Gender Roles And Sexual Roles

In one of my posts in the informed consent series I wrote, I explained the idea behind the Zimbardo prison experiment: that in a normal population of college students, roles were randomly assigned so that some students became prison guards, and others became prisoners. The guards quickly began acting abusive, as though the roles became their identities.

I was discussing this experiment with a friend in the BDSM scene, and she pointed out that maybe the same thing is happening with American gender roles and sexuality. That is, because so many men are conditioned to become aggressive and forceful, this could be one reason why there is both anecdotal evidence and statistical evidence for there being many more men than women who prefer the dominant role in sexual encounters.

If mainstream society is molding men to express their sexuality (indeed, their overall identities) in terms of acquisition, conquest, and violence, then perhaps that also accounts for the sexual roles that many men prefer. And please note: there is a world of difference between idealized gendered behavior, in this case hegemonic masculinity, and the actual life experiences of men. Different men fulfill gendered expectations in different ways, and to differing degrees. Further, gender and sexuality are not the same thing – gender is a collection of social acts and identities, while sexuality is about desire, fantasy, and behavior – but they do become conflated in many ways. For example, this post on “domism” (the privileging of dominant, often masculine, perspectives in alternative sexuality subcultures) highlights the intersection of gender, sexuality, and social norms.

Can we blame the prevalence of men who prefer dominant sexual roles on gender conditioning? And is that necessarily a bad thing? I’d like to see a world where people choose the gender identities and sexual roles that appeal to them rather than those they’re conditioned to fulfill…and somehow, I don’t think our society’s current configuration of gender roles and sexual roles is quite there yet.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.