What If a Woman Likes Rough Sex But Her Partner Doesn't?

Why do we always assume that men are the ones to want it rough?

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I hate to bring up 50 Shades of Grey  again, really. But the BDSM franchise is out there, and has sparked a number of conversations regarding (consensual) rough sex and put a spotlight on the people who like it. Even Barbara Walters found time to weigh in. Since the it's release, a lot of women have credited the book for giving them a way to address long suppressed sexual preferences.

To be clear, those participating BDSM activities that demand safe words and contracts still seem to fall in the minority. But the 50 Shades boom does lend itself to the idea that women can, in fact, like rough sex. And that’s great. Women should certainly experiment with what turns them on in the bedroom, even if it means entertaining a few taboos.

Cosmopolitan magazine reports a University of North Texas study found that as many as 57%  of women find the idea of rough, or “forceful” sex a turn-on. Sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova told the publication, “This is not a fringe desire… This is much more common.”

But rough sex still presents a very distinct set of difficulties. While the term doesn’t necessarily imply violence, it doesn’t exactly exclude it, either. And that can put a lot of 21st century men in a very uncomfortable position. Toss out a profanity on the street and you might get trouble. Do it during sex and she might moan loader? Hitting women is bad, but a spanking is hot? Spitting on people is unacceptable, but it can work in the bedroom? A lot of guys seem to have a hard time stomaching these kinds of inconsistencies. And that’s fine. Nobody wants to seem rape-y. But where does it leave them when confronted by a partner craving that level of kinkiness? 

Psychologist Megan Fleming specializes in treating both men and women with their sexual health and relationship concerns. She tells me, “This wave of men – men who are now adults and are having sex – have been raised already under the influence of the feminist movement. Their mothers, most likely, were feminist, or were at least exposed to it… It’s not easy to shift your mental state to be like ‘OK, in this space, I can whip, I can hit, I can choke.’ It’s not always easy when your entire lifetime you’ve been raised to respect women and to treat them a certain way.”

She added, “Our culture thinks that men are supposed to be like the postman… they can deliver in any kind of weather, right? They’re always supposed to be rock hard so I think that women often aren’t realistic about how and why it might not be a good time. The conditions might not be right for a guy to have sex… to be rough in that way.”

Jack,* who is 35 and married tells me, “I've never been the kind of guy to use women or take what I want from them.  I'm a pleaser, a giver, someone who enjoys giving pleasure more than taking it from someone else.  So for me, I like slow, passionate, intense love making, crazy intense orgasms from lots of teasing and buildup…

I also don't enjoy giving pain, sure a smack on the ass can be fun and all that, but I don't know that I'd enjoy causing pain even if mixed with pleasure.  I think I'm too much of a sensual pleaser for that.”

“I don't have any doubt that some people can do pain mixed with pleasure properly and have a great time.  To them I would say ‘can I watch?’”

It’s easy to lean on 50 Shades of Grey to exemplify the ways in which “rough sex” is often framed as “sexy sex.” There’s a reason why the film took in over $500 million at the box office. But it’s worth asking if the commercialization of kink is actually expanding some sexual palates, or merely introducing others to the latest in a series of sexual trends; fun, but fleeting.

Fleming tells me, “The themes of dominance and submission have been around since the dawn of time and I think that, traditionally, women want to be dominated. It’s sort of the Cinderella story, to be carried away… There’s a quality of ‘I want a strong man.’ And sexual confidence is a turn on for both sexes. That extends beyond sex. But when it comes to wanting a ‘strong man,’ especially a sexually confident man, I think that’s probably true of most women.”

“Sadly, [a lot] of people fall into what we call ‘scripted sex,’ which can feel very mechanical, and it’s become sex not worth having.”

Quinn,* who is 44 and married, seems to reject the idea of rough sex for exactly this reason.

“What I don't like about [rough sex] is how contrived it all seems. My wife wants to use a strap on… Even if I had a desire for that level of play I could not be submissive like that.”

