The Link Between Equality and Women's Sexual Desire
Unfair divisions of labor and power can erode sexual interest.
Posted January 14, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- A recent study found that the balance of power in a relationship largely impacts female sexual desire.
- Women in less equitable relationships are at a higher risk for low sexual desire than those in egalitarian relationships.
- Although the findings applied in the context of sexual desire for a partner, they did not predict solo sexual desire.
Low sexual desire is a commonly reported sexual problem for millions of women, and yet it is regarded as frustratingly resistant to treatment (Brotto, 2017). While some women report being content with their low interest in sex, between 12 and 16 percent report that it causes them significant distress (Frost & Donovan, 2015). When women experience low sexual desire, it often also impacts their relationships. It leads to decreased sexual pleasure, less frequent sexual activity, reduced emotional intimacy, and frustration (Stephenson & Meston, 2012).
Unsurprisingly, research shows that relationship satisfaction and female sexual desire are highly correlated with an effect that is bidirectional: Women with low sexual desire often struggle with problems in their relationships, and women struggling in their relationships often find that they lose interest in having sex with their partner. (Leavitt et al., 2019)
To date, low sexual desire in women has been studied from angles primarily focused on biological and psychological reasons. A study recently published in The Journal of Sex Research points in a new direction, namely that of relationship power dynamics. This idea is derived from social exchange theory (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978), which posits that if decision-making, resources, and division of labor are not perceived as shared, relationship conflict and dissatisfaction occur.
Inequity in intimate relationships can manifest in a multitude of observable ways, including large differences in how much income partners earn, their relative social status, how they divide household labor, and who controls finances. However, more subtle imbalances of power exist, too. For example, inequity in invisible and emotional labor, such as anticipating a partner’s or their children’s needs, organizing family members’ activities, and delegating household tasks, can cause significant conflict within couples. The question is, to what extent do these power imbalances impact a woman’s desire for sex?
The Current Study
In the present study, 725 individuals participated in an anonymous online survey. Respondents were limited to premenopausal women aged between 18 and 39 years.
Sexual desire was measured using The Sexual Desire Inventory (Spector et al., 1996), which included two subscales – one measuring sexual desire alone and another measuring sexual desire for one’s partner. The scale included questions such as “When you spend time with an attractive person, how strong is your sexual desire?” (dyadic desire) or “How strong is your desire to engage in sexual behavior by yourself?” (solo desire).
The balance of power in relationships was measured using the Relationship Balance Assessment (Luttrell et al., 2018), which includes questions that measure how power is distributed in a relationship. The scale captures differences in how much-perceived effort, work, and responsibility a partner feels they have compared to their partner. It also includes items such as “Who was more aware of the other’s feelings?” that specifically signify power imbalances.
Relationship satisfaction was also assessed using an eight-item scale (Ciciolla & Luthar, 2019) with questions such as “My relationship with my partner brings me much happiness.”
The results supported the hypothesis that women in equal relationships experience greater relationship satisfaction and, in turn, greater sexual desire for their partner than those in unequal relationships.
Given the resentment, fatigue, and stress that relationship inequity can produce, these results make perfect sense. Women commonly identify being physically and cognitively exhausted as a primary reason for not wanting sex. Chronic stress also leads to decreased female sexual desire, as distracting thoughts and rumination can easily kill libido.
In short, women forced to deal with inequitable divisions of labor and unfair power balances feel overburdened, stressed, and tired, all of which likely contribute to low sexual desire.
Research shows that the tedium of long-term heterosexual relationships likely contributes to low sexual desire in women in a way that far outweighs the impact on that of their male partners. The results of this study suggest that this effect may be due to power imbalances. A woman who has been delegated most of the household and emotional labor over time will likely become exhausted and resentful. Obviously, this is likely to reduce how much she craves sex with a partner who, by comparison, does and cares little.
Sex Essential Reads
Interestingly, the authors anticipated that women in unsatisfying relationships would feel less inclined to be sexual overall and, therefore, would not only feel less in the mood for sex with a partner but less interested in solo sex (masturbation) as well. Unexpectedly the results demonstrated that solitary desire was not significantly associated with relationship equity or satisfaction. This suggests that female sexual desire is intricate and complex, and that what dampens one of its dimensions doesn’t necessarily dampen the others.
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Eva Johansen, Astrid Harkin, Fionna Keating, Amelia Sanchez & Dr Simone Buzwell (2022) Fairer Sex: The Role of Relationship Equity in Female Sexual Desire, The Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2022.2079111
Brotto, L. A. (2017). Evidence-based treatments for low sexual desire in women. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 45, 11–17. https://doi.org/10. 1016/j.yfrne.2017.02.001
Stephenson, K. R., & Meston, C. M. (2012). Consequences of impaired female sexual functioning: Individual differences and associations with sexual distress. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 27(4), 344–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2012.738905
Leavitt, C. E., Leonhardt, N. D., & Busby, D. M. (2019). Different ways to get there: Evidence of a variable female sexual response cycle. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(7), 899–912. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 00224499.2019.1616278
Kelley, H. H., & Thibaut, J. W. (1978). Interpersonal relations: A theory of
interdependence. John Wiley & Sons.
Spector, I. P., Carey, M. P., & Steinberg, L. (1996). The Sexual Desire Inventory: Development, factor structure, and evidence of reliability. The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 22(3), 175–190. https://doi.org/ 10.1080/00926239608414655
Luttrell, T. B., Distelberg, B., Wilson, C., Knudson-Martin, C., & Moline, M. (2018). Exploring the relationship balance assessment. Contemporary Family Therapy, 40(1), 10–27. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10591-017-9421-2
Ciciolla, L., & Luthar, S. S. (2019). Invisible household labor and ramifica- tions for adjustment: Mothers as captains of households. Sex Roles, 81 (7), 467–486. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x