How Social Inequality Could Screw Up Your Sex Life

A new study reveals that endorsing social hierarchies make people less likely to ask for what they want in bed — and this could impact what kind of protection they use.

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Sexual health experts praise female condoms as the only method of STD protection totally under women's control. But they're still not mainstream. Now researchers have found that some commonly-held beliefs make women less interested in using them — and these beliefs could be screwing things up for men too.

For a study published in the journal Sex Roles, public health researcher Lisa Rosenthal and her coauthors recruited 357 female and 126 male undergraduates, all of them self-identified as straight, and asked them all to complete a standardized questionnaire measuring how comfortable they were with social hierarchy and inequality. They had to list how much they agreed with each of the following statements:

1. Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.

2. In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.

3. It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.

4. To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups.

5. If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems.

6. It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.

7. Inferior groups should stay in their place.

8. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.

9. It would be good if groups could be equal.

10. Group equality should be our ideal.

11. All groups should be given an equal chance in life.

12. We should do what we can to equalize conditions for different groups.

13. Increased social equality is beneficial to society.

14. We would have fewer problems if we treated people more equally.

15. We should strive to make incomes as equal as possible.

16. No group should dominate in society.

The more you agree with 1-8, and the less with 9-16, the higher your tolerance for social hierarchies, or "social dominance orientation." The researchers also asked the undergrads how much they agreed with another statement: “The man should be the one who dictates what happens during sex.” Then they measured how comfortable the students were asserting their needs and desires during sex, asking them questions about their comfort level with turning down sex if they didn't want it, discussing condoms with a partner, and asking a partner to help satisfy them sexually. Each student got to answer all the questions in a private room, which also contained a bowl of female condoms with a sign reading, “Protect yourself and your partner. Please take some! FREE FEMALE CONDOMS.”

After each student left, the researchers counted the number of condoms remaining to find out how many (if any) he or she took. They found that the higher a student's social dominance orientation (that is, the more he or she believed social inequality was okay), the more likely he or she was to believe that men should dominate sexually — and the fewer female condoms he or she took. Interestingly, endorsing hierarchies was also associated with lower sexual self-efficacy in both women and men — both genders were less likely to feel comfortable asserting their sexual needs if they ascribed to beliefs like "Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups." Such beliefs would seem to benefit men somewhat more than women, since they can be used to argue against things like equal pay. But when it comes to sex, they seem to harm men too, by making them less able to talk about what they want sexually.

Rosenthal and her coauthors note that the female condom could be a real boon to women — but not if they never use it. And commonly-held attitudes about social power and gender roles could be part of what's keeping them from doing so. The study authors suggest that sex educators might need to take these attitudes into account, and perhaps work against them, if they want female condoms to catch on. They might start by teaching people that endorsing social inequality seems to be bad for your sex life, no matter what gender you are.