I asked him to elaborate on the idea of rough sex seeming “contrived.” He told me, “Read a book, something seems enticing and voila they're either a dom …or a sub. Sexuality, in my mind, should be an extension of who you are as a person. There is no dissonance that way. I'm sure we both can agree that the brain is the primary sex organ and chief erogenous zone. If there's dissonance then the experience will probably lead to frustration as there is some disconnect between body and brain.”

He added, “ I am dominant by nature but that also doesn't mean that if my lover is naked that I won't get down on my knees and devour her. That's viewed as a typically submissive position.

I am all for experimentation and light bondage has its place. As does role-playing. It adds a flair for the taboo I guess. But when it's almost scripted I'd rather not.”

Steve,* 38, has been together with his girlfriend for two years. When I asked him what he didn’t like about rough sex he told me, “It is a little more impersonal.  Not as intimate. Sometimes it feels as if I am just the tool for getting [my girlfriend] off… Now it seems you have to be rougher and more dominant. You have to [have sex] very hard and stay hard for a long time.”

It’s an experience a lot of men can identify with. Fleming tells me, “When women want it fast and hard… I think it some ways it’s harder for men. For ejaculatory control and things like that, if they’re having to pump hard and fast they’re not going to be like porn stars lasting 45 minutes. Certainly not the over-40 crew. I think it actually puts much more of a performance demand on men.

You condition your mind and your brain to have all these sensory experiences… in some ways, rough sex is one way of building more intensity. Which in and of itself isn’t bad, by a long shot, but I think it’s always got to be within a context. And I think for any sexual partner, it goes back to the idea of range.”

As Steve tells me, he’s not the biggest fan of rough sex. His girlfriend, on the other hand, is.

When asked where he thinks her drive for rough sex comes from, he said, “I personally think it is more about what ‘great sex’ is supposed to be about, and I think a lot comes from the media and also from changes in society, especially a woman's right to be demand ‘great sex’ as part of her freedom and equality… I think it has to do with the empowerment of women, the ambition of women.  They can be as aggressive as men in there professional lives and I believe this carries over into their sexual desires.  They can be as aggressive and demanding as men, and they feel deserving of a great and satisfying sex life that they can now brag about just like men used to.”

Fleming helps expand that thought. She explains, “Why do women want to be dominated? In part, because they’re responsible for so much all day long. They just want to not have to think and it can just be about her pleasure. I do think there is something about women being caretakers and doing for others, I think it’s part of their feminine human nature, and so it’s kind of nice that there’s a space where they don’t have to be responsible for somebody else. It can be all about her pleasure.

And I think equally men want the same thing, right? Because men are always having to be ‘on’ …There’s a breadwinner, the responsibility, so the fact that in the bedroom they too would like to feel like it’s all about them, ‘Hey, give me pleasure,’ and ‘take care of me, let me be submissive,’ I get it.”

Women taking ownership of their sexual preferences is, inarguably, a good thing. But those of us who enjoy rough sex have a tendency to skip over the conversation and jump right to the act. And that can leave a lot of guys blindsided.

Fleming advises, “Let them know why it turns you on. ‘I really like it when… because it helps me feel x y or z. ‘ Let him know how and why it turns you on. In particular, what is it about him doing it for you. Men are motivated to try, they want to give you pleasure. But I think importantly, just like women, they want to it’s about them and not that they’re a tool.

Men can feel just as objectified these days as I think historically women have felt. ‘I’m just a tool,’ ‘insert object,’ and that’s not sexy.”                                  

Not all men are into rough sex. That part is obvious enough. But when their partner is, the pressure to forge that desire can run deep. Maybe Steve and Fleming are right. Maybe women’s requests for rough sex relates to a new wave of (sexual) equality between the sexes. Empowering disempowerment, or something like that.

When I first started in on this topic I posted the question, “Is there any guy out there who doesn’t like rough sex” to Facebook. I got a lot of different types responses, but one that seemed to reappear was that no guy was going to admit to that. At least not publically. Rough sex isn’t for everyone. But the notion exists that if you’re a man, and you’re not into it, you risk being emasculated. It speaks to how we define masculinity, femininity and everything that falls in between. And that’s worth exploring. At the very least, it’s worth dipping a toe into.  

*Note: Names have been changed

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Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.