U-M researchers Amy Kiefer, Diana Sanchez and Oscar Ybarra conducted four studies to reach the conclusions in the paper, "Sexual Submissiveness in Woman: Costs for Sexual Autonomy and Arousal," scheduled to appear in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin next year.
Key findings show that women implicitly associate sex with submission and that this leads to a submissive sexual role, which in turn leads to lower arousal and difficulty becoming aroused. This association appears to lower their arousal by reducing their sexual autonomy.
Researchers tested subjects by showing target words associated with submission on a computer screen, preceded by subliminal primes (words with a specific connotation, in this case sex primes and neutral primes. For instance, sex and oven).
Women's responses were on average faster when submissive words were preceded by a sex prime than by a neutral prime. This faster response indicates the two concepts are related in women's minds, said Kiefer, a recent doctoral graduate in the psychology department.
Further, on average the quicker the response, the more likely the women were to report engaging in submissive sexual behavior.
The priming results indicate that women may have unconsciously picked up the message that they should be sexually submissive, raising the possibility that women have internalized societal pressure, said Sanchez, a recent doctoral graduate in the psychology department and women's studies.
Previous research suggests that social norms promote deference to men, and this extends to intimate relationships. This message is constantly repeated by the media in magazines, television and movies that "commonly display male sexual dominance over women and female sexual submission to men," the paper states.
In a follow-up study, researchers asked the women a series of questions to gauge the impact of submissive behavior on arousal.
"The more women reported engaging in submissive behaviors, the less arousal they reported experiencing from a range of sexual activities. The problem with submissive behavior seems to be that women don't experience these behaviors as authentic expressions of their selves. Submission to their partner's desires appears to undermine their ability to assert themselves within the sexual context," Kiefer said. "I would say it's really important to recognize the fact that women associate their personal submission with sex, and this association seems to be detrimental to their sexual health."
Adopting a submissive role may cause women to have difficulty not only getting aroused, but also impair their communication with sexual partners, undermine their ability to insist on birth control, and increase their susceptibility to sexual coercion.
The researchers plan a series of papers on the topic of how conformity to traditional gender roles affect men and women's sexual behavior.