Gender Roles, Power, and the Bedroom | Examining Women’s Equality

by | Apr 4, 2020 | Articles, Relationships | 0 comments

I wrote this article for Shondaland, a media company with which I have great respect for… Posting it here so you can all enjoy it as well.

How New Ideas on Gender Roles Influence Power — In and Out of the Bedroom

As a sex therapist, relationship expert, and sex neuroscientist, I am well acquainted with the love-hate relationship our culture has with sex. I call it our “lewd/prude nation.”

We celebrate sexuality, and then slut-shame women who dare to be too big for their sexual britches. We say women are equal, but then attempt to limit their reproductive rights through legislation.

This inequality is fueled by traditional gender roles that linger as implicit beliefs so deeply entrenched they often go unnoticed.

To address this, let’s explore a new, flexible, and dynamic map for masculine and feminine that empowers all.

Recently, I was interviewed by Maria Shriver on The Today Show for a segment on women’s sexuality and pleasure. We discussed how important women’s pleasure is to overall well-being.

The fact that the orgasm gap — that women in heterosexual relationships don’t orgasm as frequently as their partners — is alive and well cues us that social factors continue to play a big role in our sex lives.

Our relationship with sexuality provides a keen window into our relationship with pleasure, and beneath that, the wellbeing of our wired-in core emotional brain. Thus, how we ultimately approach female sexuality affords a sobering view of how traditional gender roles create big barriers to the formation of strong, powerful, flexible relationships, in and out of the bedroom


How we approach female sexuality is part of a bigger picture.

Our Puritanical roots are sex and pleasure negative. This shows up as a preoccupation with sex and avoidance of accepting sexuality.

We don’t do an effective job of providing pleasure- positive sex education that empowers women to speak up about their sexual wants and needs.

How does this contribute to our struggles in our relationships?

The struggles we have in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, can be viewed as rooted in one basic cause: the desire to exert our power or influence.

I’ve watched clients fight about everything — sex, parenting, money, work-life balance, chores, priorities, friends, or family.

These struggles are further fueled by core differences.

For example, do you value togetherness or separateness? Do you live for the moment or invest in the future? Do you prefer predictability or spontaneity?

Even differences about how we approach challenges loom large. Do you launch right into problem-solving or do you need first to be understood?


Basically: you name it, people fight about it.

And of course, each thinks they’re “right” when research indicates the bulk of what couples’ argue over is simply a matter of opinion. (And of course, our own opinion is correct, yes?)

Fighting, itself, is not a sign of a bad relationship.

Constructive arguments are part of healthy conflict resolution.

It’s the perpetual fights, fueled by unresolved power struggles, that lead to “gridlock.” When this continues long enough, a steady slide into disconnect kicks in. People stop caring.

Couples seeking help after they’ve gotten to this point are in big trouble. Their relationship is DOA and few can be resuscitated.

Power struggles and traditional gender roles.

Now that we’ve established that power struggles (aka being “right”) underlie conflicts, let’s look at the power dynamics that underlie traditionally restrictive gender roles – that is, what it means to be masculine or feminine.

Years ago I had the privilege of spending time with Dr. Rudolph Ballantine, a visionary teacher, physician, and author of Radical Healing. Ballantine blew my mind by explaining how our models of masculine and feminine are sorely underdeveloped.

Once I had this new map, it changed how I viewed the world of relating.

Let’s start with traditional gender roles:

What we typically think of masculine is the propensity to go out and hunt something— to provide, protect, rule, control, or own.

Ballantine calls this masculine active, which leaves little room for men to be sensitive, feeling, and emotional equals to women.

This form of the masculine is about being effective to assure survival through accruing resources.

Accordingly, men are “success” objects, valued for what they produce. Men are on top. It is a man’s world. Men decide about women’s reproductive rights. Yadda yadda yadda. But we are over that, aren’t we?

Women can and do embody the masculine active as well.

More households than ever depend upon two incomes — two “producers” — whether partners are mixed genders, both men or both women.

In fact, it was recently reported that women now make up the majority of the U.S. workforce, even if they’re still only paid 82 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Chalk some of that up to how we’ve traditionally thought of the role of women — taking care of others. In a word: nurturance.

Rudy calls this feminine passive. If men are success objects, women are relationship/sex objects.

