be it a straight or gay one – a problem? As often with gender, the reality is not as easy as it being a problem or not. And gender can also, with apologies to Mr. Wilde, be about power. Femininity and feminine traits have been, and still are, seen as inferior to masculine traits. In addition, masculine traits are often associated to power, as scholar Mary Beard recently explored in her book Women and Power.

Whatever you like to do when getting freaky – penetrate, be penetrated, or something completely else – gender roles in society still creep in. The problem is seeing penetration as domination – and in extension, asserting power – as something reserved to men or persons possessing masculine traits. As with many gendered things in society – be it motorcycles, colours, or dresses – they are all arbitrary. While it might be somewhat fair to argue that being the penetrating party in heterosexual sex might be mostly the domain of men, there is no reason to associate it with domination, nor see it as asserting power over the other.

As seen in the study on bottom-identifying men with internalised homophobia, this gendering of penetrate vs. being penetrated, and association of penetration with masculinity and in extension, power – does bring psychological stress among people.

Narrow gender roles also restrict what people end up doing while gettin’ jiggy with it.

Narrow gender roles also restrict what people end up doing while gettin’ jiggy with it. Many men can get pleasure from different forms of anal stimulation; the sensitive prostate is famously being located inside that back door. Doing it – anal stimulation, which can include penetration – is something many men shy away from; the main one being that being penetrated is perceived as the “ultimate emasculating experience”. And being emasculated – becoming more feminine – is losing ‘power’.

There are naturally many other ways to have sex than penetration – just ask women who have sex with women. They are, however, not immune to gendered pigeonholing either. Just as many gay men have been asked who the woman is in their relationship, many lesbian couples might have been asked “Who’s the man?”. It is, again, about who asserts power in the relationship, the one seen as more masculine being seen as the one with more of it.

Sex might be all about power, but that is only because we make it all about gender. And gender and gender differences, today still, are all about power.


Cover Photo: Krista Mangulsone, Unsplash

  • retro

    Jonas Ekblom is a journalist from Sweden and has previously worked on some of Sweden's biggest radio shows. He is a former student at University College London where he studied European Social and Political Studies. He is now completing a Masters in Journalism at Columbia University in New York. He also loves dogs. Read more:

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