• Gender roles are societal expectations that contribute to how we dress, express ourselves, and think about our sexuality.
  • Male and female sexual expectations can be heavily influenced by gender roles. Men are typically expected to initiate physical intimacy and may have higher sexual expectations on average, due to a variety of factors.
  • For women, their sexual expectations may be curtailed by gender roles, which reinforce feminine submissiveness and lack of sexual desire. This, coupled with a need for more emotional connection (than men) in order to enjoy sex, can create lower sexual expectations for women.
  • Gender roles aren’t inherently wrong, but they shouldn’t govern the most intimate aspect of our romantic relationships. Partners are encouraged to work together with a couples or marriage counselor to increase their understanding of and ability to work through gender roles.
  • Men and women should also place heavy emphasis on establishing strong communication, which is shown to be the most important factor in preserving long-term relationships.

Our personal relationships with sexual desire are deeply complex. From the pangs and angst of our awkward teenage years to the difficulties of navigating healthy intimacy in adult relationships, understanding just how we feel about sex can be a lifelong journey. But as personal as sex is to all of us, the ways we approach and view physical intimacy can be pre-determined for us early on in our development—and we may not even realize it.

Imagine that someone hands you a pair of shoes that you’re expected to wear every day. If those shoes feel comfortable and look good on you, then wearing them isn’t an issue. And you’re likely to never think twice. But if those shoes aren’t comfortable, and don’t match your self-image, you’d probably want to find a different pair or make some adjustments. 

And this is where the issue with gender roles arises—they can affect our sexual expectations and behavior in unhelpful ways. So even if you like the pair of “shoes” you’ve been given, that doesn’t mean you should wear them to bed.

What Are Gender Roles?

Gender roles are societal expectations that may dictate a significant portion of our sexuality, personality, self-image, and behavior. It’s important to note that the concepts of gender and gender roles are rapidly changing and diversifying, but traditionally, gender roles have been ascribed to men and women. From a young age, gender roles can govern how we: 

  • Express emotions: Young boys may be taught to suppress emotions like sadness or fear, yet are allowed to vent their anger or frustration physically or verbally, especially toward other men. Contrastingly, women may be taught to appear mild-mannered, eager-to-please, or submissive, even if it’s not in their best interests to do so. 
  • Think about sex: For men and teenage boys, frequent sex or having multiple sexual partners has few negative social connotations, and may even be encouraged. For women, though, this same behavior is often looked down upon, and is usually discouraged by both parental figures and by their peers. Women are more likely to be shamed for their sexual experiences, or for expressing sexual desire. 
  • Interpret pop culture: While both men and women’s bodies are often hypersexualized in film, tv shows, and music, the male body (in the past) has been depicted as a symbol of power, while women’s bodies tend to be objectified. Both men and women (particularly teens) are swayed by hypersexualization in the media, which can reinforce stereotypes of male dominance and female submissiveness. 
  • Behave in relationships: Traditional gender roles depict women as subservient homemakers who typically followed the direction of their more assertive, breadwinning male partners. Men are still routinely seen as providers and protectors, while women are viewed as nurturing, more sensitive caregivers. Despite societal advancements, any overlap between these roles can be met with ridicule, anger, and even fear.
  • Dress: Women and girls still routinely encounter disapproval, judgment, or unwanted harassment for wearing clothing that others might consider revealing or inappropriate, despite men and boys encountering far fewer restrictions. 

As illustrated above, gender roles and sexuality are intertwined in many aspects of our lives. They’re also deeply ingrained in our culture and ways of life; it’s also helpful to remember that gender roles aren’t always inherently bad. But as the examples above demonstrate, the trouble with gender roles is that they haven’t always been flexible enough—especially where sex is concerned. 

How Do Gender Roles Affect Our Sexual Expectations?

At first, it might seem a tad silly to ponder your sexual expectations. You might naturally assume it’s easy to know what you expect from sex: To feel good, and for your partner to enjoy themselves, as well. Our sexual expectations are intricately connected to gender, though. And for men and women, gender roles can affect their sexual expectations, in quite different ways. 

For men, gender roles affect their sexual expectations, in several ways. For example: 

And for women, gender roles can shape their sexual expectations in specific ways, too. For example: 

  • There is a traditional assertion that women are sexually submissive, and don’t typically make the first move. This can lead to a lack of partner communication sexual dysfunction and sex-based anxiety that may lower a woman’s sexual expectations. 
  • There is a long-standing disregard for female pleasure. Women’s sexual needs haven’t always been understood, or valued within opposite-sex relationships. Women often require more emotional connection to experience pleasure, creating a different set of sexual needs and wants. 
  • Certain cultural beliefs lower women’s sexual expectations. As they mature, women may be taught (or learn) that sex is a matter of pleasing their partner, and that pretending to enjoy physical intimacy is normal
  • There is a sense of shame instilled in women for desiring sex, which can be viewed as improper or unladylike. But having a sex drive, while also battling shame for their desire for sex, can create a pool of resentment, depression, and even hormonal imbalances for women, further lowering their sexual expectations.

Though non-binary identities are increasingly enjoying much-deserved societal support, there’s still nothing inherently wrong with identifying as a man or woman and adopting the gender roles that those identities come with. What is unhelpful, though, is allowing gender roles to limit the way we connect with other people, especially in intimate relationships. 

How to Prevent Gender Roles from Affecting Your Romantic Relationships

Gender roles shouldn’t prevent our sexual needs from being met. Talking through a subject like physical intimacy may sound challenging or awkward, but it can help strengthen romantic relationships. As a result, our tips revolve around healthy communication and learning to compromise.

 For both partners, it’s a great idea to:

  • Talk with a couples therapist or marriage counselor who can help you understand how gender roles may have shaped your personal lives and how they could be currently affecting your relationship. A mental health professional could help you process and unpack when things seem unclear or uncertain. 
  • Confront any anxiety or shame you feel about discussing sex and your sexual needs. If our physical needs aren’t voiced to our partners, then they’re less likely to be met. Evidence suggests that a fulfilling sex life goes hand in hand with balanced mental health and a successful long-term relationship.

Additionally, don’t…

  • Expect the other partner to always initiate sex, or to be willing at the same time as you. Men are consistently expected to initiate sex, and when their female partners aren’t receptive, this can create feelings of rejection or frustration. Similarly, women may want to initiate sex—but feel as though it’s not within their gender role to do so. 
  • Shy away from emotional intimacy. Men can be afraid to reveal their sensitive side but should remember that women typically (not always) need more emotional involvement and lead up to physical intimacy in order for it to be truly enjoyable. Women should also be patient with their male partners, who may have been raised to stifle their emotions in order to appear strong.

Gender roles aren’t going away any time soon; they’re more likely to continue to adapt and evolve. But by increasing our awareness of how they can govern our sexual expectations and ability to physically connect with our partners, gender roles can have less of an effect on romantic relationships between men and women.