This drives our implicit notions of how women are supposed to be: receptive, agreeable, other-focused, well behaved, nice, not aggressive, and somewhat sexually available (only to a degree).


All of which has an impact on women that goes deeper than salary: A Today Show poll indicated that 46% of females reported not being sexually satisfied and also deathly afraid to discuss it with partners.

What does this mean? We need to look deeper at how gender affects sex, power, and relationships.

How New Ideas on Gender Roles Influence Power

Regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, lifestyle or love style, we can tap into all four aspects of what I like to think of as archetypes of expanded gender roles.

Non-traditional gender roles — the masculine passive and the feminine active.

The masculine passive involves our ability to step back and look at the big picture.

This allows us to reflect upon a situation, tolerate feelings, and not rush into reaction.

Meditation, yoga, and therapy can enhance this capacity and fostering this kind of understanding and insight will help transform any relationship.

Feminine active, on the other hand, is the energy that rises up when we are about to give birth to something new.

Ballantine likens this to the goddess Shakti, the cosmic force of creation. When this energy is activated and balanced, we can harness it to reinvent ourselves and our relationships.

But if it flares up without consideration of the big picture (without input from the insightful masculine passive), the creative action can be impulsive and dangerous. When people act out in ways that endanger the wellbeing of their relationships, it is likely they’ve gone “Shakti.”


A new map for power: Four flexible quadrants

Regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, lifestyle or love style, we can tap into all four aspects of what I like to think of as archetypes of expanded gender roles.

Not only can we become more fully formed beings and be more responsive to our partners, we naturally become more whole ourselves.

This flexibility enables us to integrate all kinds of energies, bringing other parts of self into the fold of who we are.

This approach also allows us to continually renegotiate the premises of our relationships as we grow, incorporating this development as a sustainable way of relating.

Instead of a relationship breaking down when one or the other person makes a change, we give ourselves space for each partner to intentionally cultivate the underdeveloped parts of self that the other partner may have in abundance.

How to use the four-quadrant approach to get beyond power struggles.

Step one: Cultivate self-awareness

Cultivate some masculine passive curiosity about where you are in terms of your own four quadrants. Are you overdeveloped in one or more of the aspects? Are you taking care of others without taking care of self? Not speaking up? Perhaps, your feminine receptive side is overly developed.

Trying to control? Trying to fix too much? Maybe your masculine active is too, well, active.

Impulsive more than not? Too many starts without finishing? Try to adjust your feminine active energy.

Too much contemplation without action? Analysis paralysis? Perhaps your masculine passive has gotten the best of you.


Step two: Get more flexible

Take insights from step one and put them into action.

Figure out which quadrants you tend to get stuck in. Become more aware of how you can more flexibly enlist the energies of the other quadrants.

Speak up if you typically don’t. Or listen more if you typically rush into action. Or take some of that caretaking energy and spend it on yourself.

When you become more aware of your habits, you create an opportunity to become better balanced.

Step three: Get curious about your partner’s quadrants

Initiate a conversation with your partner and listen.

Really listen.

Whip out your masculine passive. Penetrate it all with your consciousness (which can be really hot!) How do they see themselves in terms of the four quadrants? How do they see you? Do you agree?

If you get stuck sorting out this step, you’ll see where the relationship tends to get bogged down. Is someone trying to be right? Are both of you trying to be right?

Couples that clash in lingering gridlock tend to both spend a lot of time in the masculine active — both want to be right. Let us know how that turns out!


If the bog-down comes in the form of inertia or lack of confrontation, maybe you both are stuck in a dance of avoidance — too much being nice (feminine passive), or contemplation without moving forward (masculine passive).

Step four: Change up your dance

Apply what you’ve learned from the first three steps to change up the dance you do with your partner.

That requires you to change up the dance you do with yourself.

If you’ve been afraid to be assertive in the bedroom, go for it. If you have been afraid to be passive in the bedroom, go for it. Let how you are in the bedroom be a great laboratory for experimentation in life.

And last but not least, couples that take risks to tell each other the truth — the scary, enlivening truth — tend to unlock lifelong potential, both in and out of the bedroom.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Comment here or DM me on social to connect with me personally. Don’t let this sit on the backburner. Prioritize your relationships… It’s more important than you might think.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This