The effects of restrictions on women’s sexual assertiveness will be examined in two situations: relationship satisfaction and sexually transmitted disease prevention.
How Sexual Assertiveness May Influence Relationship Satisfaction
Typically, a strong correlation is found between sexual satisfaction and general relationship satisfaction (Morokoff, 1994). Therefore, the question is posed, how does lack of sexual assertiveness affect sexual satisfaction and, more generally, relationship satisfaction?
It may be instructive to conceptualize some of the situations around which sexual partners may be assertive. Within the realm of initiation assertiveness, partners may be assertive in suggesting or initiating sexual activity. A woman may prefer having sex in the morning rather than evening, or on the weekend rather than a weekday. Women may prefer having sex at particular points in the menstrual cycle. If she initiates sex when she wants to have sex (rather than passively waiting for a partner to initiate at a time when she may or may not want to have sex), she is more likely to be happy with the result and satisfied with her partner. Initiation assertiveness also pertains to suggesting types of sexual activities she may prefer. She may prefer sex in a particular position or a particular type of sexual activity. If she cannot initiate these activities, she is likely to be less satisfied with the outcome.
With respect to assertiveness in refusing unwanted sex, there is potential for serious emotional distress if a woman cannot assert what she wants. If a woman feels obligated for any reason to accept sexual activities that make her feel used or evoke emotional distress, she is being sexually victimized. In many instances this will mean being sexually revictimized. This would include a sexual abuse or rape survivor experiencing subsequent unwanted sex; a woman acting out scenes from pornography without feeling she has a choice in the matter, a woman with a CSA history of forced oral sex being obligated to perform oral sex on her partner. When sexual exploitation occurs in a relationship it automatically impairs satisfaction with that relationship. Less extreme examples also can be given: A woman feels rejected by her husband because he is having an affair, but she fears that if she doesn’t have sex with him it will only give him more reason to look for other women. A woman doesn’t want to have sex too soon with her new boyfriend, but she fears he will think less of her if she doesn’t. A
woman doesn’t really enjoy sex, but she feels obligated to give her husband a chance to satisfy himself. In any of these examples, damage is done to both the sexual relationship and the general relationship by (a) women not knowing what their own sexual desires are, and (b) women failing to effectively assert their desires to their partner. Of course, partners can compromise on any issue in a relationship. But when the compromise always goes in one direction or where there is an element of coercion in the compromise, damage is done to the relationship.
Research has not documented the prevalence with which women have unwanted sex with their partners or feel impeded in initiating wanted sex, but presumably it is a normative experience for most women. Such lack of satisfaction undoubtedly takes a high toll. Research is only beginning to address the impact on women of such difficult life experiences.