Sexualpedia is an open-ended series of articles that will explain the source of many common erotic interests using neuroscience, biology, and online behavioral data.
MASTER/SERVANT ROLE-PLAYING (cued interest)
Prevalence: Very common
Cues: Female submission cue; female psychological cues for male dominance
The Internet reveals a great deal about our sexual proclivities. When we are liberated from anxiety and shame by the anonymity of our web browser, our true erotic preferences become clearer, recorded as digital footprints left behind in searches, clicks, comments, and credit card transactions.
But certain erotic tastes don’t manifest as plainly in the virtual world as they do in face-to-face interactions. Online behavioral data is a powerful tool for determining which bits of anatomy men find most arousing and which qualities of the male personality turn on women the most; indeed, this flood of new online data is the most powerful research tool in the history of sex science. But there are still facets of human desire which remain difficult to analyze using online data. One of these is erotic role-playing in the bedroom—such as asking your man to dress up like Smokey the Bear.
I often participate on the Morning X radio show in Tampa (hosted by Drew Garabo and Seth Kush) where I respond to a segment known as Fetish Fridays that invites listeners to call in and describe their sexual activities. Though these phoned-in confessions are obviously anecdotal, constituting a highly non-random convenience sample, there is a consistent pattern in women’s professed playtime preferences, which include:
- wanting boyfriend to dress up like Smokey the Bear.
- wanting boyfriend to dress up like an auto mechanic.
- wanting boyfriend to dress up like a caveman.
- wanting to pretend to be a hooker getting paid for sex.
- wanting husband to dress up like the UPS delivery man.
- wanting boyfriend to pretend to be doctor.
- wanting husband to pretend to be daddy.
- wanting boyfriend to pretend to be Nazi guard.
- wanting boyfriend to pretend to be a werewolf.
Are these fantasies strange, unhealthy, or atypical? Not at all: in fact, such fantasies appear to be the very norm for the female sexual brain. Perhaps the single biggest discovery from our wide-ranging online research was the central importance of dominance and submissiveness roles in sexual arousal. Themes of domination and submission run through all of male visual pornography and through female erotic narratives; it’s one of the very few erotic interests that men and women share. Both sexes prefer sexual content with dominant males and submissive women, though some men appear to be born with a preference for male submission and a smaller portion of women appear to be born with a preference for female dominance.
The majority of women have submission fantasies. From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction to 50 Shades of Gray, submission themes are immensely popular in female erotica in every country from every era. Based on anecdotal evidence from callers on the radio show, this also runs through women’s face-to-face fantasies in the bedroom. Where does this interest come from?
Consider, for a moment, Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. The female performs stereotyped behaviors associated with sexual interest. First is pacing: running and stopping, inducing a male to chase her. This culminates in lordosis: assuming a submissive stationary posture with arched back and raised hips. Lordosis is controlled by a specific region of the hypothalamus, a subcortical brain structure. An analogous part of the brain controls submission postures in female primates. Though we can’t know what runs through a female rat’s mind during lordosis, it seems reasonable to assume there must be some pleasurable psychological quality associated with these submissive behaviors that reward the rat for performing them. In male rats, another part of the hypothalamus controls stereotyped dominance activity, such as mounting a female and performing intromission.
However, all rats and primates (both male and female) appear to be born with both dominance and submission systems intact; in fact, when scientists activate the submission system in male rats they behave like sexually submissive females and when they activate the dominance system in female rats they behave like sexually dominant males. (Some female primates have also been found to naturally engage in male sexual behaviors.) It seems highly likely that humans have inherited the same twin set of ancient dominance-submission systems. (It’s always worth mentioning that just because you like to be submissive in the bedroom has no relevance for what you want in the boardroom.)
In addition, almost every quality of dominant males triggers arousal in the female brain: dominant scents, dominant gaits, deep voices, height, displays of wealth, displays of physical strength. Role-playing master/servant roles is likely a way for women to activate ancient submissive cues shared with other female primates while also activating the female brain’s less ancient cues for strong males. That’s why so many women want their partner to pretend they are a savage beast, a powerful man, a brutal man, an authority figure, or an outright rapist—but always someone who takes charge in the bedroom and has his way with her.
Of course, the individual details of a woman’s “dominant male” fantasy are highly variable and depend on her own experiences, personality, and other erotic tastes. Whether you want your husband to pretend to be the family physician or a Nazi doctor might depend on your past medical experiences. Whether you want your boyfriend to dress up like a werewolf or a lion or Smokey the Bear might be influenced by your childhood literary preferences. But—based on online data gathered from millions of women from around the world—all of these submissive fantasies reflect a healthy, natural, and utterly normal sexual brain.
Dr. Ogi Ogas received his PhD in computational neuroscience from Boston University and was a Department of Homeland Security Fellow. His writing has been published in the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Wired, Baltimore Magazine, and Seed. He used his knowledge of cognition to reach the million dollar question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and battle Ken Jennings in the finals of Grand Slam.