Men are inherently dominant and women are inherently submissive–this has long been society’s conventional wisdom–an idea so pervasive that its basic premise is rarely disputed in mainstream popular media. We tend to see these differences as very large, as in “almost all men are dominant and almost all women are submissive”. Or at the very least, we imagine that “there are many more dominant men than dominant women, and there are many more submissive women than submissive men”.

But, is this widely accepted notion actually based on reality, or is it just one of many unfounded gender stereotypes? As is true with so much when thinking about human behavior and desires, the short answer is–it’s complicated! 

Those Kinky Canadians

Unfortunately, we don’t have great nationally representative data to speak to these questions. A 2015 Canadian study that asked over 1,500 participants to rate the frequency of various sexual fantasies does, however, shed some light on the matter (Joyal et al., 2015). Counting all those who reported experiencing each fantasy at least sometimes, the study revealed surprising insights into dominant and submissive tendencies.

As you can see from the graph below, men were indeed more likely than women to have a range of dominant fantasies, including: dominating someone sexually, spanking or whipping someone for sexual pleasure, tying someone up, and even forcing someone to have sex. Women, on the other hand, were more likely than men to fantasize about various submissive acts, including being dominated sexually, being tied up for sexual pleasure, and being spanked or whipped. 


So, the case is closed and conventional wisdom is right–men are inherently dominant and women are inherently submissive, right? Well, not so fast! The gender differences were not nearly as large as people think they are. For example, while 60% of men reported fantasizing about dominating someone, this was also true of almost half (47%) of women, a difference of only 13 percentage points. Conversely, while 65% of women reported fantasizing about being dominated sexually, so did 53% of men, a difference of merely 8 percentage points.

The gender gaps were even smaller when it came to some of the more specific acts of domination or submission, like tying someone up, being tied up, or being spanked/whipped.

And while twice as many men than women fantasized about forcing someone to have sex (22% vs 11%), virtually identical numbers of men and women fantasized about being forced to have sex (about 30%)! Apparently it’s not just women who have “rape fantasies”.

Ok, Some Canadians Are Kinky, BUT How Kinky Are Americans?

This is one study, but does it generalize across other samples and populations?

One could validly argue that the Canadian study did not use a representative sample and that the people who volunteered for it were kinkier than the general population, inflating the numbers of both men and women interested in these various behaviors. 

The best, and only nationally representative, data we have on the US population suggests that this might be true to some extent (Herbenick et al., 2017). Asking over 2,000 adults about which sexual acts they find appealing, this study found that about 20 to 40% of US adults find most domination/submission acts sexually appealing

While these numbers are lower than in the Canadian study (where they often reached the 40-60% range), 20-40% kinky people is a lot of kinky people (the US total population is about 336 million, so you do the math). 

Plus, as you can see from the graph below, there aren’t major gender differences in most of the behaviors assessed, including having rough sex (about 40% both genders), tying up/being tied up (about 30% both genders), spanking/being spanked (about 20% both genders). And, for some reason, women were significantly more into biting/being bitten than men were (what’s up with that one, ladies?).


Unfortunately, the U.S. study is not as useful as it could have been for our main question of interest since it did not ask separately about the dominant versus submissive versions of these acts. So, we have no way of knowing to what extent men and women were interested in the dominant versus submissive side of each act. We can see, for example, that virtually identical numbers of men and women (~30%) find tying up or being tied up appealing, but we don’t know to what extent each gender enjoys being the one doing the tying or getting tied up (or both). 

The only question in that survey that focused on one side of the equation referred to experiencing pain as part of sex, which was appealing to twice as many women as men (15% vs 8.5%). However, although the two are frequently conflated, wanting to experience pain (also known as masochism) is not the same as wanting to submit to someone else’s will. While some submissives are also masochists, and some masochists are also submissive, the two don’t always go together: There are many submissives who do not like experiencing pain, and many masochists who are not particularly submissive. Plus, this masochism item was the behavior endorsed as appealing by a lot fewer people than all the other kinky items, so we can’t conclude much about submission versus domination based on this one question about masochism.

Case Closed?

So far, the data we have suggest that while some gender differences in kinkiness exist in the expected direction, they may be smaller than we typically imagine. Case closed?

Not quite. 

In addition to needing nationally representative data that tease apart the submissive from the dominant sides of kinky fantasies and desires, critics might point at another caveat in the Canadian study: That while rates of different dominant/submissive fantasies don’t differ much when it comes to having these fantasies at least sometimes, men might experience the dominant fantasies more frequently or strongly than women do, and women might experience the submissive fantasies more frequently or strongly than men do

This is indeed possible, but unfortunately, neither the Canadian nor the American studies give us that insight. We’ll have to wait for  better, more comprehensive, nationally representative data before we can file this one away.

Submission and Domination Often Go Together–The Switch 

But before we call it a day, there’s something even more fundamental about how our sexuality works that the data we currently have allow us to understand.

The Canadian study found that submissive fantasies and dominant fantasies were highly correlated with each other (at r = 0.5 for my fellow geeks out there). This means that many of those who fantasized about dominating also fantasized about being dominated (in other words, they are what’s known in the kink world as “switches”). And many of those who didn’t fantasize about dominating also didn’t fantasize about being dominated (in other words, they were the proverbial “vanilla” folks). 

Regardless of their gender, kinky people are open to many different domination and submission activities, and vanilla people are not.

This indicates that it’s wrong to think of our desires for domination and submission as either-or categories, or even as two ends of the same spectrum, as if the more you have of one, the less you have of the other, as the graph below illustrates. It just doesn’t work like that. 


While some people do indeed have only dominant tendencies and no submissive tendencies (the classic “Dominants”), or only submissive tendencies and no dominant tendencies (the classic “submissives”), these are just two of the many possible combinations of fantasies and desires that humans can have. 

In reality, many people–men and women–have both to varying degrees, making life so much more exciting! 

The correct way to think about domination and submission are as two distinct (although somewhat correlated) dimensions that can each vary from very high to very low, and come together in a bi-dimensional grid like the graph below. 


This conceptualization allows for people to be anywhere along that grid – a much more accurate representation of reality. There is still room for the classic “submissives,” those high on submission and low on domination (lower right quadrant), and the classic “dominants,” those high on domination and low on submission (upper left quadrant)

But it also makes room for the “switches,” those high on both domination and submission (upper right quadrant). This is a location theoretically not possible in the unidimensional conceptualization of these constructs, even though, as the Canadian study suggests, this might be the very location where most kinky people find themselves! 

And, this bidimensional conceptualization also makes room for the “vanilla” folks, those not very interested in either submission or domination (lower left quadrant). As the U.S. study suggested, this is where the majority of all people (or at least U.S. adults) find themselves. 

And it’s not just high or low – both these constructs exist along a whole spectrum from low to high with many shades of gray in between, so there are likely many other combinations of domination and submission tendencies that people have on this bi-dimensional grid. 

In summary, it’s clear that there are at least some gender differences. Men are somewhat more interested than women in domination, and women are somewhat more interested than men in submission. But, the differences are much smaller than most believe.

Where do these gender differences come from? And what determines where someone, of any gender, falls on this bi-dimensional grid? 

Those are topics for another post.


Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2014). What Exactly Is an Unusual Sexual Fantasy? J Sex Med, 12, 328–340.

Herbenick, D., Bowling, J., Fu, T-C. (Jane), Dodge, B., Guerra-Reyes, L., & Sanders, S. (2017). Sexual diversity in the United States: Results from a nationally representative probability sample of adult women and men. PLoS ONE, 12(7),1-23.