Does Your Partner Really Want Sex Or Are They Complying To Keep You Happy?

Psychologist Cory Pedersen sheds light on the grey area of sexual compliance, specifically in the case of heterosexual men.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 1, 2022

A new study published in Psychology & Sexuality reveals that heterosexual men who strongly endorse male sexuality stereotypes and traditional gender-role beliefs may indulge in sexual compliance, i.e, consensual yet undesired sexual activity.

I recently spoke to psychologist Cory Pedersen from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada to understand the motivation behind sexual compliance in heterosexual men. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of sexual compliance and gender socialization in men how did you study it, and what did you find?

This project emerged from an honors thesis by Devinder Khera, in completion of the requirements of his BA (Honors) degree at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

My student was intrigued by research investigating various aspects of masculinity (e.g., gender roles, male sexuality stereotypes, and the precariousness of manhood) and how these ideologies and beliefs influence sexual behaviors.

Men are stereotypically painted as hypersexual beings with insatiable sex drives; always ready to initiate and engage in sexual activity — whenever, wherever.

However, research has suggested similar prevalence rates of sexual compliance (i.e., consensual yet undesired sexual activity) in both men and women.

Given that research largely neglects the sexual compliance experiences of men, our primary focus was to explore prevalence rates and predictors of sexually compliant behaviors in heterosexual men.

Expanding upon this line of inquiry was critical to advancing our understanding of this construct, further rebutting male sexuality stereotypes (i.e. men's constant sexual need), and continuing to strengthen sexual agency by normalizing a lack of sexual desire in heterosexual men.

Further, we sought to determine the impact of age and gender socialization on sexual compliance with measures that directly investigated both male sexuality stereotypes (e.g., men are always ready for sex and men orchestrate sex) and gender-role ideology.

Specifically, we examined age, traditional gender-role endorsement, and belief in male sexuality stereotypes as predictors of engaging in sexually compliant behaviors for various motives.

Given theory and previous research, we predicted sexual compliance among men who more strongly endorse male sexuality stereotypes and traditional gender-role beliefs.

Participants (N = 426 heterosexual men) completed a brief demographic questionnaire, measures of gender-role beliefs and male sexuality stereotypes, as well as a modified measure investigating motives for consenting to unwanted kissing, sexual touching, oral sex, and/or penetrative sex.

The reported incidence rate of mild sexual compliance (i.e. consenting to at least unwanted kissing at least once) in heterosexual men was 61.3% over the past 12 months.

Results suggest that sexual compliance in heterosexual men may be predicted by their endorsement of traditional gender-role beliefs and male sexuality stereotypes.

Moreover, men may be motivated to be sexually compliant due to motivations related to altruism, intoxication, sexual inexperience, peer pressure, popularity, and sex-role concerns.

Your research explicitly states the differences between sexual wanting, sexual consent, and sexual compliance. Please could you briefly describe these concepts?

This is a fantastic question, and it is really crucial to be able to differentiate between these constructs.

Sexual wanting is an emotional (i.e., psychological and/or physiological) feeling of desire for a sexual experience or activity.

Contrast this with sexual consent — which is a cognitive decision-making process that communicates agreement or willingness.

It is imperative to account for situations in which these constructs may be mutually exclusive (e.g., an individual may desire a sexual experience, but refrain from consenting to any sexual activity for a particular reason — for instance, because a condom is not present).

Conversely, an individual can also not desire to engage in sexual activity but may explicitly consent, which is referred to as sexual compliance (i.e., consensual yet undesired sexual activity). For instance, someone may consent to unwanted sexual activity for altruistic reasons (e.g., to satisfy their partner's needs) or by feelings of obligation to established relationship norms.

What are the long-term detriments of repetitive sexual compliance to both relationships and individuals?

Sexual compliance is a highly prevalent behavior that occurs in both men and women — with the most often reason centering around altruistic motives (i.e., to satisfy a partner's needs or to ease relationship tension).

As such, short-term impacts of sexual compliance may be negligible. However, repetitive sexual compliance could be detrimental to both relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, and perhaps even an individual's mental health.

As such, more research is desperately needed to investigate the long-term impact of sexual compliance in couples.

How can sexual compliance benefit romantic relationships?

Well, recent research suggests that "maintenance sex" often involves sexual compliance on the behalf of one or even both partners. That is, one or both partners may not desire the sexual activity they are participating in due to various reasons including a lack of sex drive.

However, sessions of scheduled sexual activity are associated with greater relationship satisfaction as partners begin to develop a deeper understanding of one another's needs. Thus, in some instances, sexual compliance may be beneficial, with physical intimacy facilitating couples to bond and maintain satisfaction in their relationship.

Your study mentions how gender socialization and western hegemonic masculinity greatly impact the sexual behaviors of men. In your opinion, can these ideas be related to toxic masculinity?

There is a great deal of overlap between western hegemonic masculinity standards and toxic masculinity, to the point where these terms are often used interchangeably.

These ideologies both cherish and often promote hypermasculinity, sexual assertiveness, and hypersexuality as societal expectations and norms for heterosexual men.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

One of perhaps the most unexpected limitations that emerged from our research was pointed out to us by a very astute reviewer.

Men in the present sample were not asked whether they had been sexually active within the past year. Thus, it may not be that men are infrequently experiencing sexual compliance, but rather, that they have not had the opportunity to be so (i.e., they are single and not sexually active).

Further, our study did not include a basic measure of sexual compliance not attached to any particular motive (e.g. intoxication, inexperience, altruism, etc.).

The omission of this basic measure may have resulted in further underreporting of sexual compliance by our participants.

Given the potential impact of these limitations on underreporting, the rates of sexual compliance reported by our participants may thus be conservative estimates.

What practical advice do you have for men trying to unlearn the gender-role ideologies and sexual scripts imparted on them by society?

Research shows that men (and women) who take courses in gender and sexuality studies reject endorsement of traditional views more readily and understand the power and influence of gender role norms and scripts on dictating our decisions.

Ultimately, we have less authenticity in our choices when we are less educated.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on sexual compliance and gender socialization among men go in the future?

Although contemporary research is continuing to provide opportunities for men to report on their experiences of sexual compliance, a continued emphasis to investigate these behaviors in both men and women is critical.

Future research can address some of our limitations by providing opportunities for individuals who identify as sexual and gender minorities to report on their experiences of sexually compliant behavior and to expand recruitment efforts to include male participants aged 45 years (and older) to investigate potential age-related cohorts.

Further, future studies should investigate relationship status as a factor in sexual compliance among men and include a measure of precarious manhood belief, or the belief that manhood is a tenuous, elusive, and unstable social status requiring constant validation, such as engagement in sexual compliance.