It’s got to be among the more confusing gauntlets a dude will run in his sexual life: You go out of your way to treat women gently, with respect. You are polite and kind, sweet and caring. You “listen” and “talk” and “validate” them and make sweet, tender love to demonstrate it.
And then you learn that what she wants in bed may be totally different.
For some women, it’s the inverse: They’ve put up with men treating them like shit, only to find out that guys can’t translate it into being sexually commanding when it would, in the right moment, turn them on.
So what gives? Why do men simply opt out of power dynamics in bed? Is it laziness? Fear of seeming too aggressive? Or is there a bigger issue at play?
In some circles, they’re called “male pillow queens.” It’s the reverse of what guys call “starfish” for women; they’re men who prefer to lie there and take the sex being had upon them. Or there are men who are not submissive, but not dominant either. They’re power-neutral. Either way, they don’t get, or don’t care, that their partners may want a different kind of sex. And those women are often left very frustrated.
But an expert in human sexuality tells MEL that men who won’t take charge are, from her point of view, more the exception than the rule. “I’m not sure it is rare that men take a commanding presence sexually,” Jill McDevitt, a sexologist and sexual wellness coach at adult toy company CalExotics, tells me by email. “For instance, in BDSM relationships, research has shown that 75 percent of men prefer to take the dominant role. Only 4 percent of women do. The idea of dominating in bed, at least in the kink community, is highly gendered.”
Lots of women do like rough sex, and many men are happy to take the reins, but where does that leave the woman who’s met the man who doesn’t? Shit out of luck. A survey last year of 600,000 OkCupid users found that 62 percent of women say they like rough sex (and 75 percent of men). As for what sort of stuff that entails: having their hair pulled, being bitten, hearing derogatory terms, being tied up. Generally, they like it when their partner takes control. Some women crave being choked, slapped, spanked and, yes, called a dirty slut. Consensually.
You can find those women, frustrated and pining for a good manhandle, all over the internet. “I want my husband to defer to me in all ways — except sex!” one frustrated woman complained about her husband to Slate’s Dear Prudence, noting that she has to “guide him, goad him and tell him to tell [her] what he wants or just simply do it.”
Other articles tell women “How to Get Your Type B Boyfriend to Take Charge in the Bedroom.” And others ask, “How Do I Ask to Be Dominated?” Some women poll Reddit, wondering, “How do I successfully ask for more aggressive sex in the bedroom?”
But McDevitt says we should understand that it’s the same individual personality traits that are more predictive of taking a dominant sexual role or wanting it in a partner. “People of any gender who rate higher on personality scales of sensation seeking and easy susceptibility to boredom are more likely to want a partner to dominate them sexually,” she said. “Other studies have shown that socially powerful people (such as with powerful positions at work) are more likely to enjoy power play during sex — but power play as a whole, taking either the dominant or submissive side. Less powerful people in life are more likely to take a power-neutral position during sex.”
In other words, men are more likely to take the dominant role, but it’s still a matter of individual preference. “Like anything else from favorite ice cream flavor to how you like to dress, how a man likes to have sex can be as simple as a personal preference, in this case, not preferring telling a woman what to do to in bed. Simply not finding it sexy or interesting.”
On Reddit, self-professed male pillow queens say it’s partly rooted in how good it feels to be desired and used, too. “I kind of like the idea that the girl just needs my dick and can deal with me not putting in the effort,” one pillow queen explained. “Like I’m a human dildo, and not the kind that vibrates.”
McDevitt says there are deeper possibilities for the aversion to power play in men. “It could be a more complex rationale, such as he wants to or is at least curious to try, but is afraid he will hurt his partner physically or emotionally. He could have grown up seeing a lot of violent dominance in other men and decided being psychically dominating, even in a safe playful context, isn’t a good look for himself. Perhaps he just doesn’t like how it feels to wear that hat.”
What’s more, McDevitt says this should be okay. “I think it’s perfectly acceptable for a man not to be ‘in charge’ during sex.” That said, in an era of being good, giving and game for whatever sexual proclivities your partner fancies (within reason), what if a man wants to try to amp up in the sheets what he’s already projecting in the streets? McDevitt says it’s like anything else: a process.
“Just remember, it’s a skill that takes practice just like any other new skill,” she says. “It’s unrealistic to think one is going to flip a switch and change their entire sex MO tonight. It needs to be coached along, either alone or with a professional.”
What McDevitt would do first is help the man identify what “taking charge” actually looks like in bed. “How do they define that? Once we have clarity, I would try to tap into their motivation. What this change right now? Is it to please a partner? Yourself? Something you think you ‘should’ do?”
McDevitt says then you have to isolate any roadblocks to being able to lean into this behavior. Is there a preference of being dominated, or a fear of doing it wrong and looking foolish? Perhaps there are negative associations with dominant masculinity.
“Then, I’d help them break it down into small, manageable steps that can be done over time,” she said. “Giving commands. Rougher sex acts. And so on.”
Just don’t forget to keep treating her well in real life, too.