Do you think men should be tough? Or that women should be kind and gentle? Even with rising recognition that we shouldn't shoe-horn people into specific roles based on their gender, it can be difficult to avoid falling into gendered beliefs. Beliefs about how men and women should think, feel, and behave follow everyone, everywhere…including into the bedroom.

Across the lifespan, people receive societal messages about how men and women "should" be, and about the consequences of failing to stick to these qualities. Even in 2023, many people still hold traditional attitudes about gender, and our past research suggests these people are often most at risk for the downsides of these restrictive roles (think lower self-esteem and body satisfaction).

Take people's sexual relationships with their intimate partners. Sex is a context in which gender roles set strict expectations about how men and women should act: Men should be assertive, always trying to initiate sex and never refusing it, whereas women should be sexually passive, never initiating sex but going along with men's advances. Let's imagine a mixed-sex couple Brad and Buffy. If Brad believes men should be assertive and sexual, he is probably comfortable initiating sex with Buffy, but not very comfortable refusing sex. Buffy, believing women should defer to men in the bedroom, will probably not feel very comfortable initiating and refusing sex with Brad.

But my co-author and I wondered, is it truly only people's beliefs about their own gender role that influence them? Are men only shaped by their views about how men should behave, and women only shaped by their views about how women should behave? We suspected this wasn't the case, and people's traditional beliefs about both men's and women's gender roles will guide their behavior.

So, if Brad thinks Buffy will accept his date-night advances, he should be more comfortable making a move. Likewise, if Buffy thinks Brad is very sexually motivated, she may be less likely to refuse sex for fear he will be dissatisfied and put out. These ideas make sense intuitively, but previous research had focused mainly on people's own-gender beliefs. We predicted people's beliefs about both of their gender roles should influence their comfort in initiating and refusing sex in their relationships.

How We Answered Our Question

In an online study, we asked 389 women and 393 men in mixed-sex intimate relationships to rate their agreement to statements like "A woman should not consider her career as important as a man's" and "Men should not be too quick to tell others that they care about them." They then reported how comfortable they feel initiating and refusing sex with their romantic partner. We examined whether men's and women's traditional beliefs about both men's and women's gender roles predicted their comfort in initiating and refusing sex with their romantic partners. It's important to remember that from our study design, we can't conclude that the beliefs cause less comfort in initiating/refusing sex—just that they are related.

Indeed, we found that although men's and women's beliefs about their own gender roles predicted their own behavior, so too did their beliefs about the other person's gender role. For instance, we found that if women held traditional beliefs about just one gender role (either their own or their partner's), this was enough to undermine their comfort in initiating sex. So, even if Buffy thinks women can behave however they want, if she thinks Brad should be strong and tough, she'll be less willing to take the lead in the bedroom.

For men, we found that those who had more traditional beliefs about men's roles tended to be less comfortable refusing sex. Surprisingly, we found that men with more traditional beliefs about women tended to be less comfortable initiating sex. This finding might be driven by men with more traditional beliefs about women feeling less sexually knowledgeable and skilled, meaning they are less confident initiating sex.

Although it's no secret that gender-role pressures can influence how people think, feel, and behave, when researchers consider gender roles, the focus is often on how men's roles affect men and women's roles affect women. While these own-gender beliefs are important, our research highlights that beliefs about the other traditional gender role are also connected to people's behavior. These other-gender beliefs are likely critical when trying to understand and change people's behavior, in the bedroom and beyond.

For Further Reading

Harrington, A. G., Maxwell, J. A. (2023). It takes two to tango: Links between traditional beliefs about both men's and women's gender roles and comfort initiating sex and comfort refusing sex. Sex Roles, 88, 514–528.

Levant, R. F., & Richmond, K. (2008). A review of research on masculinity ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory. The Journal of Men's Studies, 15(2), 130–146.

Levant, R. F., Richmond, K., Cook, S., House, A. T., & Aupont, M. (2007). The Femininity Ideology Scale: Factor structure, reliabil­ity, convergent and discriminant validity, and social contextual variation. Sex Roles, 57(5–6), 373–383.

Auguste Harrington is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Melbourne. His work looks at how gender roles and gender-based attitudes influence functioning within people's intimate relationships and dating lives.

Jessica A. Maxwell is an Assistant Professor at McMaster University. She uses social psychological theories to inform how people can have fulfilling sexual relationships.